Viking, 341 pp., 2008; $23.95
One would have to have a heart of stone not to be captivated by this bittersweet debut novel, now available in an American edition, in which Prince, a Labrador Retriever, narrates his heroic attempts to save his human family from the dangers that threaten their peace and security. That the novel in form is a reminiscence by Prince as he waits to be put down by his owner, who does not understand what Prince has done throughout to save the family from itself, testifies, of course, to the futility of his actions. But that this sad history is communicated to a younger Labrador as a cautionary tale in how best to perform as Labradors expect of themselves, turns it into a larger, tragicomic meditation on loyalty, sacrifice and the possibilities of idealism in a world of disillusionment and irresponsibility.
The situation is this: Originally obedient, the Springer Spaniels, having realized that humans can no longer take care of themselves and hence that the stability of their families cannot be taken for granted, no longer pay attention to humans’ welfare or intervene on their behalf. They begin to slip their leads; they live for the moment and for themselves; they learn to sniff for pleasure rather than for purpose. The humans hardly notice—“Lamp posts were still being splashed. Crotches were still being sniffed.”—and most of the breeds are quietly won over to the Springers’ cause. Not so the Labradors, who institute a compact, based on the immutable principles of “duty over all,” self-denial, non-violence and constant vigilance. To the extent that humans consider the breakdown of family bonds, they explain it through easy sociology: the demands of career, the secularization of Western society, unhealthy diet. But as usual in this novel, the dogs sniff out the problem all too well: Humans overly privilege one sense (sight), which too often makes them the victim of appearances; they don’t understand their own nature, as part of Nature; they are afraid of aging and death; they can’t come to terms with sex; and in general, think that with science, technology and culture, they can control desire and instinct. Relying on such apparatus, Haig suggests, makes humans lovable objects for Labradors’ protective instincts, but teaches them nothing about themselves. And, sadly, it’s the dogs who pay the price: Get too close to them and you’ll get hurt, Prince is warned by a non-Lab; and so indeed he is.
This novel works as well as it does because of two writerly strategies. First, Haig’s sensitive depiction of the Hunter family, who had rescued Prince as a pup from a shelter in a desperate attempt to shore up their own dissolving human relationships, wisely renders them neither evil nor psychopathic, even if disconcertingly typical and familiar in their failings. Adam, the father, irresolute and frustrated in both his career and marriage, becomes involved with a good-looking, ditzy aromatherapist. Kate, the mother, avoids marital intimacy through incessant housecleaning, but too easily acquiesces when her old lover reappears. Hal and Charlotte, the teenaged children, are predictably given over to rebellious acts with seedy friends. Prince knows how few internal resources this weak but finally sympathetic family can muster against threats from the outside. Second, Haig nicely complicates Prince’s personality beyond that of a mere virtuous automaton: At night, Prince dreams of running wild with his ancestral wolves; at one point, he falls into a reverie, intoxicated by the delectable leaf juice, worm blood and squirrel droppings of the park’s smell-heap. He later undergoes a profound crisis of belief when learning that his father figure, a Labrador named Henry, has morally compromised himself in blind adherence to the letter of the pact. Because Haig has made the moral choices complex, Prince’s final self-denying commitment to an ideal that will never be realized is all the more nuanced and profound.
Similarly nuanced and largely successful is Haig’s ingenious evocations of Shakespeare, specifically the two parts of Henry IV: “Prince,” like Shakespeare’s Prince Hal, will reject the temptations of the self-indulgent life represented by the Springer-spokesman “Falstaff,” prove himself by defeating the traitor to the established order—appropriately named Simon “Hotspur”—and accept the values of his father-figure “Henry.” Other allusions are less relevant (there is an impetuous Rottweiler named “Lear”) or inappropriate (“Kate,” the name by which Prince Hal addresses his French wife after he is crowned king, is a bad choice of name for the mother). But it’s especially intriguing that the future of the teenaged son “Hal” is left uncertain. The only human who hears Prince’s words, young Hal cannot accept them, coming as they do from a dog. We are left to wonder in this wise and wry novel if he will remain “in the tavern,” surrounded by the Falstaffs of the world, and whether Prince has died in vain.
Perfect Paws Productions, 2007, Runtime 2 hours 35 minutes; $34.95
When all the pieces of a puzzle snap together, it’s a pleasure to behold. In this instance, the “puzzle” is the pet dog training DVD, Perfect Paws in 5 Days. The pieces include terrific production quality, jazzy dog-themed music and an engaging supporting cast cleverly bound together by Jean Donaldson, an upbeat and innovative dog training expert.
The DVD covers essential training commands: “sit,” “down,” “stay,” “come” and “watch me.” Jean’s entertaining chapter introductions teach dog training theory in small, interesting nuggets. After Jean demonstrates each exercise—assisted by her enthusiastic demo dog, Buffy—you join her and five dog-training teams for classes at the Perfect Paws training academy. With lavish praise and gentle corrections, Jean and her teams demonstrate the right, and wrong, way to practice each behavior. “Push, stick, drop” are among Jean’s unique cues to successful training; your dog will love her signature approach to teaching come/recall.
While this DVD is top-notch, it’s not perfect. First, the DVD menu lists the classes as Lessons One through Five, which doesn’t explain what they include. The extensive bonus material didn’t print from the DVD menu on either a Mac or a Windows PC, but was accessible directly from the disk on both platforms. Those small mechanical complaints aside, Perfect Paws in 5 Days highlights Jean’s original dog-training techniques. Let’s hope it’s the first in a series of equally creative DVDs covering other tricky training challenges.
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Almaden Books, 238 pp., 2007; $16.95
In this no-kill manifesto, attorney Nathan Winograd identifies the moment when he believes the budding humane movement lost its way. Overruling the wishes of its founder, Henry Bergh, ASPCA agreed in the late 1800s to operate New York’s cruelly primitive dog pounds. Thus, the organization became accustomed to killing animals, albeit more compassionately than under the city’s brutal regime. Winograd argues that the animal welfare establishment has remained mired in 19th-century thinking and processes, to unnecessarily fatal effect for the five million healthy animals destroyed in US animal “shelters” each year.
He traces the movement’s history, highlighting its failed attempts to legislate, educate and coercively sterilize the nation out of its presumed pet over-population problem. Policies have been founded, he claims, on twin (and false) premises: that there are too many companion animals to be absorbed into proper homes, and that the public can be harangued into more responsible care of its pets. This has led shelters to the hopeless approach of “adopting out a few and killing the rest” of their unlucky tenants, while blaming an indifferent citizenry for their thankless task.
He then describes no-kill successes in San Francisco; Charlottesville, Va.; and Reno, Nev., as well as his own shelter management work in rural Tompkins County, N.Y. Here the book comes alive as he reports life-or-death tales of animals who were spared the needle by the best efforts of shelter personnel applying the logic, tactics and creative hard work of the no-kill paradigm: low-cost spay/neuter, foster and rescue care, medical/behavioral interventions, trap/neuter/release for feral cats, and several species of community outreach. In each case, shelters dramatically reduced their kill rates to under 10 percent of all animals without selective intake or “adoptability” analyses to eliminate problem critters—no smoke, no mirrors. He also explodes the claim of inherent overpopulation, demonstrating that sufficient homes are available if only they can be more effectively linked with needy animals.
Finally, Winograd indicts the humane establishment for seeking to discredit—rather than embrace—these successes. San Francisco was proclaimed too urban (and, remarkably, too “gay”); Tompkins County, too rural and Yankee; Charlottesville, too collegiate, and so on. Institutional interests, he believes, have outweighed their life-saving mission. Indeed, the response of the mainstream organizations to this book will be crucial and instructive. One hopes for a collaboration toward better, 21st-century “best practices.” Eyes on the prize, everyone—our behavior should not embarrass our pets.
The world owes much to those rare individuals who see things differently—and who then devote themselves to vindicating their maverick conclusions. Though Redemption is repetitive, may be over-harsh on no-kill’s detractors, and concentrates more on diagnosis than cure, it’s an important work. The shelter world has shielded most of the public from the grim realities of its operations, and has convinced the rest that change is possible only at the margins. This book is a clarion call to the burgeoning, pet-loving community—readers of The Bark, perhaps—to demand better from its shelters, and to participate in the soulful work of saving lives.
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The Penguin Press, 238 pp., March 2008; $25.95
This is a story of a life measured out in dogs. Today, Morie Sawataishi is 94, and when he looks back at the road he’s traveled, the signposts all look like Akitas.
Akitas are dogs of Japan’s snow country: long, heavy legs; tightly curled tails; great stamina; and a thick double coat heavy enough to protect them in all kinds of weather. These were the dogs who are thought to have come onto the main island of Japan with the first tribes of migratory hunters some 2,000 years ago, and who, for 300 years, were inspirations for Japan’s samurai class. The story of Hachi-ko—the Akita who, daily for nine years, met the four o’clock train at the Shibuya station, watching for his deceased master—is known by every schoolchild.
Yet, during World War II, the breed came close to being wiped out. The military paid dearly for heavy Akita pelts, which were used to line officers’ coats, and in those grim times, there was no shortage of sellers.
In Dog Man, Martha Sherrill describes how Sawataishi—a single-minded man with a fierce will—helped save the ancient Akita from almost certain extinction. To Sawataishi, the Akita wasn’t exotic; for him “it was simply the local dog, the regional dog, the breed he’d seen everywhere as a child growing up in snow country.” No one was more surprised than him when, in his 30s and newly returned from a stint in the Japanese navy, he was overcome with a desire for an Akita. By that time, there weren’t many around, and because food was scarce too, feeding a dog was a hard thing to do. But Sawataishi persevered, and one day, came home with an Akita puppy—to the immense dismay of his wife.
This wasn’t the first unconventional thing Sawataishi had done; within days of marrying a well-educated girl from Tokyo, he took her to the island’s far north to live near his family. She returned to Tokyo while he served his time in the navy, but when he completed his duty, back they went to snow country, where everything was not only colder, it was more difficult. Thirty years ago, when he decided to build a traditional cottage on slopes of Mount Kurikoma, everyone else in the family objected, and some thought he’d lost his mind. But build it he did. He didn’t want the things most of his countrymen craved: a golf membership, a fine home in Tokyo, an easy life. No, he wanted space, and quiet, and room for his dogs. And there, on the side of the mountain, he found them.
This is not only a story about a man and his dogs, it is also the story of a time in Japan that Americans heard little about. During World War II, it was hard for those in the U.S. to imagine that there were people in the island nation who didn’t want to kill them, people who were appalled by the military’s raging ambition. In Dog Man, we learn about some of these “other” Japanese and the hardships they endured as every resource their country could muster went to support the military. Who lived in fear of bombers overhead. Who, starving, were urged on to even greater sacrifices by their emperor. Under those circumstances, Sawataishi’s desire for a dog is both a snapshot of normalcy and emblematic of his independent and determined nature.
“In the old days of Japan, honoring the specific look or ‘breed’ was never part of the dog tradition. Spirit was the thing one hoped to keep alive.” Dog Man is a celebration of a man with spirit to spare, and of the dogs that marked and enriched his life.
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Harcourt, 398 pp., 2008; $15
There have been a slew of dog biographies and canine/human-memoirs published lately—many falling into the “can you believe that my dog actually did that” subgenre. Just see what the unbridled success of Marley & Me has spawned! Publishers are, at long last, understanding the power that dogs, and good dog stories, have to sell books. The other thing that some of these books have in common is that they have been written by journalists, who know how to spin engaging stories. John Grogan, whose newspaper column previewed his Marley stories, becomes a bestselling author by compiling his columns into a book about a big, lovable, but oh-so-naughty Lab. The prolific Jon Katz, whose first dog book, A Dog Year, came out 2002, has expanded his title empire by publishing nearly a book a year, and has become a self-styled gentleman farmer. Now, with the publication of Ted Kerasote’s Merle’s Door: Lessons from a Freethinking Dog, comes a much smarter and more compelling read, making it a welcome addition to the field.
Kerasote—author, journalist, outdoorsman and hunter—tells the story of his dog Merle, whom he found while on a kayaking trip in Utah. The large, red, amiable dog had apparently been living alone for some time, perhaps a reservation dog gone astray, before he met up with Kerasote and his fellow kayakers. The author interpreted the attention the dog directed to him to mean: “You need a dog, and I’m it.” Merle goes on to become the river trip’s mascot, which begins a 13-year journey of co-discovery for dog and man.
From the opening pages of Merle’s Door, it is apparent that it has been written from a perspective and in a style different from that of other recent dog books—more aligned in its naturalistic narrative to Rick Bass’s masterwork, Colter: The True Story of the Best Dog I Ever Had, than to Grogan’s Marley or to Bark’s own Lee Harrington Rex stories. Perhaps because Kerasote has well-honed skills as a nature and adventure writer (see his award-winning book, Out There: In the Wild in a Wired Age), he is able to examine in great detail his relationship with Merle by adroitly weaving canine natural history and behavioral studies in with his dog’s memoir. This is the major strength of the book. And luckily, he looks to the works of leading experts, including those familiar to Bark readers—Patricia McConnell, Mark Derr and Marc Bekoff—to inform the trajectory of his views.
As for Merle, he really is an extraordinary dog, one whose early taste of an independent life is only enhanced by teaming up with his “man.” This pairing is made easier when Kerasote stumbles upon the idea that what his dog most needs is a door of his own (hence the book’s subtitle). So, instead of Merle being reliant on Kerasote for basic aspects of life, including when to relieve himself, he can make those decisions himself. Since they live in Kelly, Wyo., a mostly fenceless and open environment, Merle is able to take full of advantage of his freedom and the trust that Kerasote has in him. As the author notes, “The activities he enjoyed were unstructured and self-motivated—he was able to undertake them, break them off, and resume them according to his own schedule.” To explore his world, to make his own choices—certainly a life that would be the envy of most dogs (and controversial to some dog lovers)!
The author has a firm grasp of what was important in his dog’s life and how important this relationship becomes to the life of the author himself. This book, with its “I am my own dog” hero, establishes a new benchmark in the memoir field. Merle’s Door is a compelling, insightful and tender story that opens new doors into the understanding of the nature of dogs.
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Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Good lessons in a kids’ book
Presentations to children about dog behavior and about how to act around dogs provide helpful safety lessons. The basic points I like to make when talking with kids are the things I wish that every child knew for the sake of safety. These include:
Recently, I covered these issues in my son’s first grade class with a combination of photos, discussion, an art activity in which the kids drew a good thing to do around a dog and a bad thing to do around a dog, and a book I read to them. The kids loved the book, which is Wendy Wahman’s Don’t Lick the Dog: Making Friends with Dogs, which is geared towards children ages four to eight.
The book covers many things about greeting dogs such as asking permission to pet a dog; being calm; moving slowly; not patting their heads but instead stroking them on the chin and chest; a few of the visual signals by dogs that indicate discomfort; advising children not to hug dogs or to get right in their faces; and letting dogs approach you rather than the other way around. The whimsical, upbeat drawings captivated the children. I love this book because of the great information in it and because kids like it, which means they are more likely to digest the important messages.
Have you seen this book or read it to children?
Culture: Stories & Lit
Bark talks with author Paul Griffin
What lessons do you hope teens take away from Stay with Me? In Stay with Me, Céce and Mack fall in love really fast. I hope kids who read the book realize that it’s okay to slow it down, to take a step back, to be at peace with the folks in their lives — family, friends, neighbors, even people they don’t like. I often talk about dogs when I’m working with kids. Dogs not only live in the moment, they embrace it, and I try to get my kids to do the same.
Mack spends a great deal of time working with dogs. What do you see as the benefits of this activity for young adults? A dog’s friendship is sacred. They don’t know how to violate it. They commit, deeply. We learn from themdevoting ourselves to somebody requires absolute trust. Caring for them well makes us feel we’re capable of bringing a little more happiness into the world.
Who is the hero of this book? Everybody is a hero to me, even the poor guy who does something so destructive he can’t help but hate himself afterward. More than anything, resilience inspires me — the veteran who comes home with PTSD, the prisoner trying to forgive himself, the alcoholic trying to be a good mother and the dog who can wag his tail anywhere. They all have one thing in commonthey choose to keep going; they choose to face the everyday. Once in a while, they might even choose to greet the rain with a smile. That’s pretty heroic stuff.
Stay with Me features several dogs named Boo. Was either Boo based on a dog in your life? Both Boos are combinations of several of my dogs. I currently have a zany Pit Bull, Ray (Liotta), who is very like the dog Mack trains in prison. He was a maniac when I pulled him from animal control, but anybody could see he had a heart of gold. I just built on that and today he’s a cupcake.
The first Boo (the one who’s killed) is based mostly on a very sad Foxhound I rescued when he was 12 or so. Al (Pacino) didn’t have a tooth in his head, and he was terrified, but a total sweetheart, so willing to love and be loved. That same Boo also has some of my little street mutt Bobby (DeNiro) in him—he lived to 19, healthy until the day before he died. He was amazingly resilient, like the failed fight dog Mack adopts.
Tell us about your work as a dog trainer. I’ve been dog-crazy for as long as I can remember. My grandfather was a firefighter with nine mouths to feed: Grandma and the five kids, and then three in-laws, all under the same roof. Deeps (my grandfather) was great with dogs. Back before we knew backyard breeding was not a good thing, Deeps bred and trained German Shepherds to supplement his income. Those Sheps were amazing. The more time you gave them, the more respect they gave you. Kids don’t always get a lot of respect, so I loved working with the Sheps. I felt great, giving them structure in their lives, and I loved what I got back, their absolute friendship. In my experience, every dog and every person is different, so I’m big on being flexible in the training. I use whatever works. If the dog is food-motivated, I get out the cheese and peanut butter. If not, then that guy’s going to be doing a bit of jogging with me and a ton of walking. I never raise my voice.
What do you see as the benefits of working dogs like Mack did? A dog’s friendship is sacred. They don’t know how to violate it. They commit, deeply. I learn from them: Devoting yourself to somebody requires absolute trust. Dogs are pure, and they make me want to be a better person. I don’t know many people who are unhappy when they’re working with dogs. They’ve taught me self-respect. I’m responsible for them, literally am the difference between life and death for them. Caring for them well makes me feel I’m capable of bringing a little more happiness into the world.
What was the basis for the Old Dogs, New Tricks program? Several summers ago I was doing some workshops with 16- to 18-year-old men at Rikers Island, NYC’s version of Alactraz. I’d heard that the police had a K-9 training facility on the island. I begged one of the staff to let me hang with the Sheps, but she reminded me I was there to work with the kids. There are so many amazing programs with rescue dogs, like Puppies Behind Bars, Patriot Paws and many others.
What was it about Mack that made Anthony want him to connect with his sister? My character Anthony doesn’t waste time focusing on problems—he’s too busy drinking in the hidden beauty in people. He sees the real Mack—the Mack even Mack can’t see. When Anthony watches Mack work with that wild knucklehead of a puppy in the beginning of the book, he sees a young man who wants to make the world a more peaceful place. Anthony knows Céce needs to find her way to peace, and helping her get there is going to be a challenge. On the surface, Céce and Mack seem to be an unlikely pair, but Anthony isn’t concerned with the surface. He digs deep, and in Mack he finds a heart of gold.
In the last 15 years, hundreds of dog-owner groups have risen up across America to defend their need to exercise their dogs off-leash. As a result, the number of dog parks nationwide has soared from two dozen 10 years ago to more than 1,600 today.
This is a significant achievement, given the lack of a national organization that could provide intellectual and financial support, writes Julie Walsh, associate professor of political science at American International College in Springfield, Mass., and the author of a groundbreaking book, Unleashed Fury: The Political Struggle for Dog-Friendly Parks (Purdue University Press).
But dog parks are not the whole story. The focus of Walsh’s well-written and well-researched book is the much tougher struggle to maintain access to parklands. This fight is important, writes Walsh, because dog parks alone cannot fulfill the rising need for off-leash space. Moreover, these multi-use areas — often, places in which dog owners have congregated for years — are responsible for building stable, diverse communities at a time when communal structures in America have broken down.
Given that the struggle for access to public parklands is essentially a political issue, Walsh’s background as a political scientist enables her to provide valuable insights into off-leash disputes. Like gun control, off-leash access to parklands is “a classic cross-cutting issue”: people will cross party lines to vote on it. That means that dog owners can potentially have “significant political clout,” while elected officials have a major incentive to contain the issue.
Walsh also uses her skills as a political scientist to innovate when analyzing off-leash disputes — the degree to which key democratic values such as popular sovereignty, civil liberties and equality are upheld. These values provide powerful standards to which government officials can and should be held. Moreover, the democratic framework Walsh has devised can provide a strong foundation for resolving these disputes.
Much of Walsh’s book is devoted to an analysis of off-leash disputes in three venues: Avon, Conn.; Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA), in and around San Francisco; and the city of San Francisco itself. Only the latter has done a reasonable job of upholding democratic values by incorporating the concerns of dog owners into its park policies, she asserts. In Avon, Conn., and at GGNRA, officials began the off-leash dispute with a final decision — they banned off-leash dog walking. In so doing, they gave off-leash opponents a significant advantage.
Government officials have done a good job of upholding democratic values in a number of other locations, including Portland, Seattle and New York City. It would have been valuable for Walsh to have delved further into these positive case studies, especially New York City’s successful 2006 defense of its off-leash-hours program. The policy, which allows dogs to be off-leash before 9 am and after 9 pm in parks citywide, is believed to have led to a decrease in dog-bite incidents and to have made the parks safer, according to NYC officials.
There are valuable lessons in the book. When it comes to politics, writes Walsh, “the importance of organization simply cannot be overstated.” Walsh counsels dog owners to organize permanent, local groups that can both protect their interests and negotiate with government entities. In so doing, they gain legitimacy for the activity itself, she notes.
Walsh also urges the creation of a national organization that could counter the resources of groups like the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society, which have fought dog owners’ interests at GGNRA and other areas, and help local groups in their early stages by sharing strategies and information.
When it comes to government involvement, Walsh counsels an equitable approach. Off-leash areas do not involve “ethically inviolable principles,” she writes, but rather, competing uses of recreational space. It is not government’s role to judge those preferences, but to firmly and consistently seek compromise among them.
By using democratic theory to analyze off-leash disputes, Walsh has written a groundbreaking book that should be read by anyone interested in off-leash issues. While definitely for people, if the book helps people resolve off-leash issues more democratically, many dogs will benefit, too.
Rowman & Littlefield, 312 pp., 2011; $34.95
Animals in need: with every new crisis in the animal community, the desire to bring about change can be overwhelming. But where does one start? Allie Phillips — author, attorney, advocate for animals and someone with an almost unbelievable ability to implement change on the ground — has written a highly useful guide to getting involved. Phillips begins with the basics of volunteer work, then quickly moves into more informative territory, including explanations of the essential language (e.g., do you support animal rights or animal welfare?), opportunities in public education, how to help feral cats, animal transport, lobbying, emergency preparedness and models of best practices around the country, among other issues. Phillips writes with confidence and conviction, and offers a steady hand to the hesitant advocate.
St. Martin's Griffin, 288 pp., 2011; $15.99
That seasoned trainer Jolanta Benal provides training guidance at once comprehensive and accessible makes this book useful. That she manages to be hilarious in the process makes it a keeper. The Complete Guide is well organized — readers can easily locate a specific cue or problem behavior, either through the table of contents or the index. Benal’s techniques, while not groundbreaking are sure-footed and handily summarized. Her explanations clear what otherwise might be stumbling blocks — common obstacles in human-dog communication or myths about dogs’ learning styles. This sourcebook is one more way to make training sessions a good time for everyone.
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