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.
Berkley Trade, 416 pp., 2011; $15.00
This is a heartwarming and engaging story about a young widow coming to terms with her loss with the help of her late husband’s dog, Minton. Walking their dog is the only thing that Juliet feels she must do — it gets her out of the house and quells her grieving. Then, with gentle prodding from her mom, she expands their forays and becomes a dog-walking service. This UK book seems destined to become a BBC production. It has all the right elements: the lovely Juliet, widow, dog walker and caterer; a charming Irish handyman who helps her transform her house (and her life); family members with compelling and amusing subplots; and a neighbor who was a rock legend in a previous life. And then there are the dogs! A dreamy winter read.
Mark Derr clearly knows dogs as well as anyone who’s writing about these amazing beings. His two previous books, A Dog’s History of America and Dog’s Best Friend, clearly, concisely and cautiously summarized our various relationships with our “best friends.”
Derr’s newest book, with the same admirable rigor and clarity, explains how dogs became dogs, a question of interest to numerous people, researchers and non-researchers alike. Derr writes authoritatively about what we know and what we don’t know about how the dog became the dog. He critically considers what we know about domestication, using the latest information from a wide range of disciplines, including biology (genetics, physiology, anatomy), anthropology, paleontology, psychology and sociology, and dispels myths based more in hubris and hype than in fact that have appeared in other books and essays.
Among his most important messages, Derr shows how shared sociability and curiosity drew wolves and humans together, resulting in a close and enduring relationship of cooperation and mutual utility. Each benefited from the relationship in different ways. He also rejects the notion that dogs are merely juvenilized wolves (neoteny).
After reviewing reams of available data, he goes on to conclude that there was no identifiable domestication event: “[R]ather, mutations were captured and passed on for reasons of utility or desire or amusement or lassitude in certain populations of dogwolves. It thus becomes more accurate in many ways to speak less about how the wolf became the dog and more of how the dog became the dog.”
Derr also realizes with humility that in the future, his ideas may have to be revised as we accumulate more information. But, given what we know now, this book is a superb summary, peppered with caution.
If you read one book on the evolution of dogs this should be it—a fact-filled volume that will make you want to learn more about the amazing animals who figure intimately in numerous aspects of our lives. I’m sure dogs would thank Mark Derr for writing his book, and we too should thank him for setting a confused record as straight as it can be, given what we now know and still have to learn.
Reviewed by Marc Bekoff, PhD
An accessible handbook for basic training techniques
We’re always pleased to bring useful finds to our readers, and our latest handy addition is The Dog Trainer’s Complete Guide to a Happy Well-behaved Pet by Jolanta Benal. This thorough guide breaks down basic techniques to resolve the most common problems, and makes the process fun for the new dog parent. With both a well-organized table of contents and a comprehensive index, this book gives readers easy access to the specific cue, problem behavior, game or name they seek. Benal explains her approach clearly and debunks a number of myths about dogs’ learning styles. The information boxes with items like “Dear Dog Trainer” Q&As or the Quick and Dirty Tips are handy little hits of dog knowledge.
Three books honor the human-animal bond
Some say it’s best to choose books that would make you look good if you were to die in the middle of reading them. And while The Dog, The Call and Unsaid all qualify as such books, they also, each in their way, pull off something far more subtle and significant: these three novels gently ask whether you will feel good should you die in the middle of them. Specifically, have you done all you could? Were you a good parent, guardian, partner, husband, wife? Did you, to your end, show compassion and courage?
Kerstin Ekman’s The Dog, a mild, poetic parable about the primal will to survive, ventures sotto voce where our imaginations tend to halt and falter: what happens when a tiny puppy follows his mother into the tall pines and then gets lost? As harrowing as the account is to read, Ekman’s intimate, omniscient narration never leaves the reader bereft. On the contrary, the story arcs ever upward, kindling a warm appreciation for the heroism involved in mere survival. And as restrained as the tone remains throughout, the dog at the story’s center grows fierce before our eyes, and returns, slowly, cautiously, to harmony with a hunter, a spiritual symbiosis that never could have happened had the pup stayed closer to the hearth.
Like Ekman’s dog, the hunter at the heart of Yannick Murphy’s inventive fourth novel, The Call, experiences familial loss—he must carry on with his professional routine despite having watched his only son slip into a coma after a tragic hunting accident. Told with wry wit and unabashed anger, the story unfolds through the rural veterinarian’s call notes. Despite their formal repetition, these records shift like the sea, revealing the imperceptible adjustments made by his family as they cope—day in, day out—with their suffering.
While Ekman sparsely populates her animal’s kingdom with humans on its fringe and Murphy stations her humans at the forest’s brink, Neil Abramson’s work intermingles humans with other animals, dissolving the boundaries between; indeed, Unsaid goes so far as to question the very legitimacy of these distinctions. A masterful novel wrought with exceptional sensitivity and intelligence, Unsaid is narrated from the afterlife by Helena, a veterinarian who clings to those she left behind: her devastated widower, David; her menagerie of heartbroken pets; her colleagues and friends. David is determined to retain the structure of their former life, but the more he learns about the narrative’s shining gem, Cindy, the more things change. Cindy, a chimpanzee Helena worked with, has a level of intelligence that could expand the frontiers of communication and consciousness and a passion that reorients the lives of every last person the author introduces. Abramson deftly draws characters whose interactions represent real issues central to animal rights—dignity, quality of life and human accountability among them. Unsaid reverberates with legal and ethical relevance well beyond the emotional close of this exciting debut novel.
What all three of these writers share is an understanding that the inevitable last stop on a journey of devotion, whether to one another or to our animals, is grief. And that’s one miserable reality. So it is a welcome testament to the redemptive power of literature that Ekman, Murphy and Abramson manage to allow us, despite the desperate sadness they fearlessly portray, to feel the comfort and tenderness of our shared transience so exquisitely.
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