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I Wanna Be Your Dog

A cultural history of McGruff the Crime Dog

“Clouds passing over,” wrote Matsuo Bashō during the Edo period, “a dog peeing on the run / village winter shower.” Dogs guard the gates of Hades, weigh the discordant hearts of pharaohs, and accompany the Wild Hunt in Germanic mythology. Patient Argos crapped out at the homecoming of brave Ulysses, Virginia Woolf immortalized the Brownings’ cocker spaniel in Flush: A Biography, and Kenneth Koch wrote that a barking dog in the snow means good weather is coming. Where J.R. Ackerley saw “strained and anxious lives,” Ogden Nash saw an end rhyme: “Dogs are upright as a steeple / And much more loyal then people / Well people may be reprehensibler / But that’s probably because they are sensibler.” You can spot the villainy of an Arthur Conan Doyle suspect by the breed of dog they own, Arthur C. Clarke memorialized Laika but kept a pet monkey, and Dorothy Parker called her French poodle Cliché. Goethe and Edward Lear hated dogs. Canines appear to have been primordially identified with the traits of vigilance, extemporization, and fanciness. Their agency is routinely compromised in favor of what they can tell man about himself; the rest of the time, it is bred out of them. Dog shows reward obedience and propriety—hence the frugal terrier has carried Westminster on almost half the occasions. Even when they can talk, they tend to keep their own counsel: Snoopy sticks to his typewriter; Snowy has regular word balloons, but Tintin rarely responds; and the Pluto/Goofy anomaly has rumpled evolutionary biologists for millennia.

Where among the mongrels is our hero? Will the capricious pooch not, being man’s best friend, save him from his worst instincts? If it is a dog-eat-dog world, can one solitary self-starter distinguish himself as mutt and moralist?

Whatever McGruff has seen on the street has broken him.

The dog of action and clarity of purpose finally had his day in 1980—but McGruff worked nights. A pendulous, chain-smoking bloodhound who took on the crime wave like he was Charles Bronson, McGruff the Crime Dog was a product of the Ad Council (and their client the National Crime Prevention Council), the nonprofit behind Smokey the Bear, the Crying Indian, and the Crash Test Dummies. “Take a bite out of crime” was the keynote slogan in the golden age of the public service announcement, a mainstay of network commercial breaks, billboards, and newspapers. McGruff lent his likeness to temporary safe houses for children who didn’t feel safe returning to their homes after school, to costumes utilized by state and local police departments enrolled in outreach programs—imagine getting nabbed for vandalism and learning your community service is to dress up as a dog in a trench coat—and to a 1986 novelty record, McGruff’s Smart Kids, which ranks somewhere between Chipmunk Punk and Mr. T’s Commandments in the annals of painful 1980s audio-cyanide mementos. His recognizability in 1988 was in Ronald McDonald territory; he completes the cartoon gumshoe/scofflaw-dyad opposite Joe Camel. He has been featured in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade nine times, but that’s no indication because they’ve also floated Skipper the Dolphin and Wake Me Willy, and I have never heard of those guys.

Curiously for a mascot designed to evangelize stranger danger and publicize neighborhood watches, McGruff’s whole presentation is a bit sketch. The fairly obvious inspirations were Peter Falk’s Columbo and Peter Sellers’s Inspector Clouseau, but those dicks are upbeat. Whatever McGruff has seen on the street has broken him. John “Jack” Keil, the advertising exec tapped by the Ad Council for the project (and who would go on to voice the character until his death in 2017), gave his staff at Dancer Fitzgerald Sample twenty-four hours to define the pup he had loosely imagined. They responded, “He is wearing crepe soles and his shoes squeak when he walks. He has bad posture and is a little hunched over. He has a raspy, growly voice. He is a goofy guy . . . He is like talking to your Dad, and he is very casual when he has figured something out. He is holding a cigar, and he brushes off the ashes from his coat as he is talking.” The Council canned the stogie. The best summation of McGruff’s hard-bit Doggie Daddy exterior comes courtesy of a poem of uncertain authorship collected in the 2003 anthology Doggerel: Poems About Dogs:

I am the dog world’s best detective
My sleuthing nose is so effective
I sniff the guilty at a distance
And then they lead a doomed existence
My well-known record for convictions
Has earned me lots of maledictions
From those whose trail of
 crime I scented
And sent to prison, unlamented.
Folks either must avoid temptation
Or face my nasal accusation.

In another age, McGruff would have been a carabinero, or perhaps a night watchman of the schutterij. But this was the 1980s, so McGruff became party to the war on drugs. Though he began as oppositional to a kind of generalized lawlessness—advocating neighborhood solidarity and emphasizing prevention, not persecution, of the kinds of crimes we can all agree are bad—by the end of the decade, he was a bona fide narc and federal stooge for the likes of Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE), crowing about winners and losers, bantering with Dick Cavett about “shady characters,” and posing with Ronald Reagan. But none of this is McGruff’s fault. He is a good boy.

Ruff, Ruff

Watching PSAs of the late twentieth century, the amazing thing is that anybody survived it. Muppety blue pills harmonize about not being candy, jive snakes push crack, and children suffocate inside talking refrigerators. American PSAs reached their sugar-rush peak when Reagan deregulated how children could be marketed to in the early 1980s, creating a cartoon bromide continuum where G.I. Joe informed us not to pet strange dogs, Bugs Bunny warned that kitchens were animate death traps, and Captain Planet ended the threat of global warming. Since everything was for sale, you might as well get a bag of seeds with proof of purchase from your box of Lucky Charms.

When the war on drugs got commercial, every show from ThunderCats to Jem was obliged to run an antidrug episode. Saved by the Bell confronted the caffeine pill epidemic among hard-studying American high schoolers, and even Pee-wee’s Playhouse got in on the act, when Paul Reubens was roped into an anti-crack campaign called “The Thrill Can Kill,” which premiered before screenings of the fourth and final Jaws film in 1987. Reubens later produced a second PSA, featuring his Playhouse character Penny, after he was caught masturbating to a triple bill lineup including Nurse Nancy (1991) in an adult theater. The pinnacle of the conservative inveiglement of the Saturday morning reeducation sphere is likely 1990’s Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue, a special introduced by George and Barbara Bush in which the Muppet Babies, Garfield, and Alf preach the evils of narcotics. As Kermit the Frog puts it in the special, “Abandon brain!”

Part of the reason proselytization came so naturally to these sponsors is that they cut their teeth on propaganda. The Ad Council began life as the War Advertising Council in 1942 in the wake of Pearl Harbor and represented a partnership between government and business tasked with constructing an “ideological framework” for mostly benign ends: war bonds, victory gardens, and women in the workplace. What it meant in the end is that advertisers could camouflage themselves in public goodwill, and presidential administrations could harness the power of pop culture for initiatives like the CIA-funded Radio Free Europe in 1950, combatting the evils of communism one Truth Dollar or air-dropped sliver of ad copy at a time. Arguably, the 1971 “Keep America Beautiful” ads featuring Iron Eyes Cody—actually a Pretendian of Italian ancestry—took the pressure off corporate polluters by making those damn highway litterbugs the people’s enemy, and Smokey the Bear was always unpopular with Chicanos and Indigenous peoples, for whom he represented conquest of their natural environment and the wresting of their natural and economic resources by manufacturers and robber barons. But McGruff was supposed to be a hound for all seasons, the people’s pet, rooted in Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society and incorporating seemingly uncontroversial objectives like antipoverty, gun control, and an educated citizenry and well-trained police force. After Richard Nixon’s War on Crime and the 1970s wave of serial and thrill-killers, however, “tough on crime” posturing became part of the Republican Party’s arsenal, wielded at Black and urban communities largely to keep a frightened public voting for increasingly draconian, police department-enriching measures. The world on which McGruff was set loose was less Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and more Taxi Driver.

When Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger addressed the American Bar Association in 1981 on the subject of crime, he called for copious arrests, swift trials, and “finality of judgment” in light of the “reign of terror” that had seized American cities. The public ate it up even as they retreated deeper into their suburban sanctums; in fact, the FBI’s first recommendation to the Ad Council in 1977 had been a purely defensive campaign urging homeowners to invest in deadbolts. But by the time the Department of Justice had kicked in $300,000 of taxpayer money and the Ad Council tapped Dancer Fitzgerald Sample, which had already worked on the hugely successful “Keep America Beautiful” campaign, it was clear that the answer to what ailed us was canine.

The revanchist, Republican-sponsored monoculture had emphasized the tremulant public’s powerlessness in the face of rampant crime; now it expected them to pay higher taxes for more police? It was either the average American’s problem or it wasn’t. The idea was to use a multimedia offensive to sell the commonwealth on the illusion that individual provisions could take a bite out of the nearly 549.5 crimes per 100,000 people in 1979. When Jack Keil said, “The greatest stimulus to creativity is fear,” quoted in Wendy Melillo’s Ad Council history, How McGruff and the Crying Indian Changed America, he was talking about deadlines. But fear was the name of the game, just as it had been in the Ad Council’s abortive atomic energy campaign in the 1940s. If crimefighting became participatory, then it was less like funding a militarized wing of off-screen oppression and more like kicking in for neighborhood watch (the concept of which McGruff is credited with having popularized). Be the snouty, peeping fleabag you want to see in the world.

Part of the reason proselytization came so naturally to these sponsors is that they cut their teeth on propaganda.

The first sixty-second TV spots shot by Keil’s department introducing McGruff are a grimy affair. There is an aura of deflated basketball and car exhaust; taste the freon. After a New Orleans police officer won the chance to name the bloodhound (defeating the harrowing moniker “Sherlock Bones”), McGruff debuted in “Stop a Crime” by breaking and entering. In the house’s wood-paneled foyer, swinging a flashlight, he tells the camera, “All crime needs is a chance” and urges homeowners to lock their doors, secure their windows, use a timer to turn lights on and off, and have a neighbor pick up their mail when they go to Peoria. McGruff considers swiping some inviting brownies, but it looks like they couldn’t figure out how to animate it. If the homeowners had followed McGruff’s advice, by all rights they would have beaten him to death and claimed self-defense. In subsequent spots, a family calls the Clifton, New Jersey, PD on a fleet of burglars disguised as movers, and an old woman named Mimi Marth—whom McGruff calls “part of the eyes-and-ears patrol of Hartford, Connecticut”—reports a bike theft on a ginormous cell phone.

The PSAs were a hit; by 1981, more than a million copies of the McGruff-starring booklet Got a Minute? You Could Stop a Crime had been sent out by request. The newly formed National Crime Prevention Council secured a $750,000 grant from the Justice Department; its first task would be to oversee the campaign. Fearmongering was big business, and spots about child abductors (“Almost twenty-thousand kids a year! . . . Maybe your kid.”) and roving gangs of violent muggers (“Teenagers are the victims of over two thousand violent crimes by strangers every day.”) followed. Taking a bite out of crime turned out to be easy. It was McGruff’s role in the nascent war on drugs that would prove hard to swallow.


A black and white-treated screenshot of Pee-wee Herman’s anti-drugs PSA depicts him holding a small bottle of a white granular substance. Caption text reads “This… is crack.”
© No Ideas

You’re the Man Now, Dog

McGruff signified his complicity with the war on drugs by assuming the pertinent 1988 costume: playing keyboards while Madonna homunculus Regina Richards sang that “users are losers” against a spunky video backdrop. The jowly urban avenger with a nose for crime had been baptized in the ridiculousness of the Reagan era and emerged as a lapdog drug warrior. The United States spends billions annually on drug initiatives, farcically little of it on rehab or education. Beginning with Nixon in 1971, what we got instead was comic book propaganda, sloganeering, and TV spots (oh yeah—and a fifth of all incarcerated people, a prescription painkiller epidemic, and targeted policing of low-income Black communities). But the moral panic had hit a wall in reaching youth in the dumbed-down language of commercial entertainment by the time McGruff became established as an existing marketing ploy that could substitute for actual law enforcement in selling fear to children. Part of the problem with antidrug featurettes prior to Nancy Reagan trotting out “Just Say No” in 1986 is that they made drugs look frankly awesome: see the reportedly church group-financed Reefer Madness (1936); the lysergic “Curious Alice” (1971), made by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare; or a 1970s Hanna Barbera spot in which a toker is led through the doors of perception by what looks like a carrot in a Santa Claus hat. And whose idea was it to send nicotine-ravaged cave troll Florrie “I am unto myself a statistic” Fisher to American schools to lecture about skid row marijuana addicts getting the electric chair?

Some kind of public-relations rapprochement was crucial if the single-brand nonprofit Partnership for a Drug Free America—whose “This Is Your Brain on Drugs” and “I Learned It By Watching You!” spots were the largest privately run public-service crusade in history—was going to offer a deterrent stronger than brains in frying pans, to say nothing of police departments looking to rectify the self-inflicted damage done to their image by quelling protests and actively surveilling organizations like the Black Panthers. With McGruff, who gave cops a big puffy head to wear when they visited schools and afterschool programs, the door was open for the police infiltration of third-grade classrooms. The brainchild of LAPD chief Daryl Gates, DARE sent cuddly cops into schools to distribute activity books about peer pressure and to kiddify the party line about the one-way street of addiction. With McGruff incorporated into their outreach, alongside fellow cartoon emissaries like Yogi Bear, DARE took their tall tales of “crack babies,” marauders from the ghetto and barrio, and piles of dead drug users to fifty million impressionable minors on the strength of an eight-figure budget; the program remains synonymous with the war on drugs in the mind of anyone who remembers getting bailed out of Social Studies each week to learn how to spot crack vials. “The enemy within” was how George H. W. Bush’s drug czar William Bennett described drugs, and his policy was to encourage such rapport with police that students would feel comfortable snitching on their friends and parents (who would find, respectively, the expulsion or jail time mandated by the administration’s zero-tolerance policies waiting for them). DARE was tailor-made for the black-and-white logic of the prohibition-minded local law enforcement agencies that shadow-funded it through “donated services.”

McGruff wasn’t alone in frequently appearing at DARE events. With celebrity endorsements from star athletes like Evander Holyfield and Al Joyner, an arcade-cabinet logo, and bipartisan support from politicians amounting to free press, DARE could boast a cultural cachet that made it instantly recognizable by the time President Reagan declared the first national DARE Day in 1988. By the early 1990s, the program reached forty-nine states and more than 70 percent of school districts across the country. But it was institutionalized atrocity with a human face. McGruff had tested the waters of how police oversight might be shrunk fun-size for easy consumption with novelty song poems like “Cocaine & Crack,” a nearly half-hour video called The NO Show with Drew Barrymore, nightmare-fodder puppets distributed to schools, and PSAs that dispensed entirely with McGruff’s gritty debut image. With the crinkly spokesdog’s success came increasingly bold trespasses into the adolescent imagination by a government operating under cartoon cover. DARE took their own stab at replicating McGruff’s touchy-feely visibility with Daren, the DARE lion, but meet-and-greets still leaned on the former because Daren—who looks like Tony the Tiger’s fetid truther cousin who woke up in a bathtub—suuuucks and only really reached apotheosis as a parody X account (“I got the #munchies so bad I ate 3 antelopes and a zebra,” reads a characteristic post).

If the homeowners had followed McGruff’s advice, by all rights they would have beaten him to death and claimed self-defense.

Given the Reagan administration’s austerity-era disdain for publicly funded welfare programs and the New Democrats’ transmogrification into a donor class, the soon-ubiquitous DARE had to walk a careful line when it came to funding, mainly relying on corporate sponsors like Coca-Cola, those “donated services,” and sales of merchandise, like plush dolls of Daren and the T-shirt that became the number one fashion accessory among schoolyard drug dealers and music festival washouts. The patronage of the DOJ was imperative from the beginning, but the carefully crafted perception was that DARE was charitably supported by coalitions of police, parents, and teachers because we’re all in this together. The demographic that constitutes “we” is a moving target, however, and by blaming drug users for institutional dysfunction and framing solutions rooted in family values and individual morality, DARE reinforced privatization, racial hierarchy, incarceration, and poverty governance. Above all, as Max Felker-Kantor observes in his history of the program, DARE to Say No: Policing and the War on Drugs in Schools, the net effect was to normalize police omnipresence and get children used to the erosion of privacy under the watchful surveillance of officers in every facet of their daily lives. Felker-Kantor writes:

DARE administrators designed the program to reinforce and legitimate the law-and-order and zero-tolerance message in the minds of nation’s youth, especially Black and Latinx children who disproportionately witnessed or experienced the consequences of policing when they left the classroom. By attempting to humanize police officers through DARE, the LAPD meant to counteract the aggressive policing typical of the war on drugs. Yet DARE was a solution to a problem of its own making. DARE demonstrated that many so-called preventive approaches to the drug crisis still involved the police. Viewed in this light, DARE was less an alternative to the punitive policies of the war on drugs than a complementary program that reinforced racialized constructions of criminality and personal responsibility.

Perhaps the DARE program’s most infamous legacy was turning children into spies. According to one study of the bonanza the media made out of the crack epidemic, DARE put “uniformed police in the elementary classroom and encourage[d] students to not only just say ‘no,’ but to snitch on those who dare to say ‘yes.’” Said one administrative DARE officer regarding the program’s habit of squeezing children for indictable information on their parents, “an arrest is the best thing that could ever happen to that parent.” As early as 1986, there was a report of a child being placed in a foster home after telling DARE officers that their parents kept a marijuana plant. Stories like that of eleven-year-old Crystal Grendell—whose case brought a civil suit after police raided her home and arrested her pot-smoking parents based on intel three DARE officers coerced out of a child who was told nothing would happen to her mom and dad—snowballed, along with increasing reports of DARE’s long-term ineffectiveness, the habit of using asset forfeiture to finance the program, and scandals where former DARE officers were charged for prescription drug theft, child pornography, and assault of a minor. True to form, the officials behind DARE and its police apologists downplayed or outright denied evidence that reflected poorly on the program, worked to discredit independent assessments of its effectiveness, and smeared its critics. Laminate prejudice, turn surveillance into a sing-along, draw a dog on it; a cop’s still a cop. The aggregate damage to the program’s once-wholesome image made it a joke, and it was all-but-disbanded in 2001, by which point the government had a new war to wage against abstractions, not to mention whole other civil rights to violate.

Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight

Law enforcement’s dalliance with cartoon advocacy had its detractors from inside the establishment since well before McGruff entered pop culture purgatory. A former patrolman with the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department groused in police gazette Law and Order that “when chasing a sixteen-year-old crack dealer down streets and through backyards, the thought never entered my head that if only a policeman dressed in a dog suit had gotten to him a little earlier in grade school, this whole thing could have been avoided.” The mood for kid-friendly anthropomorphic authority figures had passed by the time an off-brand McGruff appeared in Spike Jonze’s video for Daft Punk’s “Da Funk” in 1997. Like many cartoons put out to pasture before and after, McGruff was saddled with a plucky nephew named Scruff, put on a stamp, and relegated to GEICO commercials, NASCAR vehicles, and a gag on Family Guy, alas. All dogs go to heaven (except Cerberus, I guess).

In his time, McGruff the Crime Dog had begged, fetched, and rolled over. What else can you do with a dog? The kind of seriousness that courted latchkey kids and wagged its finger at software pirates can only elude ironized nostalgia for so long. We’re not talking about Balto here. No longer party to a planet where his very context is an atavism, McGruff has taken his place in the pantheon of retro-trash demigods like Count Chocula, David Hasselhoff, and Black Bart Simpson. Not that the forces of extrajudicial policing and insidious advertisements for generalized sentiments regarding social ordinance have themselves sloughed off; they have just outgrown the need for an intermediary. When the right, having disguised itself as putatively reformist and constitutionally bound, realized they could say the quiet part loud and still expect votes from a perpetually infantilized base, the need for barking was obviated by the freedom to bite indiscriminately. Ads grew up to be clickbait; drugs are what kids did before TikTok. As for the you that could stop a crime, prevent forest fires, and keep America beautiful, it now refers to somebody else—singular personhood having last been seen when Generation X vanished into startups, data harvesting, and social media. Life is elsewhere, and the sensual world we learned to fear before we really entered it is as bare of pomp and whimsy as T.S. Eliot’s topsy-turvy one is of dogs, who scatter at the sight of a cat: “And when the Police Dog returned to his beat / There wasn’t a single one left on the street.”