Broadway, 304 pp., 2008; $22.95
The first time I read Dr. Nick Trout's book, I curled up in a corner at my local bookstore, chin on my chest with his book in my lap for hours. It was the second time in my life I’d fallen for a veterinary surgeon.
It’s not hard to conclude, then, that what follows will be a largely positive review of Tell Me Where It Hurts. Sure, the subtitle’s a mite contrived, as is the day-in-a-life format Dr.Trout practically apologizes for in his opening bid for his readers’ sympathies. And even if he seems overly eager to make us fall in love with his brand of quirky wit, in the end it’s okay…he’s a surgeon, after all, and even those of the veterinary variety temper their legendary surgical egos with no small dose of charisma.
I mean that as no sly slur, really. All vets love to be loved—present company included. This flaw is part of our innate charm, I think—a forgivably innocuous Achilles heel borne ofmuch client adulation and early success in life. If surgeons offer a bit more bluster than most, well, that’s quite all right—especially if their pomp lives up to its promise.
In his post as veterinary surgeon at Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston, the subject of this memoir, Dr. Trout is uniquely qualified to lead an informative expedition into veterinary medicine’s heart of darkness. After all, his day job is a taxing amalgam of interpersonal skill, medical expertise and technical talent played at the profession’s highest levels.
Instead, Trout trades what might have been a trip down a river of gloomy reality for a veterinary romp in the tradition of the genre’s undisputed genius, James Herriot (of the “All Creatures…” series fame). Exchanging bucolic, 1950s England for 21st-century suburban Boston, UKborn and educated Dr.Trout convincingly recalls everything we ever loved about his countryman, while never letting us forget that this is a thoroughly modern read.
In fact, it would seem that in his urgency to update the master, Dr. Trout manages to raise every notable issue affecting contemporary veterinary medicine—from the feminization of the profession to pet health insurance and the risk of suicide that comes with the territory.Chapter by chapter, he crams it all in, leaving no pet medical stone unturned and no newsworthy animal issue behind.
In the end, Trout relies on his scathing humor and glorious British irreverence to pull out a surprisingly insightful, often hilarious take on himself, his profession, his colleagues, his clients and his patients —in that order. That he does so without raising hackles speaks to his prodigious gift for being downright, self-deprecatingly funny. Yet, in so doing, I can’t help feel his bantering style cuts far from the bone.
But perhaps this more critical opinion is the casualty of a second read. The first go-round breezed by like a busy day at work—one free of responsibilities, as in the voyeuristic, somewhat sadistic pleasure we guiltily succumb to when listening to a smart colleague rant cathartically after a very rough day (preferably over beers at a nearby watering hole).
The second read? I guess I wanted more than a colleague’s easy dissection—some bite, if you will, no matter how droll—if I was going to have a go at the same material again. “Gimme dirt, buddy!” I yelled at the pages (rest assured, in the privacy of my own home this time).
But then, I’m a vet and Dr. Trout’s experiences resonate so well with my worldview of veterinary medicine that I guess I can’t help it if I want a little more Conrad and a little less Herriot in my literature. And, truth be told, I get the vet surgeon spiel every night from the first one I fell for. Thus, I’ve since learned to be critical, even of genius.
Dogwise Publishing, 264 pp., 2008; $19.95
Hold onto your leashes, dog-training fans: Oh Behave! is another great ride from Jean Donaldson. This book is classic JD, with all of the solid science that wins her so many loyal fans in the dog training and behavior community, and it comes wrapped in the wry, dry wit we’ve come to expect from her. While it may be too technical for the casual reader, Donaldson’s latest effort is a jackpot for those who are fascinated by the question of why dogs do what they do. If you’re a behavior addict, as are so many of us who’ve become captivated by the intricacies and possibilities of working with the canine mind, you’ll find much fodder here to feed your fixation.
Behavior: Includes foundation information about canine behavior, including an excellent chapter on social organization. Discusses hierarchies and the urban-legend explanation for the popularity of the flawed canine dominance theory.
Training: Answers a variety of questions about training philosophies and specific training challenges, such as prompting and luring, shaping, and the application of classical conditioning to everyday life.
Behavior Problems: Addresses several concepts and behaviors that fall outside the scope of basic training, including barking, mounting and the use of time-outs in behavior modification programs.
Fear and Anxiety: Explains the evolutionary survival value of fear and anxiety, and describes how to modify or manage some anxiety-related behaviors, including compulsive disorders and separation anxiety.
Aggression: Discusses aspects of aggression, notably the so-called “dog-bite epidemic,” as well as resource guarding, predatory drift, and the touchy topics of fighting-dog rehabilitation and breedspecific legislation.
Genetics and Evolution: Offers thoughtprovoking information on the oftbroached question of whether behavior is a result of nature (genetics) or nurture (environment). The answer, to quote Donaldson, is “All behavior is the product of a complex interaction between genes and environment…The answer is always both.”
Whew! That’s a lot to cover in one relatively slender volume. As always, Donaldson covers it remarkably well, with a plethora of pithy, quotable sound bites. She excels at identifying points of dissension within dog-owning/training circles and setting the record straight, and is not averse to a well-aimed jab or two at those who perpetuate inaccuracies and myths about behavior and training.
Discussing the question of whether dogs are capable of deliberate deception, she says,“Dogs…while masterful at being conditioned to behave in ways that function to get them off the hook, cannot perform intentional deception the way you and I can…The most interesting question to me is why people persist in believing dogs can intentionally deceive …in spite of substantial evidence to the contrary.”
Another favorite: “The pure shaping versus lure-reward debate has been going on for years with neither side offering up much in the way of blind empirical research to support their position that their way is ‘better,’ ‘faster,’ ‘more efficient,’ ‘teaches dogs to think’ or ‘grows bigger brains.’This hasn’t shaken the most zealous in either camp from their biases, however.”
If you’re not already firing up your computer to go online and order your copy of Oh Behave!, then you’re not a true behavior addict. Go play with your dog.
Ecco, 576 pp., 2008; $25.95
For a first novel, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle has already met with great success, rising high on bestseller lists and garnering critical acclaim. In this long, dense and gothic-tinged work, 10 years in the making, author David Wroblewski constructs a Hamletinspired story, with a soupçon of Stephen King thrown in for good measure. The cast of characters— including the mother, Trudy (Gertrude); the uncle, Claude (who, yes, marries his sister-in-law); and the vet, Papineau, a Polonius stand-in—is taken from the bard’s playbook.
The hero, however, is Edgar Sawtelle, a mute and mysterious boy.At the beginning of the book, he, his parents Gar and Trudy, and the lovely Almondine (his cherished companion and a dog who has been with the family since before Edgar’s birth) are living an idyllic life on a farm in northern Wisconsin. But true to the Hamlet trajectory, the story quickly darkens with Gar’s sudden death.
The family’s livelihood comes from the breeding and raising of “Sawtelle” dogs—not a breed, but an idealized über mix. Dogs Edgar’s grandfather, and then his father, found to be noble, honorable or emblematic of an essential, almost indefinable, quality were the progenitors of this new canine phenotype, one “excellent in temperament and structure but of unpedigreed stock.”Much detail about their (and to this reader, problematic) breeding operation is revealed when, at the behest of a familial ghost, Edgar investigates what he believes is his father’s murder, and looks through his grandfather’s voluminous breeding records and correspondences for clues to the crime.
An intriguing part of this endeavor is that in order to be sure the breeding program is achieving its desired outcome, the behavioral and temperamental aspects of each offspring are closely monitored. The dogs are raised by the Sawtelle family until they are two years old, and undergo a rigorous training program,with Trudy as the master trainer. She teaches her techniques (which, unfortunately, seem to be modeled on the Koehler approach) to young Edgar; even though he is mute, he is able to communicate well through hand signals and body movements. In yet another borrowing from Hamlet, Edgar schools his dogs in an elaborate relay game involving what he suspects is the murder weapon (a syringe) in order to “catch the conscience” of his uncle.
It is in the last third of the book, in the section titled “Chequamegon,” where Wroblewski’s storytelling talent really shines, rising above the turgidity of the gothic. After an incident a la Polonius, Edgar runs away from home,taking three dogs (the first litter for which he is solely responsible) with him. The little pack makes a dangerous journey through northern lakes and woods country. This turns out to be more like an ancient truth quest, where young men—and in this case, young dogs as well—test their mettle and resolve to make the leap into adulthood. True canine heirs to the Sawtelle name, the dogs are Edgar’s equal partners, mastering survival skills and expressing their own clear choices.
There is much to admire about this book. While I have reservations about the supernatural elements and the degree to which the Hamlet metaphor is employed, as well as being troubled about parts of the plot (especially those related to dog-rearing), nonetheless, Wroblewski possesses a daring and adventurous talent, and I look forward to seeing the heights he scales next.
Let’s Take the Long Way Home, A Small Furry Prayer and Dog Tags
Dogs play a prominent and meaningful part in three new “good read” books. Let’s Take the Long Way Home explores a friendship and a shared fascination with dogs; A Small Furry Prayer examines the culture of rescue and the meaning of life, and rounding it out, a crime novel, Dog Tags.
Let’s Take the Long Way Home: a Memoir of Friendship, is intensely moving, without a hint of sentimentality. It is part memoir and part biography of a friendship and it should be read and cherished by Bark readers. Gail Caldwell is a fiercely private, independent, talented writer (with a Pulitzer Prize for criticism) and a dog enthusiast. Her friendship with Caroline Knapp (author of a Bark “good read,” Pack of Two) was inspired, one might say authored, by their love of dogs. As this “pack of four”—Knapp with her mixed breed Lucille, Caldwell with her Samoyed Clementine—explored the woods of New England together, they created a profound and lasting attachment that has transcended grief and transformed lives. We highly recommend this book. See Gail Caldwell talk about her book and her friendship with Caroline.
A Small Furry Prayer: Dog Rescue and the Meaning of Life by Steven Kotler is part Hunter Thompson part Carlos Castaneda but mostly so original that it’s difficult to peg. Kotler examines the “cult and culture” of dog rescue, which he says is the largest “underground movement” in America, from the perspective of someone who definitely is living the life. A LA guy with a hankering for adventure who falls in love with a Joy, a dog-loving woman, they buy a small place in Chimayo, New Mexico, move there with eight dogs, all rescues, all “special” needs dogs. They start Rancho de Chihuahua, a sanctuary for these dogs (and many others who follow) with scant resources except an intense drive to save dogs. The narrative takes the reader to many places, to the dogs themselves (all richly drawn characters in their own right) to an exploration of the meaning of “dog” and of our long history of fascination with them. This is a delightful, rich read sure to take you to unexpected places and beyond. To catch Steven Kotler reading from his book, see schedule on the next page. See the video below:
Dog Tags, David Rosenfelt’s newest “Andy Carpenter” mystery, is a good weekender read. For those unfamiliar with the author’s previous books, his main character is Andy, an attorney with a passion for dogs, who is far happier walking his Golden Retriever, Tara, than working a courtroom. When he can be cajoled into practicing his profession, however, his often-unorthodox tactics usually carry the day. Aside from Tara, other members of the ensemble are also present and accounted for in Dog Tags, including Willie Miller, who oversees Andy’s Tara Foundation* rescue work; Laurie Collins, love of his life; and Pete Stanton, police lieutenant and sports-bar buddy. Dog Tags has all of the author’s trademark elements: a client, falsely accused; a dog in need of protection; and, of course, a murder—or in this case, several murders. The client is an ex-cop and Iraq war veteran who lost a leg and then his job on the force. The dog is his highly trained German Shepherd K9-unit partner, also released from duty. Toss in financial shenanigans, profiteering and a hard-core hit man, and all the elements for an engrossing story are in place.
* The Tara Foundation is a real organization, established by Rosenfelt and his wife; to date, they’ve rescued and rehomed about 4,000 dogs, many of them Goldens; the ones that can’t be placed stay with them.) See a video about the Tara Foundation on the next page.
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.
Hyperion, 288 pp., 2009; $24.99
I've just discovered a person I’d really like to hang with at the local dog park: Dean Koontz. Yes, that Dean Koontz, writer of creepy, scary suspense novels. But that’s not why I want to hang with him.No, I refer to the man who—along with his wife of 32 years,Gerda—adoptedTrixie, a CCI (Canine Companions for Independence) service dog “retired” at three because of an injury.Koontz’s keen ability to observe, interpret and humorously convey the joy and love that Trixie brought to their lives in A Big Little Life convinces me he would be a boon dog park companion, commenting on the fascinating behaviors of dogs and people.He even riffs on something we all do: learn a dog’s name while rarely bothering to remember (or even ask) the guardian’s name.
The Koontzes long wanted a dog, but held back. “For many years, as we gave ourselves to work, we talked about getting a dog.…A dog can be a living work of art, a constant reminder of the exquisite design and breathtaking detail of nature, beauty on four paws. In addition, year by year, we became more aware that this world is a deeply mysterious place, and nothing confirmed the wonder of existence more than what we saw happening between dogs and people with disabilities at CCI. Being guardians and companions of a dog would be one way to explore more fully the mystery of this world.” Enter Trixie.
Koontz writes hilariously of Trixie’s idiosyncrasies, such as her “toilet Tao” which required that she do her business anywhere but her own yard, a result of her CCI training. He describes Trixie’s sense of humor, compassion, frivolity and intelligence. He writes movingly of the emotional bonds we build with dogs throughout their too-short lives.
Koontz also takes on behaviorists who claim we over-sentimentalize this deep connection. “Loyalty, unfailing love, instant forgiveness, a humble sense of his place in the scheme of things, a sense of wonder—these and other virtues of a dog arise from his innocence. The first step toward greater joy is to stop fleeing from innocence … and embrace once more the truth that life is mysterious and that it daily offers meaningful wonders for our consideration. Dogs know.”
Dogs were featured characters in Koontz’s novels before Trixie; now, even more so. Read this book to be entertained, uplifted and deeply moved. Proceeds benefit CCI.
Henry Holt, 304 pp., 2009; $25
In The Wolf in the Parlor, science journalist Jon Franklin uses the narrative skills that helped him win two Pulitzers to posit a theory about the origins of the domestic dog that seems to be based more upon speculation than upon science.
Franklin’s compelling narrative can certainly absorb the reader. The storyline reads like a mystery novel, peppered with vignettes about Charlie, Franklin’s black Standard Poodle, as well as anecdotes about various scientists and others who have explored the origins of the domestic dog—for example, the story of archeologist Stanley Olsen’s Shepherd/Malamute cross, Nubie, whose epilepsy controlled Olsen’s daily schedule and even his professional travel plans. Each of these stories drives a narrative that gradually reveals Franklin’s over-arching theory, which is not a complicated one.
At least 50,000 years ago, a population of wolves followed bands of huntergatherers. These wolves were physically the same as the wolves who were not following the bands, but Franklin contends that their brains were changing—that they were losing the innate predatory motor patterns that wolves had evolved to kill large prey. Then, 12,000 years ago, Franklin argues, the follower wolves lost 20 percent of their brain size, and humans lost 5 to 10 percent of theirs. According to Franklin, this reduction in brain size is indicative of a new symbiotic relationship, one based upon what he calls a “neural symbiosis.” In this relationship, each species ceded to the other important neural functions. Dogs gave up their ability to make complex plans, while people lost their ability to experience raw emotions. Once humans were no longer controlled so strongly by emotion, they were able to focus on developing the technology that led to our current dominance as a species.
Though Franklin is not the first to write about the co-evolution of humans and dogs, the lack of citations to other literature, peer-reviewed or otherwise, implies that he came up with this theory on his own. The closest he comes to citing an expert in the field is a passing reference to the work of biologist Raymond Coppinger, who contends that dogs evolved from wolves who learned to scavenge off humans once humans began engaging in small-scale agriculture and living in relatively permanent villages. Agriculture likely began 12,000 years ago, which is exactly the point at which both Coppinger and Franklin believe that the first domestic dogs appeared. Moreover, Franklin provides no bibliography to assist the reader in finding where his theory fits within the scientific literature.
At face value, Franklin’s theory sounds plausible, but it simply does not square with what scientists have discovered about the evolution of domestic dogs and of the human brain. At the end of the Pleistocene, human brains became smaller, but that smaller brain was consistent with a general reduction in body size and clearly had nothing to do with its function. Furthermore, dogs were most likely domesticated more than 12,000 years ago. The oldest accepted dog remains date to 14,000 years ago, and some genetic studies suggest that dogs have been living with people for more than 100,000 years. Because Franklin’s theories do not fit with this scientific evidence, the book comes across as nothing more than a good story.
St. Martin’s Press, 226 pp., 2009; $24.95
If you've always loved the stories of James Herriot, get ready to be excited by Jeff Wells’ All My Patients Have Tales. It sounds too good to be true, but here is another veterinarian who loves both people and animals, understands small pets and farm animals alike, and tells a good story.
Wells’ stories involve many species. Among the lively characters are dogs, cats, cows, turkeys, elephants, porcupines, donkeys, yaks and pigs; people have their part to play, too. His observations about the interactions between humans and animals, and of humans with each, other are nicely balanced between cleverly insightful and respectfully amused.Wells has a nice appreciation of the ridiculous, and he shares this with his readers.
Most charming of all, he sees the absurdity of his own role in these adventures and is able to laugh at himself. Whether chasing an escaped (and semiferal) cat around his office, getting kicked where no man wishes to be kicked by a cantankerous horse, running from wild turkeys or doing some on-the-job learning in how to draw blood from an elephant (in front of an audience), his sense of humor lets us enjoy his adventures.
The book covers the uphill battle of getting into veterinary school and the rigors of the course of study. It also highlights the many ways in which the job of veterinarian requires so much more skill and experience than can be gained in school, no matter how good the instruction and no matter how diligently one studies. It is the process of becoming an “experienced veterinarian” that Wells documents through the many escapades chronicled in this lively book. He confirms that his chosen career is never boring, that there is always more to learn and that checking your ego at the door is a requirement of the job.
Anyone looking for a fun read about both animals and people who are real characters will enjoy All My Patients Have Tales. I loved this book and know it’s one I’ll be reading again.
Angel, Joe Panz, Batso, Big Ant, Eric, Johnny O, Des, G—big guys with big hearts, the men of Rescue Ink use their street skills to protect metro NYC’s furred, feathered and scaled.We learn about each man—what motivates them to volunteer for this type of work, how they approach it, why they’ve become so invested in saving the city’s most helpless residents. It’s clear that these large tattooed men, who share a passion for animals as well as hot rods and motorcycles, are a force to be reckoned with.
Clean Run Productions, $19.95
Kudos to Winter and the publisher for putting together this absolutely clear and well-illustrated book.Not only is it functional, but, with its more than 125 color photos and clean layout, it’s also attractive and fun to read. As its subtitle—Taking the Mystery Out of Massaging Your Dog —proclaims, it gives us the tools we need to help our dogs relax and feel better. Give your dog a full-body massage or, if time prohibits, a quick pick-me-up. The information is presented step-by-step in sections, so you can choose what works for the specific situation literally at hand.
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