Claim: An overanxious visitor accidentally sits on the family pet and kills it.
A young American scholar, fresh from his dissertation, won a prestigious fellowship to do postdoctoral research at an institute in England. The institute was housed in a famous old castle in the countryside. He arrived at night and, awed by his surroundings, was taken to his room, which looked like something out of a movie about the Tudors.
He decided to get into bed and do some work there, but as he tried to fill his pen, the ink bottle slipped from his hand. Reaching out to grab it, he splashed ink all over a priceless tapestry that hung over the bed. He was so mortified that he immediately dressed, repacked, and sneaking out of the castle, walked back to the train station, and went back home to America.
Twenty years later, the man, by then a famous scholar, was invited back to the institute. Though he still remembered with pain his earlier exit from that place, he figured that, the English being what they were, the episode would never be mentioned. He accepted.
When he arrived, he was shown into the director's office and told that the director would be there to greet him in a moment. Tired from his travels, he put down his suitcases and pitched himself into an overstuffed chintz chair, whereupon he heard a little yelp.
He got up and found a small bit of dead fur. He had sat on the director's little dog and killed it. He picked up his suitcases, snuck out of the castle, walked back to the train station, and went back home to America.
Origins: If lore is to be believed, awed visitors have been sitting upon their hosts' dogs
since the 1950s. As noted in the Sightings section of this page, this version of the unforgivable faux pas has been used by authors in a number of works over the years.
In other versions of our tale, a fellow invited to spend a weekend at a fancy country home first breaks something irreplaceable, then caps off his visit by squashing the family dog. Or he's a working-class lad trying who fails miserably at impressing his girlfriend's socially superior parents that he's a suitable addition to the family. Regardless of how the embarrassed fellow is described or what reasons are given for his visit to the estate, his fate is the same: He caps off a memorable visit by squashing the family pet.
The key to this legend is its element of unforgivable faux pas. Everyone fears doing the wrong thing at the wrong time, and this very human anxiety is showcased in this tale. Exaggeration is used to drive home the palpable reality of mortification; the hapless dog killer is never given a break:
The visitor is described as being out of his element. He's an American student being housed at an impressive institute in England. Or he's an inner-city lad invited for a weekend at someone's country house. Or he's a wealthy girl's blue collar fiancé. However he comes to be in this place, it's understood he'll be viewed as a barbarian by those he's trying to fit in with.
His initial crime is of the irreparable nature. He doesn't merely break a cheap ashtray or slop something washable onto an expensive rug — he shatters a crystal vase, knocks an arm off a statue, or sprays ink onto a valuable tapestry. Whatever mayhem he unwittingly wreaks, all the king's horses and all the king's men won't be able to restore the item to its original condition.
The story always culminates with the flustered social misfit compounding his sins by sitting on the treasured pooch, killing it. He never merely wounds the animal, because that would leave him some small shred of hope — the dog could get better! As well, what he crushes never changes. It's always a beloved pet and never a hat left on a sofa cushion or an overly fragile antique chair. By implication, though his hosts were able to forgive him when his klutziness only resulted in property damage, one senses they will draw the line at his killing their dog. His social ambitions, like the dog, end up crushed.
Another embarrassment legend has been known to culminate in a splooched pooch ending: the much-loved broken sink tale. In it, another out-of-her-element visitor uses a sink as a commode, with disastrous yet hilarious results.
Will telling such stories keep us safe from our own social missteps? No, but they will make our occasional misforays a bit easier to bear.
Barbara "less grizzly" Mikkelson
Sightings: Look for the legend to show up in the 1980 Tom Robbins novel Still Life With Woodpecker, the 1975 S.J. Perelman book Vinegar Puss, the 1952 William Gaddis book The Recognitions, and the 1958 Terry Southern book Flash and Filigree.