Dog's Life: Lifestyle
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Veterinarian Jeff Wells has written a new book called All My Patients Have Tales about his adventures and misadventures as a mixed-practice vet. The vignettes about the lessons he has learned provide insights into what it takes to become an experienced vet. The highly amusing adventure of him chasing a client’s feral cat around his office and receiving multiple injuries in the process will ring true to anyone who has ever dealt with a feline escapee. It will also draw understanding from anyone who has ever had on-the-job training. Having to deal with a traveling circus requiring blood tests for its animals, he provides the zinger, “At no time during veterinary school had anyone mentioned how to go about finding a vein on an elephant.” From dealing with porcupine quills in a horse’s leg to a bizarre blockage in a puppy’s intestines, Wells’ love for animals is the link that ties these stories together. I’m excited about this book and equally excited about sharing it with others. Published about three weeks ago, it is on its way to making a big splash in the animal world. Wells has been inspired by the writings of both James Herriot and Garrison Keillor. The charm and humor that made these authors so popular also appear in All My Patients Have Tales. When I asked Jeff Wells what he thought of comparisons to the legendary James Herriot, he laughed and replied, “I’ll take that any day of the week.”
For six years, they shared a 25-acre enclosure at the base of Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains with a pack of gray wolves. Their office was a Mongolian yurt; their sleeping quarters, a canvas tent. In the winter, the path to the outhouse required frequent shoveling to clear the snow away. This was the life of Jim and Jamie Dutcher, awardwinning documentary filmmakers. Their book, The Hidden Life of Wolves, is the culmination of this unique experience.
Although the book is oversized and contains hundreds of the Dutchers’ compelling photographs (as well as beautifully rendered maps and illustrations), it is not a skimmable coffee-table tome. An extensive study of wolves both inside and outside of the enclosure, it is comparable in depth to Barry Lopez’s Of Wolves and Men.
The Hidden Life of Wolves details their social structure, hunting techniques and body language (among other things) as well as human-influenced issues, including the Yellowstone and central Idaho wolf reintroductions of the mid ’90s. The Dutchers explore similarities between the eradication of wolves in the 1800s and the current explosion of wolf hunting and trapping, which became legal when wolves were dropped from the Endangered Species List in 2011. Solutions to wolf problems, including livestock depredation, are discussed, and the “Little Red Riding Hood” myth is thoroughly debunked. The Dutchers also incorporate insights from a number of respected authorities, including Aldo Leopold, Gordon Haber, L. David Mech and Carter Niemeyer.
Acknowledging the vast disparity of opinion on Canis lupus, the Dutchers suggest that the wolf “may be the greatest shape-shifter in the animal kingdom.” Through intensive observation of their hand-raised pack, which they assembled from rescue centers in Montana and Minnesota, the Dutchers gained intimate knowledge of the inner workings of wolves. They came to the conclusion that their extremely social and complex subjects were “neither demon, nor deity, nor data.”
Readers come to know the Sawtooth wolves. Kamots, the benevolent leader, maintains order without undue force. Littermate Lakota is larger than Kamots, yet remains at the bottom of the pecking order, often harassed by the others; younger brother Matsi comes to his rescue, blocking blows from the aggressors. Clever Wyakin, a small female, loves to snatch extra food and cache it for later.
These individuals and other members of the pack are brought to life as they interact with one another and with the Dutchers, who record them with cameras and sound devices. Though their hearts are never quite out of the picture, the couple observes at a distance that allows for an objective view.
With a foreword by Robert Redford, The Hidden Life of Wolves is a richly layered work that speaks to the complicated and controversial place wolves occupy in the human imagination. While some consider them embodiments of a litany of evils, the Dutchers maintain that “more than wolves themselves, it is our relationship with them that needs to be managed.” Their aptly titled book provides a valuable roadmap to guide us through this process.
Neil Abramson’s engaging debut novel has everyone talking. Narrated from the afterlife by Helena, a veterinarian who clings to the creatures she left behind—including her devastated widower David, her menagerie of heartbroken pets, her colleagues and friends—Unsaid places the lives and love of animals at the story’s center. As David struggles to restructure his personal life without his wife in the picture, he finds his professional life as an attorney pulling him into realms of Helena’s world that he didn’t even know existed. Stepping outside of his own grief, he is asked to take up the cause of Cindy—a chimpanzee Helena worked with whose intelligence promises to expand the frontiers of communication and consciousness and whose passion reorients the lives of every last person Abramson introduces. Abramson deftly draws characters whose interactions represent the real, current matters central to animal rights—dignity, quality of life and human accountability among them. As an animal lover, the husband of a veterinarian and an attorney himself whose pro bono work centers on the rights of animals, Abramson brings a deep appreciation for the subtleties of animal personality. He talked with us shortly following the release of Unsaid.
The Bark: When writing Unsaid, did you think about characterization for the animals in the same way as you did for the human characters?
Neil Abramson: Actually, because the central animals in the story were based on real life animals with whom I have been privileged to share my life, they came to the novel almost fully formed. The reality is that they are as complex in personality as the humans who love them (at least in my house).
Could you tell us a little bit about these animals and what made them special to you?
When I hear this question, my thoughts turn to Skippy. Skippy is one of the animals in the novel—a dog with a heart defect. But Skippy was a real dog—a small, black bundle of fur with a wise and handsome, fox-like face. Skippy had been born with a badly malformed heart. He showed up at my wife’s veterinary practice one day and she operated on Skippy, but she couldn’t fix him. She could only give him some additional time. We believed that Skippy likely would be dead within the year. No one wants a dog with that kind of life span, so he came home to us. That turned out to be a very good day.
We were blessed to have Skippy in our lives for three years. He used his time well—unafraid, present, loving, funny, loyal. He was a small dog, but he didn’t live a small life. Skippy died right in my arms. I depressed the syringe that released the pink fluid that finally put his heart at rest. I needed to do that for him. I wanted to spare my wife the burden of one more soul. When it was over, I was surprised at the depth of the loss I felt. The only way I can explain it is to tell you that something deep within me shifted. I realized I was so grateful for every minute with Skippy and wouldn’t have traded the time with him for anything in the world, even though that time ended too soon. Then I understood that this was Skippy’s last gift to me. By taking his life, I learned from him how important the act of living really is.
What’s your response to critics who claim our recognition of the emotional presence of dogs like Skippy, their sensitivity and sentience, are example of anthropomorphization on our part?
First, I tell them ‘so what.’ I think much of the fear of anthropomophism is BS. I am a human being, right? So is it any surprise that I will attribute human characteristics to those animals I value and share my life with? A chimpanzee is not a human—never was and will never evolve into one, but that doesn't mean that my feelings for him or her should be limited by that fact.
Second, I tell them they are wrong as a matter of science. I am not a scientist, but I did a great deal of research for the book and also had a wonderful science advisor. We have finally gotten to the point where the science has caught up with what we have always really known—the overwhelming majority of animals, and certainly the close primates, have many of the characteristics that we so jealously guard as ‘human.’ Of course there are differences, but do those differences justify the profound, destructive disparities in the way the law treats humans and animals? No way.
Let’s talk about those disparities. In legal terms today, are animals subject to animal testing still seen no differently than inanimate objects? Any developments on the horizon that might offer hope of change? What can concerned people do to help bring about change?
Lots of different questions here. The short answer is that in many areas, and particularly when it comes to the ability to be free from bodily injury, the law treats nonhuman testing subjects very much like inanimate objects. Those animals are just ‘things’ and have absolutely no personal rights of autonomy. The welfare of those animals may be regulated in many respects—cage size, clean and sufficient food and water—but that is a far cry from recognizing that those animals have rights as animals (not as ‘almost humans’) to be free from unnecessary injury and harm.
Is there hope for change? Yes, there is. There are a number of wonderful organizations that are working to change the law so that chimpanzees and bonobos, for example, will one day be recognized as having certain basic legal rights, like the right to be free from intentional harm. In addition to supporting those organizations, people can help by raising awareness of the issue through social media. The law will change when people insist that it is time for change.
McConnell Publishing, Ltd., 96 pp., 2011; $9.95
Volunteer long enough with shelter dogs and you develop a long list of their needs — each as essential as the last — that you absolutely must share with adoptive parents as they walk out the door with one of “your” pups. She loves belly rubs! Oh, he’s a bit scared of men, especially men wearing hats. Watch her with the cats; remember that when her prey drive kicks in, she may lose her manners. They’re common enough concerns, but we can’t squeeze them all in, let alone talk about how to work with these issues.
Love Has No Age Limit: Welcoming an Adopted Dog into Your Home by renowned animal behaviorists Patricia McConnell, PhD, and Karen London, PhD, is the next best thing to following the dog home (and a whole lot more articulate). This slim book from two powerhouse experts covers all the basics of adopting an adolescent or adult dog, preparing you for success when bringing the new family member into any kind of home — even one with kids, cats or other dogs.
Given that adopted dogs have their own unique histories, half of the book is dedicated to very brief considerations of the most common behavioral problems, which include house-training, fear of strangers and resource guarding. From its smart tips for dog-proofing in advance and the car trip home to sound advice on bonding, training and establishing daily routines, Love Has No Age Limit is a gift, one that will help everyone successfully weather the first month’s experiences. It would be an ideal addition to take-home packets supplied by shelters, rescues and breeders. Assuming you won’t let a volunteer tag along, that is.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Severn House Publishers, 224pp., 2011; $28.95
It’s been way too long since the last Holly Winter mystery hit the shelves — 2007, to be precise, when All Shots was released. But finally, oh finally, our patience is rewarded with the 19th in the series: Brute Strength.
Fights, frights and mysteries break out at every turn in this new book. Amazingly, none of them are of the canine variety. Rather, Holly’s family and friends are the ones doing the scrapping. Turning down adoption applicants for her local Alaskan Malamute rescue group doesn’t win Holly any points, either. The big story, however, is the way catastrophe seems to surround a new neighbor, a woman with a gorgeous and slightly overweight Malamute female, the latter of whom has her almond-shaped eyes on Sammy, Holly’s young Mal.
Add references to Jane Austen, clueless (and careless) breeders, and observations on real-life training techniques and the scientific investigation of dog cognition and you have a literary meal dense and rich enough for the hungriest Malamute. Speaking of which … Over the years, I’ve learned as much about the behavior of northern breeds by reading this series as I have from much more serious works. At least once, and usually more often, I find myself smiling in recognition as Conant describes a typical behavior — in this case, the mealtime feeding frenzy, which Holly chooses not to train her dogs out of: “I have seen sick and dying dogs become indifferent to food and refuse it altogether. These raucous displays of appetite are confirmations of health, and I revel in every leap and every shriek.” To which I say amen.
As she frequently does, Conant keeps multiple story lines going, wrapping them up tidily at the end, albeit with a major scare as part of the conclusion. Now, when’s the 20th Holly Winter mystery coming out?
Skyhorse Publishing, 240 pp., 2009; $14.95
Randy Grim, founder of Stray Rescue of St. Louis (strayrescue.org), started his canine-focused career by driving around East St. Louis every morning before work, searching for feral dogs and spending weeks taming them. From those early years came an acclaimed book, The Man Who Talks to Dogs, coauthored with writer Melinda Roth.
Now Grim and Roth have collaborated on another book—one that sent them into gales of laughter every time they sat down to write. It’s called Don’t Dump the Dog, and it’s Grim’s answer to every lamebrained excuse he’s ever heard from people returning dogs to his shelter.
He wrote it to convince his therapist he wasn’t the crazy one.
Every week at therapy, Grim would throw himself on the couch and rail against human idiocy. For the dogs, he had nothing but sympathy. But for the woman who wanted to dump her dog because her boyfriend didn’t like him? Or the one who wanted to trade her senior dog for a puppy because he was getting gray around the muzzle and bumping into things? Or the guy who wanted to exchange a high-energy dog for a couch potato who’d watch TV? Only exasperated fury.
Some of Grim’s answers need no more than a line: “Dump the boyfriend.” But between these “Quick Fixes,” he inserts hysterically funny chapters laced with the most practical dog-behavior advice around. His favorite trick is teaching a dog to relax; his favorite training tool is hot dogs.He’s endearingly neurotic himself (he’ll let dog throw-up sit for days because he has “avoidance issues,” and he resorts to vodka or Xanax as needed).As a result, the book’s never preachy—but it’s immensely instructive.Grim’s expertise with ferals yields solutions for abused, timid, aggressive or hyper dogs.
What he can’t solve are the people. People return dogs because they bark— “Did they expect them to sing Handel’s ‘Hallelujah’ chorus at the door?” They return dogs because they’re moving, or having a baby—“That, I just don’t get at all.” He says he left out some of the best—like the guy who complained that the dog was lazy, or the woman with white furniture who wanted to exchange a white puppy because his fur darkened in adulthood.
He was afraid nobody would believe him.
St. Martin’s Press; $24.99
Adding to the long (and growing) list of dog-related memoirs, Steve Duno’s Last Dog on the Hill: The Extraordinary Life of Lou tells the story of a dog who truly is extraordinary. Lou saves the lives of people and dogs, takes down criminals, and has a profound impact on just about every creature with whom he comes in contact.
Fate, if one believes in such things, plays a central role in Last Dog on the Hill, beginning with Duno’s first glimpse of Lou, his mother and littermates scurrying up a hill beside a northern California highway. Duno and his girlfriend stop the car and get out for a better look at the pups. Duno whistles, “just to see what would happen.” All of the dogs continue into the tree line at the top of the hill … except for one: “the last dog on the hill,” who, though feral, “made a mad downhill dash toward us, as if recognizing someone.”
When Duno hesitantly allowed the flea- and tick-infested, six-month-old Rottweiler/German Shepherd mix into his car, it marked the beginning of a nearly 16-year friendship. It was a friendship that would change the lives of both man and dog in more ways than Duno could have imagined were possible, perhaps most significantly by inspiring Duno to become a dog trainer and an author of pet care and training manuals. And while some of Duno’s ideas about dog training and “dominance theory” (barely noticeable in this book, but evident in some of his others) are outdated, his relationship with Lou is clearly based on love and trust, and is immensely rewarding for both of them, as well as those around them.
It’s easy to anthropomorphize when writing about dogs, and Duno does. But Lou, with his keen ability to sniff out bad guys and assist in the rehabilitation of fearful and aggressive dogs, provides a persuasive argument for anthropomorphizing, and doing so doesn’t affect the strength of Duno’s prose, which is engaging and even lyrical at times: “The essential crime committed against all dog owners is born of the love we hold for them, which, like the love of a child, runs deep. No parent should have to bury a child, they say, but that is what we dog owners must do, not once but time after time, throughout our lives. While we remain unchangeable to their sweet eyes, they run from birth to the grave in an instant of our own measure.”
Lou, not unlike Ted Kerasote’s Merle, is a once-in-a-lifetime dog who teaches even more than he learns, gives far more than he takes. Duno, in a fitting tribute to his best friend, offers Lou’s story to us, and we are better for it. As Duno puts it, “Lou set me straight. He gave me these words. He wrote this story.”
When Julie Klam was 30 years old, single and living in a tiny New York City studio apartment, she rescued a Boston Terrier and named him Otto. Initially described to her as a dog who just needed a little love—evoking images of “the dog version of the Charlie Brown Christmas Tree”—Otto helped Klam grow up, figure herself out and embrace responsibility.
In what the author refers to as her “dogoir,” Klam recounts, in charming, heartfelt and often seriously funny detail, her experiences with Otto, her subsequent Boston, Beatrice (adopted when Klam was married and very pregnant) and the many dogs she’s fostered through her work with Boston Terrier rescue. Structuring the book into specific, light-hearted life lessons (How to Listen to that Small, Still Voice; How to Keep the Yin from Strangling the Yang), Klam explores, in a unique and never preachy way, an important truth about the enormous amount of love dogs can bring into people’s lives if they are given a chance. “I began to understand that ‘dog’ was its own category of ‘love,’” Klam writes. “Sometimes you just need to hold and kiss a member of the dog species. Even when humans are available.”
Klam also discovered that sometimes people don’t get the dog they want, but they get the dog they need. For dog lovers, this book is both what they want and what they need. Klam’s writing has such a warm, friendly and engaging quality that it’s as if your best friend is telling you wonderful stories about her dogs. You Had Me at Woof is a book that, upon completion, makes you think about sending the author pictures of all your own dogs and asking her many questions.
Villard, 320 pp., 2008; $24
It's always "beer-thirty" for Gill, the underemployed commitment-phobe at the center of Merrill Markoe’s new novel, Nose Down, Eyes Up. Launched by his own stunning lack of maturity and a dog-ona- mission named Jimmy, Gil ricochets through a tidy plot that has him bouncing like a pinball between his longtime girlfriend Sara, a well-meaning animal communicator, and his ex-wife Eden, “a sexual idiot savant”—with an entertaining rebound into the heart of his dysfunctional family in Sedona.
This is classic Markoe terrain and a perfect bookend to Walking in Circles Before Lying Down (Villard, 2006). As in her previous novel, this anti-hero can talk to dogs, and one of the wickedest consequences of his talent is how it throws into relief Sara’s abilities.When a Chihuahua named Cecile “tells” Sara she’s not eating because of emotional issues, Gil hears that the new holistic dog food tastes like soap.
Most voluble among the dogs is Jimmy, whom Gil raised from puppyhood. The square-headed black dog with wavy fur, something of a canine motivational speaker, offers advice for securing walks, treats and bed privileges.“Memorize this phrase: ‘Drop nose, raise eyes.’ It’s the cornerstone of my teachings,” Jimmy tells the neighborhood hounds.
But Jimmy’s confidence in the way things work is shaken when he discovers Gil is not his biological dad. Clearly rattled, he explains, “I figured I was in a transitional phase, like a caterpillar larva. That one day I’d wake up, lose a lot of this hair, and start walking on my hind legs. Maybe get a set of keys and learn to drive.” Being told he’s property —“Like a lawn mower or a vacuum cleaner? Like a slave?”—doesn’t improve the situation.
When Jimmy reconnects with his actual DNA, dog and man are forced to redefine the true meaning of family, especially the reconstituted kind wherein dogs play a central role. In the wrong hands, this could have been saccharine territory, but not with Markoe, who slathers her warm fuzzy insights in a funny, tart sauce.
How the New Science of Dog Behavior Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet
Dogs and wolves may have more than 99 percent of their DNA in common, but when it comes to understanding dogs, John Bradshaw says it does them an injustice to look to wolves as models. Not only did domestication have a profound impact, but also, many early wolf studies were carried out on groups of unrelated animals forced together in artificial environments, which resulted in behaviors not exhibited by wild-living wolves.
Using this model has led to what he calls “one of the most pervasive—and pernicious—ideas informing modern dog-training techniques”: that dogs are driven to set up dominance hierarchies. This has real consequences for their well-being. Bradshaw suggests that many of the behavior problems that result in dogs being abandoned or euthanized can be laid at the door of inept training, especially training based on force.
What matters, he says, is how dogs actually learn. Bradshaw, director of the Anthrozoology Institute at the University of Bristol, provides a wellgrounded overview of the Canis family’s evolutionary journey. He also considers dogs’ brainpower, emotional states, sensory capacities and problems that come with breeding for looks rather than temperament.
The point of all this science is to lay the foundation for his central thesis: “If owners were able to appreciate their dogs’ intelligence and emotional life for what it actually is, rather than for what they imagine it to be, then dogs would not just be better understood—they’d be better treated as well.” Ultimately, this is what makes the book so appealing. He does more than simply lay out interesting theories; he uses science to advocate for a better life for companion dogs.
Listen to John Bradshaw's interwiew with Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air.
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