Claudia Boynton is a New York City based journalist.
July 6 2011
A year ago, we reviewed David Wroblewski’s debut novel, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, which the author has described as “a boy-andhis- dog story for grown-ups.” A surprise hit of 2008, the book raises intriguing questions about—among other things—the nature of wildness and domestication, and training’s role in that process. Here, we learn more about the author’s perspectives on the subject.
Bark: In the book, Brooks, the animal behaviorist,writes “it would be better to imagine how men might become more suitable for dogs and not the other way around.” Is this your personal belief?
David Wroblewski: Yes.When I look at dogs as a species, I am astonished at how we have changed the wolf genome to suit our own purposes.Humans certainly have not changed much over the centuries. It doesn’t seem like a fair equation.Maybe we have changed dogs too much.
Dog training, done thoughtfully, is our chance to balance that inequity. I think the arc of Edgar’s story illustrates this. There’s an enormous difference between the kind of training Edgar does before he goes into the woods and after he is alone with the dogs. By the end of the book he says, in effect, no more commands. From now on, we— the humans and the dogs—choose what’s right together.
B: Were you always in tune with your dogs?
DW: Growing up around my parents’ breeding kennel in rural Wisconsin, I may have developed a certain ease about reading dogs, their postures and expressions.
But always in tune? Not even close. I’d characterize my relationship with every dog I’ve had as one of perpetual give and take. I haven’t always thought about training the way I do now, as a mutual exchange. After college, I got a puppy and discovered I was really bad at training. So I sent myself back to school, in a sense. I read every book available on dog training.Among them was Vicki Hearne’s Adam’s Task. Her chapter on “How to Say Fetch” is brilliant. It explores the meaning of this one command, but by extension it illustrates everything important about training.
B: In writing from the dogs’ perspective, how did you get inside their heads without anthropomorphizing?
DW: In writing about dogs—in living with dogs—you can’t avoid projecting human experience onto them. Simply to describe a dog’s thoughts or emotions using words means you’ve inadvertently begun anthropomorphizing.Almondine is certainly rendered anthropomorphically. But I tried to make her distinct by giving her a syntax and diction more evocative of the way I imagine dogs experience the world—based in sensory impressions rather than linear thought.
One of the great joys living with dogs is watching how they address a situation you are in jointly—discovering what is attractive to them, what is frightening. Trying to understand makes me feel I am living a fuller life. I get the benefit of their perception.When writing from a dog’s point of view, conveying that sense of expanded experience may be the best you can hope for.
B: The training techniques in Edgar are reminiscent of the Koehler method. On your website you enthusiastically point out Patricia McConnell’s techniques. What is your understanding of the differences in their approaches?
DW: The training techniques portrayed in The Story of Edgar Sawtelle change over the course of the book. Early on, the Sawtelles tend to train along Koehler method lines, which would have been about right for the early 1970s. But as Edgar grows and matures, as his understanding of the dogs and what they are capable of enlarges, and as the dramatic situation changes, he begins to interact with them quite differently. The “training” he does in the latter half of the book more closely resembles contemporary training methods. Toward the end of the book, he comes to a different conception entirely of his relationship with the dogs —he’s questioning the presumption behind all training: that we humans ought always to occupy the role of choice-maker.He’s wondering, I think, if we’re fit to be the vehicle of fate for dogs.
Beyond what seems to me to be obvious differences in philosophy between McConnell and Koehler—that is, McConnell’s clear preference to practice positive-reward and avoid almost exclusively positive-punishment—I think it is difficult to perform any simple compare-contrast exercise. For one thing, theory and practice have progressed since Koehler’s time; he was in part a product of the old days of radical behaviorism, which had detrimental influences not just on training but on all aspects of our attitudes toward animals. Also,my understanding of Koehler and his techniques is mostly received through the lens of Vicki Hearne’s writing. I happen to like the strain of responsibilitytaking that Koehler-seen-through-Hearne advocates; that to shield a dog entirely from negative consequences is patronizing and arguably cruel. Reward-orignore are stunted. It’s okay to insist on certain things if the person and the dog jointly take training as more than an exercise in command and control. Deep in this viewpoint is an insistence on beauty that, as unfashionable as Koehler and Hearne may be today, I can’t help but admire.
I read Patricia McConnell as a product of the movement from academic theory dictated by doctrinaire behaviorism to one more informed by cognitive psychology and neuroscience. I admire how McConnell relates academic research results to the day-to-day project of living with dogs. She’s the best at saying,“ Here’s a published result. I believe the science is sound.Here’s what it may mean about understanding/training your dog, and here’s what we’re still confused about despite/because of that result.” She’s very careful not to oversimplify.
B: Is there a dog in your life?
DW: Lola—she’s a 90-pound lap dog!
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is now available as a trade paperback. For more about the author and his work, visit davidwroblewski.com.
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