Lee Harrington talks to novelist Bonnie Jo Campbell
Bonnie Jo Campbell is the author of several books, including American Salvage, a finalist for the 2009 National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award. Her latest novel, Once Upon a River (W.W. Norton), is being hailed as a “dramatic and rhapsodic American odyssey,” with a central character who’s a “female Huckleberry Finn.” We at Bark have a particular affinity for Bonnie, whom we published when she was a relatively unknown writer. Her quirky story “My Dog Roscoe” (in which a woman is convinced her boyfriend has been reincarnated as a stray dog) appeared in our book Dog Is My Co-Pilot, and her comic essay “What My Dog Has Eaten Lately” appeared in Howl, our humor anthology.
Lee Harrington: We all know you are a devoted dog lover. Tell us about some of the dogs who have appeared in your fiction.
Bonnie Jo Campbell: My first story collection, Women & Other Animals, contains two stories that feature dogs prominently. “Old Dogs” is the story of three older women who live in poverty with four older dogs (all named after Shakespearean heroes). My goal was to show how the dogs and women bring comfort and dignity to one another’s difficult lives.
In “The Fishing Dog,” a young woman without resources lives on the river with a difficult man who is much older than she is. Across the river lives a gentler, kinder man, whose dog sits by the river’s edge and hunts for fish. The narrator becomes obsessed with this dog and gradually, by extension, falls in love with the new man.
LH: I understand that this story largely inspired your now-famous novel, Once Upon a River. In the final pages of that book, Margo decides to adopt a recently orphaned dog. What does this say about Margo and her transition from child to adult?
BJC: Margo has always wanted to share her life with one or more dogs, but her situation has never allowed it. Her parents forbade her from adopting a dog while she lived at home, so she hung out with her cousins’ dogs. When she left home to make her way in the world, she was never in a stable enough situation to properly care for a dog. Finally, at the end of the story, Margo knows she is ready to care for someone.
LH: How do you decide to include a dog in a particular scene or story?
BJC: I’m a realist writer, so I try to work with what seems naturally to flow from a situation or a character. Many people need a dog in their lives to make them whole and happy, and that’s true of fictional characters as well. Many of the characters in my stories, especially the women, live their lives entwined with the lives of animals.
LH: In many works of fiction (and in life, actually) dogs are included as accessories or part of the setting rather than as characters. To me, a character is a being who has the capacity to change the direction of the story. Where do you stand on that — dogs as characters vs. accessories?
BJC: Agreed! A dog is generally too powerful a force to pose as mere decoration. I won’t address the misguided real-life situations, but it would be a shame to waste such a potentially active story element. In movies and plays, almost any dog who wanders onstage will steal the show. Of course, it depends upon the story itself — every narrative operates according to its own rules — but in general, we writers should always be looking to where the energy and empathy lie in a story, and a dog is a good place to start.
LH: Your beloved three-legged dog Rebar died a few years ago, and travel and work commitments have kept you from getting another dog. What has your new life as a successful writer and professor been like, sans chien?
BJC: I’ve missed the company of dogs desperately. I’m all over everybody else’s dogs, like a childless auntie who can’t keep her hands off her nieces and nephews. Some of what I wrote about Margo’s longing for a dog in Once Upon a River was what I’ve been feeling. I plan to stop roaming soon and find myself a new canine companion, one who can get along with my two donkeys, Jack and Don Quixote, who live on my mom’s farm. Rebar was great around the barnyard, though I didn’t like the way he chewed donkey dung. I still dream about Rebar. The writing life requires a lot of sitting quietly in a room, and that makes a lot more sense when there’s a dog beside you.
Making sense of dogs
What is an anthrozoologist, anyway? Turns out it’s someone who studies human-animal interactions, and John Bradshaw, who directs the world-renowned Anthrozoology Institute based at the UK’s University of Bristol (and founded it at the University of Southampton), is pre-eminent among them. For more than a quarter of a century, he’s investigated the behavior of dogs and their people, and his findings have been widely published. In Dog Sense — his best-selling, recently released book — he expands upon his belief that “the future of the dog does not lie simply with the blunt instruments of legislation and regulation, but with better public understanding of what dogs actually are, their needs and wants.” Recently, Bradshaw shared his thoughts on evolution, training (debunking the myth behind the “dog as wolf” model), changes in breeding practices in the UK and what lies behind dogs’ attraction and attachment to us, among other intriguing ideas.
Bark: Why do you think that a proto-dog — a transition from wolf to dog — evolved?
John Bradshaw: My theory — and I have nothing to back it up — is that something happened in the brains of certain wolves that made dual socialization possible. Humans developed a propensity to take in pets, and then these particular wolves came along — these would be the protodogs. They would have looked exactly like wolves. This was not an intervention on our part, but rather, a very different cultural environment.
B: Most researchers refer to domestication as a one-way street. Didn’t other species, including the wolf and proto-dog, also have an effect on our own evolution?
JB: Domestication was a long and complex process; speculatively, I would [say] that there were several failed attempts. Researchers who are studying human evolution and the human brain pretty much say that our own evolution — at the genetic level — wasn’t influenced by dogs. But, of course, our culture has been profoundly influenced by them.
B: Do you think it’s possible that we hunted together, or perhaps learned or honed our own skills by watching wolves hunt?
JB: I don’t think we were hunting partners, to begin with, but one of the versions of human evolution that I strongly subscribe to comes from Steven Mithen, a cognitive archaeologist and professor of early prehistory, who studies the evolution of the human mind and why we are different from the Neanderthal — why they died out and we didn’t. One of the key [dissimilarities] he points to is our ancestors’ ability to think like animals. They could put themselves in the place of an animal — that they, in fact, had a connection to the animals. So we would be able to think, “If I were a wolf, what would I be doing?” or, “If I were a deer, what would I do now?”
B: If scientists have concluded that wolf behavior is different from that of dogs, why do people still consider the lupomorph (wolf pack) model as a determinant of canine behavior?
JB: They have a good excuse, which is that in terms of their DNA, dogs and wolves are so similar. However, that doesn’t mean there is similarity in their behaviors.
B: If the wolf model isn’t appropriate, what is?
JB: The behavior of feral, or village, dogs in Italy, Russia and India has been studied recently, and results show that those dogs are much closer to the ancestors of pet dogs than wolves are. These are urban feral dogs, high-density dogs, dogs in large groups. Earlier studies [of feral dogs] were conducted in environments in which the dogs were being persecuted and are like the early captive-wolf studies: not reliable.
B: You write that there is little evidence that hierarchy is a particular fixation of dogs — that dogs do not want to dominate us — but so many trainers (including Cesar Millan, as you note in the book) and others use this construct to explain dog behavior. Why is this wrong and what are its implications?
JB: Part of the problem is that confrontation makes good television, and attracts programmers, but having a confrontation in your living room with your own dog isn’t the best way to train a dog. The more effective way is to use reward-based training, which can be (by television standards) incredibly dull, since it may take hours or sometimes weeks. My colleagues and I are appalled by the popularity of this style of confrontational dog training. I don’t know what the situation is in your country, but in the UK, we have a new Animal Welfare Act, and that kind of training goes against its recommendations. The law reads, “All dogs should be trained to behave well, ideally from a very young age. Only use positive reward-based training. Avoid harsh, potentially painful or frightening training methods.”
B: Have you seen any changes in breeding practices in the UK as a result of the BBC’s “Pedigree Dogs Exposed” documentary?
JB: The genetic isolation of breeds has brought about a dramatic change in the canine gene pool. Three inquiries have been commissioned: one by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, another by the government and a third by the Kennel Club itself, but there is still a great deal to be done. There are problems implementing the studies’ conclusions because the KC, like the AKC, is a federal structure made up of individual breed clubs. The federation has no power to tell the member breed clubs what to do.
B: Many people use puppy testing to predict a dog’s adult character. Do you feel this is valid?
JB: Dogs are born to become friendly toward people, a process that starts in about the third week of their life and goes on for several months. This process of socialization is well charted. At 16 weeks, the window of socialization to people begins to close, though it stays open a bit longer for socialization to other dogs.
B: You write that dogs have been so heavily selected to form strong attachments to humans that many suffer from separation anxiety — up to 50 percent of Labs bred in the UK, for instance. On what is this finding based?
JB: It comes from my own research and that of others. We concluded that many dogs experience this anxiety at some time in their lifetime. In one longitudinal study, we followed puppies, 40 in all, litters of Labradors and Border Collies, from eight weeks to 18 months old. Over 50 percent of the Labs and almost half of the Collies showed some kind of separation distress. Subsequent studies, during which we filmed dogs left alone, showed that self-reporting by owners underestimates the scope of the problem.
B: One of the most controversial positions you take is that being in a shelter may damage a dog. Was consideration given to contributing factors such as the length of time spent in a shelter, the condition of the facility, the interactions a dog has with other dogs and humans there, and the dog’s personality and history?
JB: We want to understand what is going on inside these dogs, and I am not in any way blaming rescuers or shelters. Dogs who have been attached to a family may suddenly wind up in a shelter for a variety of reasons: family breakup, job loss or the dog’s behavioral problems. Dogs will be very upset by this and when they arrive in a shelter, their cortisol level [a stress-related hormone] goes sky high. We know this because when we’ve taken urine samples, we’ve had to dilute the urine to even get a measurement — it was that high. They don’t have the resources to cope and go into hyperdrive, desperate to please people. As a result, in a shelter setting, dogs actually can be easily trained.
B: Dogs clearly love us, and demonstrate that in many ways, but is this what motivates them to obey us and follow our lead?
JB: Human contact has a high-level reward value for dogs; simple attention from us is rewarding. And if that attention comes while playing with them, it can be a double reward. You can train a dog with a tennis ball, but while the game is important, it is not the only thing. The real treat is the interaction. Withdraw your attention, ignore the dog, and the dog will find this withdrawal of attention aversive.
Q: What do dogs need?
Q: How can we better understand our dogs?
Q: Given all that we know about genetics, why choose a mixed-breed dog?
Temple Grandin, PhD, teaches at Colorado State University and is the author of several books, including Animals in Translation and, most recently, Animals Make Us Human.
News: Guest Posts
Are you ready for an “earth goddess”?
Yesterday, we received a call from Jennifer Rabinowitz in New Mexico. She wanted to know if she could place an ad in Bark to help find a home—ASAP—for her rescue dog. Since we publish every other month, we couldn’t get the word out quickly enough. When we heard about all Jenny had been through for Zia, we were reminded of how hard it can be for some dogs to land in the right place. We were also reminded of the determination and resourcefulness of so many folks who are dedicated to doing right by homeless dogs.We got back in touch with Rabinowitz, a 49-year-old former development director, and asked her to tell us more about Zia, a small, 14-month-old Labrador, and the effort to find her a good home. [Editors Note: If you're interested but think Zia lives too far away, Jenny says she'll deliver the pup to pretty much anywhere in the United States, as long as she finds a good home.] How did Zia come to you? I moved to New Mexico from Washington D.C. almost a year ago to attend graduate school in social work. My first week here I volunteered at an adoption event for dogs from the Las Vegas (New Mexico) pound, a dark place for dogs—both literally and figuratively. A crate of puppies arrived at the event, and for six hours I tried to get them adopted. By afternoon’s end, nobody had adopted them and I couldn’t bear to see the puppies go back to the Las Vegas pound, which has one of the highest euthanasia rates in the state. I thought I could easily share my rental home with the pups until I could get them adopted! The problem is that I could not find an appropriate home for them. How did she get her name? When I brought her home (together with her brother and a puppy from another litter) she was lethargic, even limp. I thought I would have to take her to the vet. A 10-year-old girl who lived next door stopped by and scooped the lethargic puppy into her arms, holding her and rocking her. She then looked up at me and said, “This is Zia.” I asked why, and she said, “Because she is an earth goddess.” Tell me about her. Zia is very playful, even creative in her play. She is affectionate. She is also somewhat fearful of other dogs. While she is not dog-aggressive, she is unsure of herself around dogs. I used to take her to Santa Fe’s Frank Ortiz no-leash park. She loved the park and not once did I hear a growl from her. If anything, I saw her lay down next to dogs or run alongside them. My other foster dogs, however, were less forgiving of her, and twice they went to attack her. It is no wonder that she is shy or reticent around dogs. When I lived in the New Mexico countryside, I would take Zia to the Pecos River twice a day. In the winter, Zia liked to break the ice formed on the river. In the spring, she’d sit next to me leaning into my side, and we’d watch the water flow by. I’ll miss her. Why do you need to find a home so urgently? I had to move about eight weeks ago because my landlord gave me an ultimatum: Get rid of some of the dogs or get out. I moved. During my first two weeks at my new place, Zia and Blaze (also a female and the same age as Zia, but from a different litter) had a horrific fight. The experience was unnerving, and because Blaze gets along with the other two (Zia’s brother and Nick, my Mastiff), I must find a home for Zia. In short, I’m trying to weigh one dog against three dogs who get along well. It’s harder to place three dogs than it is one dog. But, believe me, it’s a tough decision. What have you done to find Zia a home? I’ve reached out to environmental groups (Sierra Club/Northern Rio Grande chapter, WildEarth Guardians, Northern New Mexico Law Center, and the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance so far), churches, synagogues, my grade school (where my flyer will be read at the noontime meeting), my high school (will email my graduating class), a meditation center in Washington DC, my yoga studio, and so on. In short, I’ve tried to identify where the kind of people I would want to adopt her would likely be. I’ve asked a church in Santa Fe if I could make an announcement after Sunday morning’s sermons—they graciously said yes! Still, I have had little luck. It sounds like you have fostered dogs before. If so, is this the most difficult experience you’ve had placing a dog? I’ve never fostered dogs before. I’ve always adopted shelter dogs, but only dogs that were full-grown. Working with puppies while caring for an aging Mastiff with health problems has been the challenge of my life. It is something I will never forget. It has offered a profound education in ethics, morality and love. Getting her placed has felt like climbing Everest with no oxygen. Virtually everybody says to simply dump her at the Santa Fe Humane Society (which is a kill shelter). I can’t be so insensitive to her life and her right to live it. What’s making it so difficult? I think it is the economy. New Mexico is a poor state, and we are in difficult economic times. How will you feel once you have found a loving, stable home for Zia? Ecstatic and relieved. If you want to provide Zia with a stable, loving, one-dog home or if you have ideas for Jenny, contact her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
News: Guest Posts
Maddie’s Fund underwrites an unprecedented Bay Area effort
The Maddie’s Matchmaker Adoptathon isn’t your typical adoption drive. It’s big (41 participating shelters and adoption-guarantee organizations), ambitious (aiming to empty all the shelters in Alameda and Contra Costa counties), and, most important for potential adopters, FREE! Oh, and it’s a fundraiser for the participating organizations.
And that’s not all: The adoptathon is only a step in Maddie’s Fund’s jaw-dropping goal to save all adoptable animals in the country. We asked the organization president Rich Avanzino to break it down for us.
Is this the first free adoptathon Maddie’s Fund has sponsored?
It’s the largest one as far as we know in the Bay Area, bringing over 41 different shelters and adoption-guarantee groups [together] in a collaborative effort to empty the shelters to save all the healthy, treatable animals’ lives. As far as I know, it’s the first one to be done for free in the Bay Area, ever, and it’s also the first attempt to empty the shelters countywide in both Alameda and Contra Costa. It’s going to save a lot of lives.
Who pays for the adoptions?
Maddie’s Fund will pay $500 for every adoption [they normally range from about $50 to a couple hundred dollars] so it’s not just covering the cost to the shelters; it’s giving them a little more incentive to help save these lives. And in a tough economy like we’re suffering with today many of the not-for-profits and the municipalities are hurting for money. So this is an effort to recognize their great efforts … and to draw attention to the fact that both the rescue organizations and the shelters have wonderful pets available for adoption all the time.
I didn’t realize there was this stimulus side.
Yes. It’s a win-win. Obviously the people who take home a pet are going to have the opportunity to have the love of their life. The animals obviously get their lives saved, which is rather spectacular because these are wonderful beings that just need to find a home. And then it will provide a little monetary incentive for the shelters and rescue groups to carry on their great services and provide the wonderful programs that they do to save animals.
Why is it called Maddie’s Matchmaker Adoptathon?
This is done in the spirit of the little dog that Maddie’s Fund is named after, a miniature Schnauzer who enriched the lives of our founders Dave and Cheryl Duffield. They promised to basically do right by her by giving back in dollars some of what she gave them in love. We started with a $300 million gift to help animals in need of loving homes. We think this has the potential to be a model for the nation to get us to our goal, which is to save all the healthy and treatable animals countrywide by 2015.
That’s a huge goal.
It is a very ambitious goal but we think we are basically on path to achieve the result.
What do you think the adoptathon is going to cost Maddie’s Fund?
We’re hoping to spend well over a half million dollars. We think we have about 1,000-plus animals to save. The rescue and shelter world is very enthusiastic: Many of them have extended their hours, some of them have opened their facilities for Sunday adoptions, many of them who used to do one satellite are now doing several. So we’ve got great buy-in. We think it’s going to save at least 1,000 lives, maybe more. We hope to spend a half-million dollars but we’d love to spend a million. So it all comes down to the public and the rescues to help get us to goal.
Those who will be attending the adoptathon, hoping to bring home a cat or dog, what should they have in mind?
First of all, each agency has it’s own adoption criteria, so they are going to be adopting out to qualified pet owners—people who are responsible, caring, loving.
They’re not going to have to have any money—it’s a free comrade and lifetime partner. They should be prepared for the fact that it’s a lifetime commitment. They are going to take home a pet who needs food, living accommodation, toys and all that sort of stuff so the money they don’t spend on the adoption fee will give them a little extra to spend on pampering their new pooch or kitty. They are going to get unconditional love but in return this four-legged best friend/family member is going to rely on them to be taken care of and loved.
Are you concerned that by not requiring a fee, it communicates the animal has less value?
Absolutely not. The adoption agency and rescue groups and shelters that we’re dealing with are committed to the best interests of animal welfare, they’re doing this not for money, they’re doing this because they are focused on helping animals in need, and ending an animal’s life is not providing a great deal of assistance. The groups’ … screening programs are going to be well in place. They are going to select the best homes. We hope they have a lot of applicants from which to choose the best.
When will you know how many animals will be adopted?
We’re doing it hour by hour. We’ll have a running tally. We’re putting the entire Maddie’s staff (“roving reporters”) out in the field. We’re going to be capturing every placement in real time and sending it back to our Facebook page.
That sounds great.
The enthusiasm couldn’t be at a higher pitch. The weather’s nice. The animals are fabulous. The shelters are excited. And now we’re just hoping the public comes down and takes advantage of this.
Free adoption of dogs and cats will be offered to qualified homes throughout the weekend, June 12-13, at each participating organization, as well as many PETCO, PetSmart and Pet Food Express locations. To find hours, locations and participating organizations visit: MaddiesAdoptathon.org.
News: Guest Posts
Young author follows shelter dogs in a new book
With more than 100 books to her credit, four adopted dogs in her home and a canine-behaviorist mother, it was probably only a matter of time before Maren Bussey wrote a book about shelter dogs. Tackling the project like a journalist, the cub reporter followed dozens of dogs surrendered to Maricopa County Animal Care and Control (MCACC) in her hometown of Phoenix, Ariz., and then profiled 15 in Forgotten Friends—Stories from an Animal Shelter. Bussey’s tales of lucky—and a few not-so-lucky—pups, along with daunting shelter facts and advice on how to help, make a compelling case for adoption aimed at young folks by one of their own. (The book is published on demand through booksbymaren.com, ten percent of the $20 cover price goes to MCACC.)
News: Guest Posts
5 Q's for prize-winning filmmaker
Did you see the “Underdog” commercial during the Superbowl XLIV? Or maybe later in its viral incarnations around the Internet? An adorable young Lab outsmarts a person (who has it coming) with the old bark collar–switcheroo in order to get a bag of Doritos. It was one of four winning commercials—out of 4,000 created by Average Joes and Janes—to air during the game.
Twenty-four-year-old Joshua Svoboda created the submission for Frito-Lay’s “Crash the Superbowl” contest in three days with a budget of $200 (including the cost of dog treats and toys), and filming at a favorite childhood park. For his efforts, he took home a second-place finish, $600,000, and a healthy respect for professional canine actors. A fledgling filmmaker from Raleigh, N.C. (check out his reel at 5pointproductions.com), Svoboda hoped success in the contest could kick start his career.
When we caught up with the young director a few days after the Superbowl, he was—appropriately—shopping for a television. He snuck into the mattress department to answer a couple questions.
Which came first—the dog or the concept?
Where did you get your dog star?
When we did the test shots, she was surprisingly well-behaved. The second day [filming the actual ad], she was running around, chasing kids, barking at old people. She settled down once we threw the ball for her a few times and gave her treats.
Were those really Doritos in the bag?
Do you see yourself directing dogs in your future?
Do you have a dog?
News: Guest Posts
Meet the singing dog groomer
When friends and relatives who don’t have dogs visit, I do a fairly rigorous vacuum to make it look like I don’t live in a rising tide of dog fur. Personally, hair bunnies don’t bother me but I figure it’s disgusting to folks who aren’t really used to it.
I know I'm not alone. To hear her tell it--rather sing it--Randi Breese is no stranger to fur in the silverware tray, the swimming pool and the chapstick. She went so far as to turn it into art, “Dog Hair in Everything I Do.” Before I posted it here for your relating pleasure, I tracked down the singer/songwriter to learn a little about the story behind the song.
The Bark: Is music a full-time gig for you?
Are the dogs in the video yours?
Tell me about your dogs.
Do you have any CDs?
Where do you live?
News: Guest Posts
Q&A with hip-hop artist MC Esoteric
Seamus Ryan, a Boston-based hip-hop artist who goes by the nom de plume, MC Esoteric, dropped a concept album this fall that turns old school rap depictions of fighting dogs upside-down. Saving Seamus Ryan tells the semi-autobiographic story of a man who is redeemed by the love of a Labrador Retriever. To mark the CD debut and Esoteric’s Saturday, Oct. 24, appearance (with his dog Logan) on Animal Planet’s SuperFetch, we tracked him down in London, where he answered a few questions for us via email.
In the song “Max (Goodbye)” the singer puts his old dog to sleep--was Max your dog?
What does the cover of Saving Seamus Ryan (a yellow Lab sitting next to collapsed man) represent?
Are you active in animal welfare?
What will you be doing on SuperFetch?
Finally, rap and hip-hop are often criticized for glamorizing dog fighting and contributing to problems for Pit Bulls and other breeds, is this something you have in mind with your songs and videos?
News: Guest Posts
Kansas City couple honors their dog’s memory by inviting strangers to dinner.
When Tricia and Mike Smith put their dog Molly to sleep earlier this year it left a big hole in their lives. They missed their Boston Terrier’s zest for life but weren’t ready to adopt a new pup. So they decided to pay tribute to Molly’s love for parties and socializing by entertaining—with a twist.
Tricia, a 35-year-old deputy in the office of the Platte County Recorder of Deeds, and Mike, a 40-year-old business analyst for a local telecommunications company, created Thursday Night Suppers, which is essentially an invitation to bon vivants in the Kansas City area to dine chez Smith. There is no fee.
Of course, a Thursday Night Suppers website (with a blog) outlines the details and how to make reservations, but the Smiths’ ambitions are not about building virtual connections. They’d like to be hosting sit-down suppers for six once a week.
Tricia Smith talked to The Bark about opening her heart and her house--and the dog who inspired it all.
How did Molly come into your life?
Why did you have to put her to sleep?
Why host dinners in Molly’s honor?
If you hope for a little grief-relief from your guests, what do you hope they will get out of the experience?
How many dinners have you hosted?
Are you ever worried about inviting strangers into your home?
What has been the biggest challenge?
What has been the biggest gift?
Is there another dog in your future?
Who’s the cook?
We’ll be right over.
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