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.
Two new books reveal worlds expanded by dogs
Last year, more dog-centric books were published than at any time in history, it seems. One in particular stood out, earning high praise both from us and many other reviewers: Gail Caldwell’s masterful Let’s Take the Long Way Home. Like many of the current books, it’s a memoir, but unlike most of them, it’s not really about dogs, but rather about a friendship in which a shared love for dogs played a central part.
Taking a similar nonlinear approach, two more books, Dog Walks Man (Lyons Press, $22.95) and A Small Furry Prayer (Bloomsbury, $24), deserve your attention. What do these two have in common? They are both experiential stories of how dogs enlightened and enhanced the authors’ perceptions of themselves and the natural world.
In Dog Walks Man, art critic John Zeaman scours his New Jersey neighborhood to find ideal areas to walk with his Standard Poodles (Pete and later, Luke). From mundane around-the-block trudges to expeditions into the urban jungle of the Meadowlands, the author seeks a life that “consists of wildness,” and the dogs are perfect partners in discovering it. When he felt like dogwalking was becoming a chore, an oftrepeated Groundhog Day-like scene, Zeaman simply found more varied and interesting spots to take the dogs—the “fringe,” as Thoreau called these nature nooks.
Similar to the prophet of Walden, Zeaman’s slow-paced musings—on art, natural history or his dogs’ social graces—have a calming, meditative quality to them. There are also many humorous “aha” reflections that make a reader feel that she has much in common with the author. For example, he considers what he calls “dog-walking marriages”—a relationship with another dog-walker whose dog gets along with yours, whose schedule matches your own and with whom it can seem that you spend more time than you do with your “at home” partner.
If Dog Walks Man is contemplative and mellow, Steven Kotler’s A Small Furry Prayer is a book about questioning and questing. Subtitled “Dog Rescue and the Meaning of Life,” it takes place in r ural n orthern N ew M exico—a region where “there weren’t too many normal people around.” Which made it a perfect place for the author and his wife to start their dog sanctuary, Rancho de Chihuahua (ranchodechihuahua.org)—home to not very “normal” dogs: special-needs dogs who are too old or too frail or simply too “compromised” to be easily adopted.
Kotler comes to dog rescue fearing that he will feel too much—even refusing to accompany his wife into shelters—but he soon realizes that a dog sanctuary has a way of forcing the issues of empathy and altruism onto its inhabitants (of both species). As for the meaning of life, Kotler does a stellar job of exploring it through the meaning of the human-canine bond, delving into the works of scientists, philosophers and psychologists.
Even better are his observations of the interactions among the sanctuary’s free-range dogs, all of whom are fully realized characters in this story. He gleefully throws himself into being part of the pack, taking the big dogs and the many Chihuahuas on forays into the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, where both dogs and humans experience a “flow state,” defined as “a joyous and complete merger of action and awareness.” Being totally involved in the now, time flies and the ego melts away—a feeling you’ll surely share when reading Kotler’s delightful and insightful book.
Scribner, 368 pp., 2009; $26
If we want to get inside of a dog’s mind, to know how it feels to be that dog, then we must first understand how he sees his subjective universe, or “umvelt.” This is the premise of Alexandra Horowitz’s nearly flawless book, Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell and Know.
Groucho Marx once quipped,“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.” Horowitz turns on the light, climbs inside and shows us what goes on inside of a dog. She teases apart our anthropomorphic notion that dogs are like us. Then, basing her narrative on an exhaustive list of canine studies (she cites 185 references), she reconstructs the dog, piece by piece. For example, she writes, “To understand the dog umwelt, then, we must think of objects, people, emotions— even times of day—as having distinctive odors.” Horowitz adds that because dogs “see” smells, they must remember in smells as well. “When we imagine dogs’ dreaming and daydreaming, we should envisage dream images made of scents.” They are not chasing bunnies; they are chasing bunny odor.
Writing about science in a vernacular to which non-scientists can relate is tricky. Too erudite and you lose your regular folks. Too folksy and the science loses its application. Horowitz takes the middle road. Using her “dog-person” voice, she focuses on what the research means rather than the technical intricacies of its methodology. References are in the back of the book according to chapter and include empirical research, observational studies, books and personal conversations.
A psychologist with a PhD in cognitive science,Horowitz touches on smell, vocalization, vision, play, sense of self, cognition and the interaction between dogs and people. She’s organized the book based on a dog’s point of view. For instance, the chapter about olfaction is titled “Sniff” and includes sections such as You showed fear and Leaves and grass.
Horowitz enhances her already detailed description of canine knowing with poetic accounts of the relationship she has with her own dog, Pumpernickel. In the chapter about olfaction, she writes, “Since I’ve begun to appreciate Pump’s smelly world, I sometimes take her out just to sit and sniff.We have smell-walks, stopping at every landmark along our route in which she shows an interest.”
If you’re just looking for answers to some timeless canine questions, you’ll find them here, too. Why is a dog’s nose wet? To catch odor molecules. Why does a dog scratch the ground after he defecates? To spread the odor. Do dogs know what size they are? Yes. Do dogs laugh? Maybe. Do dogs “pack”with their human family? Not really—as she writes, “We and our dogs come closer to being a benign gang than a pack.”
If you think you know your dog, think again. Horowitz peels away the layers of pre-conceived notions and gets to the core of canine-ness to reveal that Canis familiaris is anything but familiar.
Jeremy P. Tarcher; $23.95
Anyone who lives with and loves dogs knows there’s no better way to unwind from a hard day or combat life’s large and small setbacks than with a canine cuddle session. Dogs pick up on our emotions and, in their own ways, offer solace and diversion.
This ability, which we value so highly in the ordinary circumstances of our daily lives, is of even more significance during extraordinary times and in difficult circumstances. Rachel McPherson, founder and executive director of The Good Dog Foundation (and one of Bark’s 100 Best & Brightest), is intimately acquainted with the valuable work dogs do — helping children with autism; comforting the sick, the lonely and the traumatized; and providing assistance for those with physical challenges. In Every Dog Has a Gift, McPherson not only shares insights from her own experiences, she also collects the stories of others who have been helped and healed by dogs.
Before creating the foundation, McPherson was a film and television producer well-known for her documentaries. In fact, it was while producing a documentary on therapy dogs that she fell in love with her subject — and the rest, as they say, is history (read more at thegooddogfoundation.org).
The stories in this book will touch your heart, inspire you and make you smile in recognition of all the ways dogs save and heal us. For many of the troubles that ail us, “dog medicine” is the best medicine of all, and in this book, you’ll meet some terrific practitioners.
Dog's Life: Humane
A once-shy shelter dog stars in her own short film
When Lisa Marinaccio visited a shelter near her home in Los Angeles, she didn't feel an immediate connection with any of the dogs. That is, until she reached the last crate and locked eyes with Charlotte. Even though Charlotte was hiding in the corner of the crate—and even though the shelter volunteer warned her that Charlotte had been severely abused—Marinaccio knew she was the dog for her.
Charlotte was as fearful as the volunteer had warned, hiding under Marinaccio's bed for the first two weeks of their cohabitation. But through “baby steps,” Marinaccio brought Charlotte out of her shell (and out of the bedroom) and taught her to trust again. Nine years later, Charlotte is a sweet and loving companion—who has shown off some serious acting chops! Marinaccio wrote and directed “A Dog's Day Afternoon,” about a dog who lives a rich secret life while her owner is away at work. Watch the entire short film below and see what a wonderful actress this Rescue Wonder Dog is.
Harper, 336 pp., 2008; $23.95
I must admit that when a review copy of the novel The Art of Racing in the Rain arrived on my desk, I wasn’t optimistic.
Strike one, it is not only written in a dog’s voice, but the dog narrates the story in retrospect as he nears death. Other than in the hands of a master storyteller—Paul Auster in his compelling novel Timbuktu, or E.B.White in the enchanting Charlotte’s Web—such a species-overreaching device is prone to cloying pitfalls.
Strike two, the narrator-dog Enzo’s human companion, Denny, is a race car driver, so the racing theme—as suggested by the title—is not only an important metaphor, but also drives much of the book’s plot.Watching or reading about racing has never held any interest for me.
As it turns out, there was no strike three. In this third book by Garth Stein, a Seattle author, playwright and filmmaker, these seemingly disparate elements are so masterfully worked and blended that it didn’t take long to fully engage me, the very skeptical reader, in his dramatic story.
The book begins with the very old Enzo reflecting on the twists and turns of his life and that of his beloved human, Denny Swift.Adopted by Denny from a farmer who claimed that his female Lab had accidentally mated with a Poodle, the prescient and plucky Enzo contends that his father was a Terrier because, as he says,“Terriers are problem-solvers.” This lineage distinction plays out throughout the book.
Soon after getting Enzo, Denny falls in love with Eve. They marry and have a child, Zoë, who’s born the day Enzo turns two and Denny is away racing in Daytona. Except for the loneliness that Enzo feels because Denny is spending more time pursuing his racing career, everything goes well for the young family in their early years. Enzo occupies himself by spending an inordinate amount of time watching TV and videos of memorable races (something he learned to do as a pup sitting on the sofa alongside Denny), as well as composing koanlike aphorisms, making doggish observations and bemoaning his lack of opposable thumbs and his inability to speak.
But when they come, downturns happen in quick succession. Eve becomes very ill and moves in with her protective parents, taking the child with her. Then Eve dies, and a battle ensues between Denny and his in-laws for custody of little Zoë.Through the ensuing tumultuous time, it is Enzo who remains Denny’s steadfast friend, and an honest witness to wrongs perpetrated against Denny.He also fulfills his promise to Eve to protect Zoë and watch over Denny.
The storyline occasionally borders on the incredulous and melodramatic, and there were times I wanted to put the book down because I felt that the drama just went over the top—could anyone possibly have as much bad luck as this Denny? Yet there was something so appealing and inviting about the voice of the scrappy, likeable and, yes, very believable Enzo that I read on.
By the book’s end, Enzo is dying, but he firmly believes that his dog-time on earth only means that in his next life he will be reborn as a human—a feat dear to his tenacious Terrier heart. This reader came away not only with a newfound respect for race car drivers and the mettle it takes to master the “art of racing in the rain,” but for Garth Stein’s ability to spin a compelling, entertaining and transporting story.
Free Press; $16.99
Feed Your Pet Right is an invaluable overview of the invention, production, distribution, marketing and regulation of pet food. This handy paperback covers everything from the “big picture” (nutritional standards, labeling lingo and industry structure) to consumer tips (for example, on the label, every ingredient listed after salt is negligible in amount). Food, supplements, treats, chews and snacks are all addressed.
At a time when the debate over canine diets — raw, grain-free, home-cooked, vegetarian, organic — has reached a frenzy, Nestle and Nesheim bring a calming tone to the subject. Leaving ideology behind, they clear a path through the jungle of dog food choices. Nestle, an NYU professor of nutrition, food studies and public health, and Nesheim, a Cornell professor emeritus of nutritional sciences, are academics active in food politics. At its best, their book is groundbreaking, as in the chapter on conflicts of interest in the cozy and unquestioned relationship between pet food manufacturers and veterinary schools/veterinarians. Veterinary school curricula generally do not cover nutrition. Pet food companies happily fill this gap by providing free courses, textbooks, lab equipment and industry internships. Small wonder that many veterinarians sell food made by the very companies that taught them pet nutrition.
Also noteworthy is the chapter examining the ethics of pet food research. According to the authors, impartial scientists do not conduct such research; it is done exclusively by pet food companies and carefully designed to prove that their products are beneficial. Industry studies analyzed by the authors were further weakened by specific protocol failures, including inadequate subject pools and sloppy control groups. Moreover, industry research is characterized by secrecy. Contrary to good science, these studies cannot be reproduced by an independent third party.
Certain “Conclusions” by the authors are provocative, particularly that “Commercial Pet Foods Are Pretty Much Alike, Nutritionally Speaking” and “By-Products Are By-Products, and Not Necessarily Bad.” Can a kibble made with agricultural-grade grain and unspecified animal by-products really be as nutritious as one containing a named organic protein and vegetables? And why does the book give such short shrift to both the benefits and drawbacks of raw feeding?
In addition, their analysis of homecooked and raw diets underrates the benefits of whole foods for dogs and of controlling the contents of your pet’s food. This is particularly surprising given Nestle’s emphasis on whole foods for people in What to Eat and her alarm over the lack of quality control in the pet food industry in Pet Food Politics. In Feed Your Pet Right, most kibbles are deemed equivalent and as good as homemade food. But how can extruded, rendered, non-humangrade sources provide the same quality as whole, fresh foods meeting USDA “people food” — or, even better, organic — standards?
Notwithstanding these concerns, the authors’ assertion that “balance, variety and moderation work for pet food as well as for human food” is a welcome and commonsensical conclusion. The underlying message is a Canine Golden Rule: do for your dog as you would do for yourself. Every dog person will learn something from this must-read book.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; $26
In a dog book, I look for great information, a wonderful story about the relationship between humans and dogs, and anecdotes that are funny, insightful and memorable. Rarely do all three components come together, but Susannah Charleson’s memoir has the whole package. Beautifully written, informative, charming in every detail that chronicles the life and work of Susannah and her dog Puzzle, and laugh-’til-you-snort funny, it’s a magnificent work.
Charleson reveals the physical, mental and emotional challenges of search and rescue through her relationship with Puzzle, whom she raises from puppyhood to be her partner. People in this line of work must be able to handle challenging physical and emotional situations — think extreme heat, harsh cold, sleep deprivation, enclosed dark spaces, endless waiting, dense thorny vegetation and biting insects. Extensive navigation and orienting skills (which Charleson retains from years of being a pilot) are essential, as is an understanding of the behavior of missing people and the physics of scent. Dog handling skills and knowledge of the differences between distracted behavior, alerts and finds are, of course, necessary. As a biologist and trainer, I find fascinating the subtle yet extensive communication between dog and handler.
Though most of us have not raised and trained a search and rescue dog, it’s easy to relate to Puzzle’s puppy antics, which will amuse anyone who’s ever been exasperated by a puppy’s behavior. Similarly, Charleson’s descriptions of Puzzle’s fears ring true and contain great wisdom. Many readers will also recognize the growth of the relationship between these two main characters. Puzzle’s bond with Charleson is slower to form than she would like.
Many great relationships take time to develop, and this one continues growing to the point that Puzzle’s preference for searching with Charleson, as compared to another handler, becomes obvious to the entire team. Once, when Charleson blacks out on a walk and drops the leash, Puzzle stays with her despite her usual tendency to exploit every opportunity at freedom.
Reading this book is like eating from a delicious buffet. The following is an example of Charleson’s wordsmithing:
“Puzzle, just a few months shy of two, is in that marvelous place where puppy energy and adult strength and coordination intersect. This is a happy time for her, and it shows. After training with the team or after training sessions at home, she is talkative and cheeky, full of dog mutters for me and play-bows for the Poms, tossing toys their direction for a game. Her engagement with the world is a pleasure, her energy a challenge.”
I highly recommend this book to anyone with a fascination for forensic drama. As for dog lovers, none among us will resist a tale with such descriptions as this: “I stroke my newly-certified Golden, who has wasted no time going belly-up beside me in the deep shade of pecan trees. Any celebration worth doing is, apparently, worth doing upside down, unconscious, teeth bared.”
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