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He has longed to run free. In his dreams, he is untethered.
But it wasn’t until a few weeks ago that his creator, New Jersey’s Patrick McDonnell, cut him loose for the first time in nearly 30 years.
Guard Dog, a regular character in the comic strip “Mutts,” has been granted a new life, one free from the chain. And in Thursday’s comic (Dec. 14), there was more good news: He has officially been adopted.
It’s been an emotional journey for “Mutts” fans.
“I just did a book signing and a woman came up to me crying talking about Guard Dog,” McDonnell, 67, tells NJ Advance Media.
“It’s just amazing how people get attached … it’s really touching as a cartoonist,” he says.
The Guard Dog storyline started in late October and just arrived at the decisive moment when Doozy, the girl who loves him, officially adopts the dog. McDonnell, who lives in Princeton, says it’s the longest continued story he’s ever done with “Mutts.” But this journey has a bit more mileage left.
“The story lasts a little longer just to cement that bond,” he says of Guard Dog and Doozy’s happy milestone.
“My favorite strip out of the whole seven weeks will come out this Sunday,” he says.
“Mutts” debuted in syndication in 1994. McDonnell introduced the character of Guard Dog in 1995.
After about a year of the strip, he thought it would be interesting to bring in a villain. So he drew a big, gruff dog with a studded collar and a chain — “to make him look tough.”
But looking at the character, McDonnell changed his mind.
“I realized this isn’t a villain, this is a tragic character,” he says.
As Guard Dog made more frequent appearances, letters and emails started coming in with requests to unchain him.
Doozy first befriended the dog nearly 20 years ago, in 2004, making sure he had food and water.
McDonnell currently lives in Princeton with his wife Karen O’Connell, their cat Nooch — who they rescued from their backyard — and their 16-year-old Jack Russell terrier Amelie.
He was born in Elizabeth and grew up in Edison reading Charles M. Schulz’s “Peanuts” in The Star-Ledger. It’s one of the main reasons he’s a cartoonist.
McDonnell set “Mutts” in New Jersey. Nowhere in particular, just the Jersey in his mind, though the characters do go down the Shore every summer (which brings more animals at the beach).
Growing up in Jersey, his family had cats. The Snoopy admirer always longed for his own pup.
“I didn’t get a dog until my 30s,” he says.
One of the main characters of “Mutts,” a black-and-white Jack Russell terrier named Earl, was inspired by McDonnell’s previous dog Earl, a Jack Russell who died when he was more than 18 years old. A man named Ozzie owns Earl in the comic strip.
The other main character is Mooch, a black-and-white cat with a speech impediment given to saying things like “yesh.” (He took some inspiration from his childhood cats, who would give his mom “a little mooch.”) Millie and Frank, the couple who live near Ozzie and Earl, own the cat.
The comic strip, distributed by Hearst’s King Features Syndicate, has been published in more than 700 newspapers across 20 countries. The comic was also in development for a feature film adaptation at Fox, but the project has been on hold since Disney bought Fox, McDonnell says.
“I’m still keeping my fingers crossed,” he says.
Guard Dog was left behind when his owner moved away.
“I can’t believe that guy just moved away and left me alone chained in the backyard to fend for myself,” the dog says. “You never now how inhuman humans can be. Gee … How do you guard against that!?!”
He was officially freed from his chain in the Nov. 30 strip.
It all started with Guard Dog looking skyward.
“The moon belongs to everyone — The best things in life are free,” he says.
“That chain says everything about him and nothing about me,” the dog concludes.
“Last night I dreamed I was running free!” he tells Earl and Mooch.
“Wouldn’t that be great?” Earl replies. “Your freedom could inspire one person and then another and then another …”
“Yesh,” Mooch concurs. “You could shtart a ‘unchain’ reaction!”
McDonnell says animal advocate groups wanted him to keep Guard Dog chained as a reminder of the problem of chained dogs — if the character inspired just one person to unchain a dog, then it would have been worth it, he says.
“I think it was way overdue,” he says of the dog’s newfound freedom. “I’ve been promising readers for quite a while.”
McDonnell was constantly drawing Guard Dog running free.
“I always knew I was going to free him, but I really never knew exactly how or what the story would be,” he says.
“It was just time.”
One strip in the Guard Dog series features a quote from the Dalai Lama:
“Perhaps one day we will kneel down and ask the animals for forgiveness.”
McDonnell took the line from his book with the Dalai Lama, “Heart to Heart: A Conversation on Love and Hope for our Precious Planet,” published in January.
“I’ve always said that drawing a comic strip is like a form of meditation,” the cartoonist says. “I feel like they’re little prayers you give to the universe.”
“Mutts,” which Schulz himself called one of the best comic strips of all time before he died in 2000, has been praised for its focus on animal welfare.
McDonnell says he always wanted Mooch, Earl and company to teach compassion and empathy. Just like people consider pets family members, “Mutts” becomes part of those families at the breakfast table, McDonnell says, and they see their pets in the characters.
He sees readers’ love for their pets in the expression that dogs and cats are “guardians of our being,” found in “Guardians of Being: Spiritual Teachings From Our Dogs and Cats,” his 2009 book with Eckhart Tolle. Animals keep us in the present, he says, and help get us on a different plane than our often addled, distracted state — back to nature.
For 18 years, McDonnell was a member of the board of directors of the Human Society. The “Mutts” characters can also be seen on New Jersey’s “animal-friendly” license plates, the proceeds of which fund a state spaying and neutering program.
McDonnell has seen readers sharing stories about unchaining dogs as a response to the Guard Dog story. A webpage dedicated to the “Mutts” narrative offers information on how to help chained dogs.
It didn’t take long for Marian Harrison, a longtime “Mutts” reader in Parsippany, to see that the Guard Dog story was heavier, or more consequential, than the usual light fare in the three-panel strip.
She normally finds “a little chuckle, a little laugh, a little something” in “Mutts,” which she normally reads first out of all the comics (Hilary B. Price’s “Rhymes with Orange” comes next because it’s down below).
“This was different,” she says.
She fretted about Guard Dog’s fate, eagerly seizing upon each new daily installment.
“What is happening here?” she’d text her sister after reading the comic in The Star-Ledger and online. “They better let him free!”
Harrison noticed that fans on the “Mutts” Facebook page were deeply invested in the story.
“Every single day there were posts,” she says.
She started to get worried after reading speculation from some that Guard Dog might die. She put her hopes in Doozy after the dog’s owner moved away and left him chained up.
“It’s like the best and the worst in people,” says Harrison, 61, who works in human resources.
That’s just how “Mutts” spells the story out — showing the stark cruelty of Guard Dog’s owner, then Doozy’s warm compassion.
Animal abuse happens every day, but so do animal rescues, Harrison says. She grew up with dogs, cats, a bird and goldfish in a very pet-oriented home. As an adult, she rescued two cats who have since died.
“This whole thing kind of got me thinking maybe I need to put myself out there and maybe rescue again,” she says.
“It’s very uplifting but it’s also a dose of reality.”
To read the whole Guard Dog storyline in “Mutts,” visit mutts.com/pages/guard-dog.
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