Claudia Kawczynska is The Bark's co-founder and Editor-in-Chief.
Dog books are getting better and smarter. This year’s bumper crop is testimony to the unflagging popularity and importance of canines in our lives. From stories of incredible courage and redemptive come-backs, to moving memoirs and spot-on training guides, these ten standouts, with a few memoirs also noted, are definitely worth your attention.Dog Walks Man by John Zeaman is a contemplative and humorous exploration of one of the simplest of pleasures: walking with a dog. The narrative’s strength comes from its quiet, meditative pacing. Whether he’s walking along suburban alleys with Pete, the Poodle, or exploring the phantasmagorical landscape of New Jersey’s Meadowlands, the author’s musings on life’s wildness are a pleasure and joy. Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell focuses on her long friendship with Caroline Knapp (author of Pack of Two), inspired—one might even say authored—by their mutual love of dogs. Theirs was a remarkable relationship, one based not only on personality similarities but on the trust each of them placed in the other, allowing them to create a profound and lasting attachment that has transcended grief and transformed lives. The Lost Dogs: Michael Vick’s Dogs and Their Tale of Rescue and Redemption by Sports Illustrated’s Jim Gorant sheds light on a much-ignored facet of the Vick dog-fighting story. Gorant follows the journey of Vick’s Pit Bulls from their rescue through their rehabilitation, illuminating their remarkable capacity for forgiveness and the importance of treating abused dogs as victims in need of help and healing. The Love That Dog Training Program by Dawn Sylvia-Stasiewicz, a comprehensive, easy-to-follow guide to the power of positive reinforcement training from “First Dog” Bo’s trainer. Her approach underscores the need for daily training routines—it will pay dividends. A Modern Dog’s Life: Discover How to Do the Best for Your Dog by Paul McGreevy, PhD, an Australian veterinarian and behaviorist who urge modern dog owners to behave more like a “life coach” rather than an “alpha dog.” He draws upon recent scientific studies to help us better understand our dogs, their motivations, behavior and needs. This book is amusing, erudite and engrossing. One Dog at a Time: Saving the Strays of Afghanistan by Pen Farthing. In this inspiring memoir of compassion amid combat a British Royal marine sergeant, serving in Helmand, a remote Afghanistan province, calls upon the resources and courage of his fellow marines to save the lives of dogs amid firefights and mortar attacks. Photobooth Dogs by Cameron Woo is a charming gift book of vintage photographs celebrating the great fondness and fascination for dogs held by past generations—and delightfully captured in photobooth portraits. These endearing self-portraits are snapshots of friendship and timeless devotion. Scent of the Missing is a memoir by Susannah Charleson. Readers ride along with the author’s canine search-and-rescue partner-in-training, Puzzle, a rambunctious, delightful Golden Retriever, from the moment the pup enters her life through her long training. With wit, charm and a deep understanding of dogs, Charleson’s story of this fully collaborative partnership is unforgettable. A Small Furry Prayer: Dog Rescue and the Meaning of Life by Steven Kotler examines the “cult and culture” of dog rescue. He and his girlfriend run a sanctuary in New Mexico with few resources aside from an intense drive to save dogs. The narrative takes the reader to many places, to the dogs themselves and to an exploration of the meaning of “dog” in our lives—a mind-expanding trip. Good Old Dog by Nicholas Dodman, DVM, is sure to become the most important resource you can have to guide you through your dog’s senior years. The advice gathered from the leading experts at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University is presented by Dodman in a convivial and reassuring voice. This book will take the mystery out of caring for an aging dog. Also noted memoirs:
Ecco, 576 pp., 2008; $25.95
For a first novel, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle has already met with great success, rising high on bestseller lists and garnering critical acclaim. In this long, dense and gothic-tinged work, 10 years in the making, author David Wroblewski constructs a Hamletinspired story, with a soupçon of Stephen King thrown in for good measure. The cast of characters— including the mother, Trudy (Gertrude); the uncle, Claude (who, yes, marries his sister-in-law); and the vet, Papineau, a Polonius stand-in—is taken from the bard’s playbook.
The hero, however, is Edgar Sawtelle, a mute and mysterious boy.At the beginning of the book, he, his parents Gar and Trudy, and the lovely Almondine (his cherished companion and a dog who has been with the family since before Edgar’s birth) are living an idyllic life on a farm in northern Wisconsin. But true to the Hamlet trajectory, the story quickly darkens with Gar’s sudden death.
The family’s livelihood comes from the breeding and raising of “Sawtelle” dogs—not a breed, but an idealized über mix. Dogs Edgar’s grandfather, and then his father, found to be noble, honorable or emblematic of an essential, almost indefinable, quality were the progenitors of this new canine phenotype, one “excellent in temperament and structure but of unpedigreed stock.”Much detail about their (and to this reader, problematic) breeding operation is revealed when, at the behest of a familial ghost, Edgar investigates what he believes is his father’s murder, and looks through his grandfather’s voluminous breeding records and correspondences for clues to the crime.
An intriguing part of this endeavor is that in order to be sure the breeding program is achieving its desired outcome, the behavioral and temperamental aspects of each offspring are closely monitored. The dogs are raised by the Sawtelle family until they are two years old, and undergo a rigorous training program,with Trudy as the master trainer. She teaches her techniques (which, unfortunately, seem to be modeled on the Koehler approach) to young Edgar; even though he is mute, he is able to communicate well through hand signals and body movements. In yet another borrowing from Hamlet, Edgar schools his dogs in an elaborate relay game involving what he suspects is the murder weapon (a syringe) in order to “catch the conscience” of his uncle.
It is in the last third of the book, in the section titled “Chequamegon,” where Wroblewski’s storytelling talent really shines, rising above the turgidity of the gothic. After an incident a la Polonius, Edgar runs away from home,taking three dogs (the first litter for which he is solely responsible) with him. The little pack makes a dangerous journey through northern lakes and woods country. This turns out to be more like an ancient truth quest, where young men—and in this case, young dogs as well—test their mettle and resolve to make the leap into adulthood. True canine heirs to the Sawtelle name, the dogs are Edgar’s equal partners, mastering survival skills and expressing their own clear choices.
There is much to admire about this book. While I have reservations about the supernatural elements and the degree to which the Hamlet metaphor is employed, as well as being troubled about parts of the plot (especially those related to dog-rearing), nonetheless, Wroblewski possesses a daring and adventurous talent, and I look forward to seeing the heights he scales next.
Let’s Take the Long Way Home, A Small Furry Prayer and Dog Tags
Dogs play a prominent and meaningful part in three new “good read” books. Let’s Take the Long Way Home explores a friendship and a shared fascination with dogs; A Small Furry Prayer examines the culture of rescue and the meaning of life, and rounding it out, a crime novel, Dog Tags.
Let’s Take the Long Way Home: a Memoir of Friendship, is intensely moving, without a hint of sentimentality. It is part memoir and part biography of a friendship and it should be read and cherished by Bark readers. Gail Caldwell is a fiercely private, independent, talented writer (with a Pulitzer Prize for criticism) and a dog enthusiast. Her friendship with Caroline Knapp (author of a Bark “good read,” Pack of Two) was inspired, one might say authored, by their love of dogs. As this “pack of four”—Knapp with her mixed breed Lucille, Caldwell with her Samoyed Clementine—explored the woods of New England together, they created a profound and lasting attachment that has transcended grief and transformed lives. We highly recommend this book. See Gail Caldwell talk about her book and her friendship with Caroline.
A Small Furry Prayer: Dog Rescue and the Meaning of Life by Steven Kotler is part Hunter Thompson part Carlos Castaneda but mostly so original that it’s difficult to peg. Kotler examines the “cult and culture” of dog rescue, which he says is the largest “underground movement” in America, from the perspective of someone who definitely is living the life. A LA guy with a hankering for adventure who falls in love with a Joy, a dog-loving woman, they buy a small place in Chimayo, New Mexico, move there with eight dogs, all rescues, all “special” needs dogs. They start Rancho de Chihuahua, a sanctuary for these dogs (and many others who follow) with scant resources except an intense drive to save dogs. The narrative takes the reader to many places, to the dogs themselves (all richly drawn characters in their own right) to an exploration of the meaning of “dog” and of our long history of fascination with them. This is a delightful, rich read sure to take you to unexpected places and beyond. To catch Steven Kotler reading from his book, see schedule on the next page. See the video below:
Dog Tags, David Rosenfelt’s newest “Andy Carpenter” mystery, is a good weekender read. For those unfamiliar with the author’s previous books, his main character is Andy, an attorney with a passion for dogs, who is far happier walking his Golden Retriever, Tara, than working a courtroom. When he can be cajoled into practicing his profession, however, his often-unorthodox tactics usually carry the day. Aside from Tara, other members of the ensemble are also present and accounted for in Dog Tags, including Willie Miller, who oversees Andy’s Tara Foundation* rescue work; Laurie Collins, love of his life; and Pete Stanton, police lieutenant and sports-bar buddy. Dog Tags has all of the author’s trademark elements: a client, falsely accused; a dog in need of protection; and, of course, a murder—or in this case, several murders. The client is an ex-cop and Iraq war veteran who lost a leg and then his job on the force. The dog is his highly trained German Shepherd K9-unit partner, also released from duty. Toss in financial shenanigans, profiteering and a hard-core hit man, and all the elements for an engrossing story are in place.
* The Tara Foundation is a real organization, established by Rosenfelt and his wife; to date, they’ve rescued and rehomed about 4,000 dogs, many of them Goldens; the ones that can’t be placed stay with them.) See a video about the Tara Foundation on the next page.
News: Guest Posts
John Callahan, provocative cartoonist, dies at 59
John Callahan, the quadriplegic, provocative cartoonist who had the talent and wit to poke holes in just about everything and everybody, died at the age of 59 in Portland, Ore. Bark was lucky to showcase his work, and interviewed him in our Spring 2000 issue. We called him “the funniest men alive,” and Matt Groening, a fan and friend of Callahan, added that he was “rude, shocking, depraved and tasteless.” Callahan told us that he had a “perverse quality” because he “loved to watch people get upset,” and added that it was “fun to push buttons. Some people don’t have an appetite for it but I do.”He was paralyzed by an auto accident in 1972, and drew his cartoons by holding a pen in his right hand and steadying it with his left. He drew many comics with very funny observations of dogs and cats, and when we talked with him, sadly, his beloved Dachshund, Snickers had just died. Here is an excerpt from that interview, with a few samples of his work: Callahan: Snickers always hung around, she was like Velcro to me. I had quite a relationship, like a partner with this dog; she was a partner in the household, in antics. She was part of the daily rituals of the life around here. I’d wake up and the dog would be asleep on my ankles, she always slept with her little face across my legs. The wiener dog was so small, she looked like a little baguette with legs. Stanley [my giant orange cat] would slap her around a little. She was afraid of the cat but she was tough too. She could back Rottweilers out of the yard. She was very tough but she was afraid of a leaf that would blow by—she’d whimper and run away from a leaf! I, of course, spoiled the dog by feeding her little pieces of whatever I was eating. I can’t believe that people feed their dog kibble. It’s like granola or something. Bark: So Snickers ate well? Callahan: Yes … but there was always one ritual that she had—what we called the “first bark of the day.” She would climb up on the back of the sofa and look out the window into the main street and she would bark, bark at everybody who walked by. She’d take lunch breaks though. My dog was the only dog I’ve ever known who was into gratuitous barking. She’d bark more intensely when another dog walked by—especially a large dog. I never understood her logic. She was much bigger than—oh, something like an iguana. I’d think, “Why do you want to draw attention to the fact that you’re no bigger than rodent? To have a dog notice you and then maybe break through the window and kill you?” She would bark so hard that her feet would leave the couch. But if I was tired or ill or wanted to sleep in, she could curtail her barking so I could sleep. That’s pretty sensitive. Bark: She was obviously an inspiration for your work. Callahan: She really was. I drew many cartoons with wiener dogs—about those little things you have with a dog. Snickers would be walking around the house and I’d look up from my work. She’s look at me expectantly and I’d give her a little nod and she would sort of give a little nod back and walk by. I’d think to myself: I’m communicating with a dog!” You know, there’s a certain partnership. It’s amazing to me.
Author of Marcus of Umbria
We talk with Justine van der Leun about her new book Marcus of Umbria—a Bark Summer Reads pick. Deciding to leave the big city and a good magazine job, she packs it all in to live in a very small Italian village and a chance at love. What she finds instead, and where she finds it, makes for charming storytelling.
Bark: What compelled you to leave your NY city life and venture out to a (very) small village in Italy? And why that particular village?
Justine van der Leun: For love, of course! Or perhaps lust is more accurate. I had gone to Collelungo, on vacation, and while I was there, I fell helplessly for a local gardener named Emanuele. The stereotype of the seductive Italian exists for a reason. After just three weeks, I wanted to live with him in his tiny, rural town. I was working with a businessman on a memoir about Italian wine, so it was convenient for me to settle there. I returned to New York, sublet out my place, and booked a one-way ticket back.
B: What was the one thing that surprised you the most about the villagers’ attitudes towards animals? Had you expected that?
J: Collelungo was an ancient farming culture and the people had endured centuries of dire poverty. Though this generation is relatively comfortable, the people of Collelungo, like most farming cultures, have an old-world approach to animals. For them, animals are a means of survival. They raise everything by hand—the opposite of factory farming. Because of this, farm animals like sheep, cows, and pigs roam free on untouched land. On the other hand, horses were for casual sport, and the training techniques were, to say the least, not progressive; and cats were feral and expected to fend for themselves. Dogs were caged out back and used to hunt. The idea of having a dog inside disgusted people. In Collelungo, there was little concept of an animal’s emotional life; the mere idea was absurd to them. But even in that society, there were exceptions: People who adored their dogs; who spoiled their horses; who fed and coddled kittens.
B: Marcus is a English Pointer, a dog with an “intense” connection to everything around her, how did she redefine or refocus your own connection to nature?
J: Marcus changed everything. I’ve been watching her stalk and chase birds and bunnies and squirrels for four years now, and it never gets old. Before I met Marcus, I had no relationship with the outside world. I grew up in rural Connecticut, surrounded by natural beauty, but all I wanted was to read indoors and move to New York City. But once I found Marcus in Italy, I began to walk in the woods, to look at the trees, to climb hills and ride horses. At first, I did it to see her joy, but soon I was able to feel my own joy. Now, even though we’re back in the states, I am nearly unrecognizable to myself: I run with Marcus in the morning, hike with her through parks and forests, take long strolls down the beach. We just spent a day canoeing on the Delaware Water Gap. I see nature from her perspective, as something right and necessary.
B: Since you rehabilitated a dog who was kept (if you can call it that) just for sport and had little human contact outside of the hunt, what affect did this have on you? Did it change how you viewed the human/dog bond? Did it alter your view of different cultures and how they treated their animals?
J: I rehabilitated Marcus with the help of a very generous behavioral therapist named Nikki Wood, whom I called crying when I returned to the States. I was at a loss for how to live with Marcus, who, because she lacked socialization and had been mistreated, trembled and ran whenever she saw a stranger or heard a loud noise. Nikki sensed that Marcus and I had a special connection and agreed to work with us as long as I would put in the effort. Did I ever! Training Marcus for nearly two years, I got a crash course in dog-human interaction. We think we know about our dogs, but we’re really so uninformed. I read all of Patricia McConnell’s books and really delved into the brain and heart of the dog, which was fascinating. I still have much to learn, but my new, more intricate understanding of her has really bonded us. I’ve seen such tremendous improvement in Marcus, who has overcome most of her fears. She will never be that super-confident dog with a great puppyhood, but she can now accomplish nearly anything. She’s more resilient than I could have imagined.
B: You weren’t expecting to meet up with the dog-of-your-heart when you went to Italy. If Marcus hadn’t come along, how differently do you think your experience there would have been? Would you have come home sooner or later? Do you think you could have settled there permanently?
J: I would have been home in two months, and that would have been a shame. I was wildly lonely and unfocused at first, living in such a remote foreign place. My relationship with Emanuele wouldn’t have been strong enough to keep me there. But when I found Marcus, I couldn’t leave her. Her existence also made me wonder what other surprises lay in store for me—and there were many! Marcus acted as my unwitting anchor and my little spotted tour guide. Because of her, I had the most illuminating year of my life so far.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Being a bit of a science and tech wonk, when I heard that the Vue personal video network had scored a Popular Science 2009 “Best of What’s New” award, I was instantly impressed and interested in trying it out for keeping track of our two new pups, Holly and Kit. We have four dogs, two older ones come to the office with us all day, but pups Holly and Kit only “work” the after-lunch shift, so we were curious to know what they did with their A.M. time. What better way to remotely check up on them than by setting up Vue’s miniature cameras in choice spots in the house—and how lucky was I to get a system from the generous folks at Vue to test out? Turns out that we have really good pups, or extra sleepy ones—because most of the time they snoozed on the couch (which they are allowed to do), with a few breaks for a round of sister-on-sister sumo wrestling, then it’s back to naptime. But knowing this relieved me of the guilt of leaving them alone for 3 hours—then its me going home for lunch, letting all dogs outside, then packing them up for the short drive back to the office.
The set up of the system was easy. Its wireless base station plugs into the wall and into a wireless router. The out-of-the-box system comes with two Vue cameras—but you also buy additional ones—they all synchronize with the Vue gateway, and are easily mounted. The sync process involves bringing each camera within 12 inches of the gateway and just pressing the sync button, piece of cake! There is no need to go into intricate network settings and mess with them. But if you have trouble with the setup you can email Vue and ask for their support. Next you then set up an account online at my.vuezone.com, and then you are ready to start to see what’s happening on the cameras from just about anywhere. You can use a free iPhone application or a web-based interface called VueZone. The user online interface and the one on iPhone are simple to navigate. Both let you look at multiple (up to 50!) cameras at once—with a range of unobstructed line-of-sight 300 feet from the base station.
Do be aware that the service is routed through the VueZone.com web site, requiring a $20 annual fee for service after the first year—including sharing and recording features—but also exposing your in-home videos to possible snooping—so puppy-cam is a good idea, anything, let’s say, of the more personal nature, you might want to switch off the cameras! The cameras themselves are battery powered and should run for one year before needing new $2 cells. The cameras also default into a sleep mode when their feeds aren’t being viewed to save battery life. The system is mostly intended for short-time, status-check kinds of monitoring. Like pups on couch, pups playing, back to couch etc. The tech savvy reviewers who look into such things as colors and exposure note that these are fine, and the resolution “is around 320x240—saved as 478x358 for recordings, with a stated 15fps rate that actually looks like roughly 4fps.”
What’s really cool is that sharing can be done by sending others an invitation to view the clips or photos, though they are embedded on Vue’s website. Either can also be uploaded to an existing Flickr or YouTube account. Look for a Holly and Kit wrestling match soon!
—Claudia Kawczynska, Editor-in-chief
Thinking in pictures provides insight into the world of animals
Temple Grandin’s professional resume is impressive: BS, MS and PhD degrees; dozens of awards and professional papers; author, editor and subject of books and videos; and currently associate professor of animal science at Colorado State University. Dr. Grandin is also autistic, which she credits for her ability to understand how animals see, think and feel. We talk with her about her riveting book, Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior (co-written with Catherine Johnson, PhD).
Claudia Kawczynska: You liken animals to autistic savants. How are animals similar to autistic people?
Temple Grandin: First of all, autistic people don’t think in language, we think in pictures. During my thinking process I have no words in my head at all, just pictures. So if you say the word “teapot,” I start to see teapots, like a teapot slide show of teapots. Animals don’t think in language; they are visual thinkers too. When you think in pictures, it has to be specific in order to form concepts.
Like when I was a little kid—in order to figure out that a dog was different from a cat, I used to sort animals out by size: horses are big, dogs came up to my waist and cats were smaller. But then our next-door neighbors bought a Dachshund—now, there was a dog the same size as a cat! What I figured out was that all dogs—no matter how big or small—had the same nose. I picked out a visual feature that every single dog has that none of the cats had.
People with autism also have tremendous memory and tend to think in details. You probably have seen the Rain Man kind of memory, where people with autism can memorize big parts of a phone book [and] can memorize maps and do number calculations. So let’s look at some of the things that animals do that would be savant-like—let’s take bird migration. Look at Canada geese or other migrating birds. They just have to be shown the route once by the other birds, and they remember the rest. There is no person that could do that.
CK: You point out another difference: Animals don’t have defense mechanisms, such as denial.
TG: It is the same with autistic people—one of the things that blows my mind about normal humans is [their capacity for] denial. When I see that something isn’t going to work, I say so, but when I do, I am accused of being negative! I also think that animals don’t have an unconscious and thus don’t have defense mechanisms. You never see a dog act as if a dangerous situation is safe.
CK: What does it mean to be detail-oriented rather than a generalist?
TG: Visual thinkers of any species, animal or human, are detailed-oriented. They see everything and they react to everything. The big difference between animals and people is that animals and autistic people don’t see their ideas of things, they see the actual things themselves. We see the details that make up the world—normal people blur all those details together into their general concept of the world.
Animals will have place-specific fears. I knew a dog that was hit by a car, and you would think that he would be afraid of cars after that. No, he was afraid of that one spot in the road where he got hit. Because that is what he was looking at the time he was hit. [It was as though] he saw a picture of that spot and would think, “Unh-unh, I’m not going there.”
CK: Do animals have consciousness?
TG: Of course animals have consciousness. The reason that researchers might not think they do is that they can’t imagine thinking without language. But I remember when I was in college, I read that the caveman could not have invented tools without language. I kept saying that is a bunch of BS, because when I design things, I do not use language. I test run equipment in my mind; I can see it in my mind.
CK: You take a rather firm stance on single-trait breeding, citing “rapist roosters” and “needle-nose Collies” as examples of the unintended consequences of this kind of breeding.
TG: I started out in farm animals, and I saw this a lot in farm animals. I saw horrible problems. Like in the pigs who were bred for rapid growth and leanness—they got pigs that were so nervous they were about to jump out of their skin, pigs who had heart attacks and fell over. I don’t think that they thought that breeding for any single trait would result in such hypercrazy pigs.
With domestic animals, we are the main engine of evolution. We’re constantly changing the body of an animal, but we are also changing them emotionally, too. Physical and emotional traits are linked in unexpected ways. If you overselect for a single trait, you are going to wreck your animal. I don’t care what the trait is.
Purebred dogs are bred mainly for appearance, to meet a standard that is heavily tilted toward physical criteria, not emotional or behavioral. One of the reasons that I think mutts are more emotionally stable is that no one is practicing single-trait selective breeding with them. I think that any time you selectively breed for one trait, eventually you wind up with neurological problems; in dogs, it’s likely to be aggression.
CK: Could you talk a little about both the part of the brain that Dr. Jaak Panksepp calls the SEEKING circuit and oxytocin, the so-called love hormone?
TG: Researchers used to think that the reason drugs like cocaine feel good and are addictive is that they raise dopamine levels, the main neurotransmitter associated with the SEEKING circuit. But researchers see things differently now—instead of dopamine being a pleasure chemical, they now think that what is being stimulated is the SEEKING system in the brain—not any pleasure center.
What feel good and what are stimulated are curiosity/interest/anticipation circuits. Just like when a dog is about to be fed—that dinnertime wag-and-smile, one of the happiest moments of a dog’s day. This part of the brain starts firing when the animal sees a sign that food might be nearby, but stops firing when the animal actually sees the food—this helps the animal search for food, but eating the food is something else! It’s the search—the seeking—itself that feels good.
Oxytocin in females and vasopressin in males are hormones related to estrogen and testosterone. [The levels of] both shoot up in brains during sex, and oxytocin levels rise right before a female gives birth. They aren’t just “sex” hormones, they are “love” hormones, too. Oxytocin is important to all social activities, and is essential to social memory—it’s the hormone that lets animals remember each other; it is also the maternal hormone. I think that dogs have fairly high oxytocin levels—they are highly social animals. A dog’s oxytocin level rises when his owner pets him and, in turn, petting a dog raises a human’s oxytocin levels, too. I don’t think anyone has researched it yet, but I think that dogs make humans into nicer people and better parents.
CK: The battle is still raging over the issue of animals and cognition. What is your position on that?
TG: I like the way Marion Stamp Dawkins [a researcher at Oxford] defines thinking in animals. She says that true cognition happens when an animal solves a problem under novel conditions. While no one has ever seen a dog make a tool, dogs can definitely problem-solve in novel situations. There are so many cases of this in guide dogs and search-and-rescue dogs.
And then there are Dr. Irene Pepperberg’s breakthrough studies with Alex [the African Grey parrot], which should make researchers think twice. She added the defining touch to social modeling theory. Basically, it was how she taught Alex. Two people sat in front of the parrot, and one of them would have a cheese puff and would say to the other, “You want the puff?” and the other would say, “I want the puff.” The first person would then give it to him. They did this right in front of the parrot. Back and forth. So then one day, the parrot said “puff” and was given the puff. He finds out that language relates to the object. Then he sees the action.
The moral of Dr. Pepperberg’s story, and the reason she finally succeeded where others had failed, was that she was the first person to consider that maybe it was the researchers’ fault that birds weren’t learning anything, not the birds’. She went beyond classical behaviorism and operant conditioning; she tried a different branch of behaviorism called social modeling theory. It is the way real people and real animals learn in the real world.
Just think of wolves. How could they learn to hunt if they didn’t observe it? The ultimate goal is to get food, but how to find the food? You have to first learn that it is food. They don’t know that the prey is food. Hunting is a predatory instinct, but you have to learn what you eat, and you learn that from Mother. You learn from observation.
A Q&A with one of our favorite writers
For Geraldine Brooks, the road from her native Sydney, Australia, to the fraught landscapes of the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans was littered with hair-raising experiences, moments of grace and prizes for the quality of her journalism. As a multipublished author, she continues her winning ways with a Pulitzer Prize for her novel March, as well as critical acclaim for People of the Book, Year of Wonders, Foreign Correspondence and Nine Parts of Desire. Imagine our joy when we discovered that she’s also a dog person! Brooks talks to us about art, her “extremely entitled” pups and more. Bark: In People of the Book, you reference a painting by Francis Bacon—Man with Dog (1953)—that happens to be one we like, too. Why did you include it? Geraldine Brooks: I have always loved that painting. I have had two Kelpies in my life—George, of blessed memory, the dog of my youth and the most remarkable animal ever and, currently, Milo—and though I know it’s unlikely that Bacon would ever have met this Aussie breed, the swirl of movement he captures just evokes their spirit and energetic grace so perfectly. B: When you were reporting for the Wall Street Journal from international locations like Bosnia, did you encounter dogs? Did the memory or a story of any of these dogs stay with you? GB: In the countries I covered, dogs had it tough. Most of the time I was in Muslim countries, where dogs are largely despised. The one notable exception was a Golden Retriever in Kurdistan, Iraq. When the family fled their home during Saddam’s brutal retaliation for the Kurdish uprising that followed the first Gulf war, they headed for the border and took their dog with them. The mother, father and two very young kids lived in their car in the freezing cold of the Iranian mountains for several weeks. The dog was with them the whole time. Everyone got sick from the dirty water, poor diet and so forth, including the dog. But they all made it, and eventually got home. The mother died, suddenly and tragically, soon after. When I met up with the father again, he said: “Thank god my kids still have their dog.” B: Did you see cultural differences in attitudes toward dogs as you traveled in these areas? GB: Yes indeed. In Islamic countries, saying you have a dog is as outlandish as saying you have a crocodile. But also in Africa and underdeveloped parts of Eastern Europe, dogs suffer immensely. We see a cultural difference here in our own home. Last July, we brought our lovely adopted five-year-old son home from Ethiopia. There, dogs are either potentially rabid strays, foraging in the streets, or fierce guard dogs, barking on the end of chains. Our son was chagrined to discover our three extremely entitled dogs would be sharing not only his home, but attempting to share his bed, as they do with our older son. His reaction: “I thought I was coming to a clean house!” B: Tell us about your dogs. How did they come into your family’s life? Do they have a role in your writing life—muse, exercise coach, comic relief? GB: All of the above, and more. Our oldest, Shiloh, is 14 now, very old for a Border Collie, and she has become something of a life coach lately, showing us what it means to accept the necessary losses of aging while never really giving up on what makes living worthwhile for you. Just a day or so ago, we were walking in the woods, and she flung herself into the stream as if she were still the agile, swift dog of yore. I had to wade in and fish her out, as her back legs have no strength anymore. But I love her unwillingness to accept that. She came to us as a puppy and when our son was born the following year, she took him on as her life’s work. She’s a fantastically loyal and very stubborn dog. She was lucky enough to stay with Donald McCaig one year when we were in Australia. She proved to be a good lambing dog, he said, but he also described her as “a mule in a dog suit.” While we were in Australia, we got Milo, the second Kelpie of my life. Milo had had a rough patch with his first owner, who must have been abusive and was certainly neglectful. When his breeder saw him at a yard trial in dreadful condition, he immediately bought him back from that owner and rehabbed him before looking for a second placement, which was us. He’s a lovely dog, with the tremendous intelligence of the breed, but even after nine years with us, still has fear/aggression issues with men of a certain build who evidently recall to him his previous owner. Simba came into our family two years ago when my mom came to live with us. He’s a rescue dog—part Pomeranian, part Papillon, maybe. A strawberry-blond furball with limpid brown eyes and an unquenchable spirit. I was afraid the two bigger dogs might mistake him for a chew toy when he first arrived, but instead, he pranced in and more or less took over the joint. He and Milo have wonderful boyish wrestling matches together, the larger dog never, ever overstepping the bounds of safe play even when they’re going at it hammer and tongs. B: In researching your books, did you run across any intriguing historical mentions of dogs? GB: No. But I always try to sneak in mentions of dogs where I can, especially herding breeds. B: Does living with dogs in any way inform your observations or sensibilities? GB: They, like me, love nature. You see things differently when you walk with dogs, so they are my guides to the natural world. I don’t know how you do without them, really. When I lived abroad in Cairo and London and was constantly traveling as a foreign correspondent, I couldn’t have a dog. It was the worst thing about those years by far. I truly think it was one of the factors in giving up reporting. So you could say I have Shiloh to thank for my fiction career. Read more about Geraldine Brooks here.
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Bloodhound fan and trainer Larry Allen reflects on the delicate bond between dog and handler.
We recently spoke with Larry Allen, dog trainer and working-dog handler extraordinaire. He took time out from his busy day as the emergency management director for a West Virginia county to have a phone chat with us about one of his favorite subjects, training working Bloodhounds. Allen and the rescue Bloodhound, Holly, were featured on “Underdogs,” an episode in the PBS Nature series. In 12 short weeks, Allen turned the “hyperactive” Holly into a working dog who is now a member of the Massachusetts State Police team.
Q. Holly didn’t seem like the typical pet dog. Do you often find “talented” dogs in shelters and rescue situations?
Q. Do Bloodhounds only work with a lead attached to a harness? Are there ever opportunities for them to run off-lead ahead of the handler?
Q. So being on a lead is for their own safety?
Q. How are the signals transmitted? How can you sense, through the lead or other mechanisms, that the dog is actually getting close to the subject—what is that connection? And do you help her?
So when her head starts to come out of the bag, the starting command is given to her. That is the only time that word is given during the entire trail, whether it is 100 feet or 10 miles. And from that point, depending on the tension, on how hard she is pulling on the leash—because if she is not really sure, she will start slowing down—you will pick up slack in the leash. Sometimes it may be an environmental thing she has never encountered before, maybe it is a smell of a particular plant or flower. So then it is the human praise, the “Good girl, you can do it, come on, baby let’s go, let’s go to work,” that reminds the dog that I’m okay here …
So that is what we were doing on Holly’s evaluation trail up in Massachusetts. As she is getting close to the subject (I had no real idea where the guy was other than when we started, they said, “He is out that way.”), as she is coming up, literally from 10 feet away, I see this wiggle starting from the nose and going all the way back. She is trying to run at a full speed and trying to wiggle from one end to the other. She comes flying around this six-foot-high bush, and there is her “runner,” tucked up, sitting on the ground, against this bush. She kind of leans back and takes one of her big front paws and smacks him, jumps back, and goes Woof! Woof! I knew with the tension that she was pulling and her body language—with the Bloodhounds, body language is 90 percent of it—that she found him.
Learning how to read the dog’s language, interpret her clues, is critical. If she was going to make a turn to the left, you would see her head cast off to the left, and then back on the track. If you see her look the second time, you had better be prepared, because the third time she looks, she will be making a turn.
And the helping part—in the training trails, virtually every one of them, you know the solution to the problem before you run the dog on it. That way, you can help the dog rather than just wander aimlessly. But coming up to a decision point, whether it’s a turn or a T-intersection, you basically just start slowing your pace down a little so it allows the dog time to think about what she is doing rather that just charging through. Then, when she makes the correct turn, it is just that quick one or two words of praise, and boom! You’re off and going again.
Q. At the beginning of her training, Holly had a fear of thunder and loud noises. Have you heard about the recent study out of Penn State that measured cortisol levels (as a stress indicator) in dogs with thunderstorm phobia? They found that the dogs’ human had no affect on their stress level, while living with other dogs decreased the levels. Have you seen this effect with your dogs?
It is ironic we have three dogs who are each trained for a different type of work. When the pager goes off or the phone rings, they instantly cue in on my behavior. If they see me putting on a certain type of clothing, or pulling out certain types of equipment, they know which one will be working that day. For instance, if I start pulling out life jackets, my human remains dog goes nuts, because she knows that when she sees that PFD, we are going somewhere. The Bloodhound seems to be thinking, It’s her and not me. I jokingly tell people that with the working dogs, my job is to drive the car, carry the radio and have water. I am firmly convinced that if the dogs had opposable digits, they wouldn’t need me at all.
Q. Why did you start Holly with sight training before scent?
Q. Like clicker training, marking each and all of those little things adds up, and then needs to be reinforced. Training is needed throughout their life, isn’t it? Is Holly still being trained?
Q. Some people say that a human can actually “break” a dog. In other words, the dog has to trust you, and if you give the dog the wrong cues, the wrong direction—and the dog invariably knows better—that confidence between the two of you can be broken. Have you seen this with Bloodhounds?
Simon & Schuster, 304 pp., 2008; $23
While in high school, Shreve Stockton was voted “most likely to wake up in a strange place.” It is to our delight that this roamer discovered a place that could satisfy her wanderlust and inspire this engaging and unusual story, which is based on her blog of the same name. The book is written in an easy conversational style and illustrated with Stockton’s photographs; she has a good eye, and one can see how a daily posting about an adorable coyote would find a receptive audience on the web. The main storyline traces Charlie’s first year with Stockton and her cat Eli, an equally amazing animal and one the coyote seems to idolize.
In 2005, Stockton—a talented, successful urbanite with pluck, resourcefulness and determination to spare—left San Francisco and headed for New York. Traveling solo on a Vespa scooter, she made a 6,000-mile, two-month-long meandering cross-country trip. As she passed through Wyoming, she says, her heart felt “magnetized” by the state’s grandeur and isolation, and when she finally reached her destination, she couldn’t get the state’s vastness out of her head. She turned to the web, and one of her searches came up with a house for rent in the small town of Ten Sleep, Wyo. (population 300), which turns out to be the perfect place for Stockton. All of this happens within the first five pages of this enthralling book!
At the heart of the story is Charlie, a coyote given to Stockton by her boyfriend Mike when the pup is only a few days old. Mike is a professional hunter hired by the USDA to cull coyotes, a job that owes its existence to the “it’s us or them” attitude ranchers have about local predators. The pup that Mike cannot bring himself to kill turns out to be the gift that transforms Stockton’s life. However, she recognizes from the start that there might come a time when she would need to return Charlie to the wild, but she also knows that domestication could make this return impossible —which indeed was the case.
At first, Stockton sent daily emails to friends and family chronicling her life with Charlie and Eli. Then, an astute friend suggested she start blogging the appealing story and charging readers a small monthly fee to supplement the meager income she scraped together by working as a graphic designer, substitute teacher, cattle feeder, irrigation pipe layer and teleconferencing/video English tutor for Korean students. (See what I meant by resourceful?)
Stockton clearly and frequently brings up important cautionary notes about making a coyote into a pet—as well she should, given the complexities and challenges with which Charlie presented her. It is hoped that others will not be tempted to do the same. Nonetheless, many dog-loving readers will see resemblances between some of Charlie’s behavioral traits and other personality “issues” and those of their own dogs. I know that I did, and found many of her closely noted observations fascinating, such as Charlie’s habit of hiding bits of food in the nooks and crannies in the walls of the small log cabin they shared.
My other reservation is that, true to its blog origins, the book is a bit too revelatory about the personal lives of others, especially her boyfriend Mike, who seems to be a private and reserved person. I felt uneasy about this; I also felt that some of that narrative intruded on Charlie’s story—perhaps I was just eager for all I could get about the coyote. Ultimately, though, I came away with a deep appreciation for what the author has accomplished, and am pleased she decided to share her story with us.
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