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Culture: Reviews
Mountaintop School for Dogs
Book Review

Also due out in August is the must-read, The Mountaintop School for Dogs and Other Second Chances (Houghton Mifflin) by Ellen Cooney. This novel is a moving and joyous romp featuring impulsive, 24-year-old Evie, who is on a quest to untangle a troubled past by seeking a new life path as a dog trainer. Though she has scant experience with actual dogs, she applies for a position at the Sanctuary, which she thinks is a school for trainers. Apprehensive and excited, she learns that she must first spend time as the sole guest in a mysterious inn, overseen by a reclusive innkeeper. Little does Evie know that the Sanctuary is actually the command center for a network of underground animal rescuers led by four elderly ex-nuns.

All the dogs are wonderfully, fully drawn characters with heart-wrenching backstories. They reside at the Sanctuary, and Evie first encounters them when they are brought to her at the inn to assess her training skills. The dogs, Evie and, in fact, most of the other characters are all involved in some kind of transformative recovery program. The wounded dogs are tenderly given a place of refuge, while their f ledgling trainer/companion is tutored by a lama-like nun to “never, ever give a dog who comes to you anything but love.” This is a brilliantly crafted, uplifting book, with its message of “Rescue. Best. Verb. Ever” evident on every page.

Culture: Reviews
Bark's Summer Books

Now it is summer and its long, warm days have arrived, we hope to catch up on our reading. To encourage you to do the same, we’ve compiled a roster of some of our favorites from newer to recent classic shelves. We would like to suggest our picks for a well-versed “dog culture” reading roster. These 10 books will enhance your understanding of your dog, along with entertaining and inspiring you. Enjoy!

Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures by Virginia Morell (Crown) explores what researchers have discovered about the mental and emotional lives of animals ranging from trout to dogs, and many others. She went in search of the “minds of animals to better grasp how the other creatures around us perceive and understand the world.” Her journalistic storytelling skills makes for a compelling read.

Edgar Award-winner Theresa Schwegel’s newest book, The Good Boy (Minotaur Books), includes an unforgettable character, Butch, a Belgian Malinois/German Shepherd mix trained as in drug-detection work. Butch and his K9 officer partner, Pete Murphy, navigate some of Chicago’s bleaker byways in this story. Both Joel, Murphy’s 11-year-old son, and Butch qualify as the “good boy” of the title. Joel is bright and innocent and loyal; Butch is honest, and honestly portrayed by a writer who knows dogs and their behaviors (she even knows why dogs’ feet smell like popcorn, an intriguing bit of trivia). Put this one on your reading list!

Read the interview with Theresa Schwegel for insights into her portrayal of Butch and the choices she made in his creation.

If you haven’t read it yet, make sure that this summer you pick up, Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz a fascinating journey into the dog’s rich sensory world, providing valuable insights into what it’s like to be a dog. 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. 

Read an interview with Alexandra Horowitz here. 

A new must-read, The Mountaintop School for Dogs: and Other Second Chances (Houghton Mifflin) by Ellen Cooney is due out in August. This novel is a joyous romp featuring an impulsive, twenty-four-year old, Evie, who is on a quest to untangle a troubled past by seeking a new life path as a dog trainer. Little does she know that the she has enrolled in a command center for a network of underground animal rescuers, lead by four elderly ex-nuns. This is a brilliantly crafted, uplifting book, with its message of “Rescue. Best. Verb. Ever,” being evidenced throughout its pages.

First-time book author, Matthew Gilbert goes behind the scenes of a typical dog park, in his enjoyable Off the Leash: A Year at the Dog Park (St. Martin’s). He’s a dog-phobic convert who falls hard for his first pup who helps him to get immersed in a whole new world at a nearby dog park. The pair discover an engaging human pack replete with all the quirks, revelations and drama that come with your average (canine) nation state. This is a witty and memorable read that will delight and enthrall off-leash readers everywhere.

See a sampling of this book here.

In August, Spencer Quinn is back with another of his widely popular Chet and Bernie mystery books. In Paw and Order (Simon & Schuster), the seventh in this series, we find the intrepid duo being swept up in a case of international intrigue. Chet, the canine copilot extraordinaire, is always the unforgettable one in this partnership. Read one, you’ll want to read them all!

Susannah Charleson’s second book about dogs, The Possibility Dogs is every bit as enthralling as her first,  Scent of the Missing. In this new book she refocuses her work from search-and-rescue to training rescue dogs for psychiatric service and therapy duty. She becomes an expert on evaluating shelter dogs to find those who might have the right personality and drive for this work. This book is an informative training guide but also a truly inspiring personal story. 

For an excerpt on our site click here.

Rex and the City, by Lee Harrington. First published over seven years ago, this book still is one of the finest examples of the ever-popular canine memoir genre. Rex was a  “behaviorally-challenged” sporting breed mix rescued by a NYC couple, who proves a trifle more than they can handle. But when it comes to exploring what it takes for “newbies” to learn about co-existing with a canine (and with each other), this is one of the funniest and exquisite accounts of the journey. A love story at its finest.  As one reviewer noted: “Harrington shows us that learning how to live with a canine is the surest way of learning how to live." 

For a sample of Lee Harrington's work read this.

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. A fascinating examination of the “cult and culture” of dog rescue. The story takes place in rural northern New Mexico—a perfect place for the author and his wife to start their dog sanctuary, Rancho de Chihuahua—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 gleefully throws himself into being part of the pack, taking the big dogs and the many Chihuahuas on forays into the foothills, 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 this delightful and insightful book.

In What the Dog Knows, Cat Warren explores the science and wonder of working dogs, guided by Solo, her German Shepherd. To harness Solo’s energies, she decided to try him at scent work—specifically, cadaver scenting. Her own training for this field was also a challenge, one that at times was more than she thought she could handle. This is a story of how Warren discovered what the worldview of a working dog really is, and how she and Solo not only learned to navigate it but also, to excel at it. This book offers new avenues to learn about the cognitive and emotional lives of one’s own dogs, and is highly recommended by this reviewer.

Click for a conversation with Cat Warren.

Culture: Reviews
A Dog’s History of the World
Book Review

A Dog’s History of the World: Canines and the Domestication of Humans (Baylor University Press) by Laura Hobgood-Oster is a small book packed with interesting insights into the canine-human bond. She rightfully posits that our own species would not have succeeded without our oldest friends, and gleans support for her position from a variety of fields, including archaeology, history and literature. The only quibble we have is with the inclusion of the oft-cited theory about the evolution of the “first” dog; this is a fluid field of study, and some of the research in the book has already been successfully challenged. However, that doesn’t detract from the overall impact and delight this book brings to the field of canine studies.

Culture: Reviews
Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs
Book Review

A century ago, pets didn’t even warrant the meager legal status of “property.” Now, they have more rights and protections than any wild animal on earth. How did we get here—and what happens next? That’s what Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs (Public Affairs) by David Grimm is all about.

Grimm discusses all aspects of the issue, providing readers with enough information so they can make their own decisions about whether humans should celebrate or condemn the better treatment of cats and dogs. We are entering a new age of pets/companion animals, one that is fundamentally transforming our relationship with them and reshaping the very fabric of society. Citizen Canine is an easy, enjoyable, must-read for all who want to know more about these fascinating beings.

Culture: Reviews
Puppy Savvy: The Pocket Guide to Raising Your Dog Without Going Bonkers
Very Fetching, 2012, 180 pp; $16.99

I’d like to see Barbara Shumannfang’s book Puppy Savvy: The Pocket Guide to Raising Your Dog Without Going Bonkers in the hands of more people with new puppies. It’s upbeat and full of practical wisdom conveyed in an easy-to-read conversational style.

Shumannfang understands normal puppy behavior and offers smart advice for helping puppies behave appropriately in human houses. She focuses on setting puppies up to succeed by considering what we DO want them to do, making that happen and rewarding the puppy for doing it. Her training advice is positive, humane and modern. 

Refreshingly, Shumannfang acknowledges that puppies can be emotionally and physically exhausting. She lets readers know that it’s okay to feel overwhelmed sometimes, while offering information and ideas to prevent that feeling from overriding all others as you raise a puppy. 

This book covers the issues typically facing puppy guardians—house training, puppy biting, jumping up, chewing, grooming concerns, crate training, exercise, play, training basics, interactions with kids, whining and barking, and when to seek additional help. It can be read straight through, but it’s also easy to use as a reference.

Shumannfang uses a lot of humor, so you can look forward to laughing as you read Puppy Savvy, knowing that what you learn will mean you will be laughing more as you raise your puppy than you would without this book.

News: Guest Posts
What Should I Feed My Dog?
Book Review: Dog Food Logic

How wonderful if you could pose this question just once in your dog’s life and receive a perfect answer that would last a lifetime. Imagine if there were a ‘right’ formula, and once you know it, you could feed your dog forever and ever on the same exquisite diet. Your dog, in return, would be the happiest and healthiest doggie camper there ever was.

Unfortunately, “What should I feed my dog?” is not the question we should be asking. In fact, “What should I feed my dog” is akin to the infomercial that comes on at 3 AM informing you that if you just buy this Mega-Blast Belt (for three low monthly payments of $19.99), six-pack abs will follow. Both fall into a quick-fix category — the “right” product, the “right” answer — that unfortunately doesn’t exist.

Instead, the question that will last you a lifetime is, “How should I feed my dog?” This is where Linda Case, M.S. comes to the rescue. I don’t mean to be superhero-y about it, but Case’s new book, Dog Food Logic: Making Smart Decisions for Your Dog in an Age of Too Many Choices is a unique work designed to help readers make informed, science-based decisions on what and how to feed our beloved companion dogs. As one veterinarian offers, “Dog Food Logic cuts through the noise and chaos and provides pet owners with a rational, science-based approach to evaluating their pets’ dietary needs and their feeding choices” (The Skeptvet Blog).

Linda Case knows a thing or two about animal nutrition. She earned her B.S. in Animal Science at Cornell University and her M.S. in Canine/Feline Nutrition at the University of Illinois. She maintains the well-received blog, The Science Dog, and has written numerous books on companion animal nutrition, training and behavior. I had the pleasure of meeting her at the Cats in Context conference at Canisius College in 2013 (Case spoke on cat nutrition, and I gave a talk on research into whether dogs and cats in the home can be friends — they can).

But back to dog food. If you are expecting a dry read on dog nutrition and diet, you’ve come to the wrong place. Dog Food Logic is a page turner, jam-packed with real-world examples that you can easily relate to. Case unpacks label claims, fad diets and the wonderfully persuasive field of pet food marketing. What does it mean when a food is ‘recommended by veterinarians or breeders?’ Who is Chef Michael, and should you trust him? And who’s keeping our dog food safe?

Throughout the book, Case discusses research into canine nutrition and diet in a way that is easy to digest, if you’ll pardon the pun. For example, studies have investigated:

  • Do large-breed puppies (say Great Danes or Newfoundlands) have different nutritional requirements than say, Chihuahuas? Should the big puppies eat the same type of food as the little ones? Or is it just a matter of quantity? Case provides the research.
  • Can diet influence cancer progression? While a particular dog food brand won’t cure cancer, nutritional science and canine cancer research find that particular dietary compositions can be beneficial to dogs with cancer.
  • What about age-related illnesses? Can they be prevented or delayed through nutrition?

This is just the tip of the iceberg, and since I can’t possibly summarize all the topics and findings covered in Case’s book, the above are intentional teasers. To find out more, read the book.

 

References

Case, L. 2014. Dog Food Logic: Making Smart Decisions for Your Dog in an Age of Too Many Choices. Dogwise Publishing.

Case, L. The Science Dog blog.

Hecht, J. 2013. Dogs and Cats in the Home: Happiness for All? Dog Spies and Do You Believe in Dog?

McKenzie, B. The SkeptVet blog.

This article first appeard on Dog Spies, Scientific American. Used with permission.

Culture: Reviews
Dog Gone, Back Soon
Book: Dog Gone, Back Soon By Nick Trout

Nick Trout’s first novel, The Patron Saint of Lost Dogs, charmed readers everywhere, including here at Bark. A Boston-based veterinarian, Trout has an insider’s view of vet practices, the people who run them, and the quirks and foibles of clients and their pets. With this book, he continues the story of Patron Saint’s Cyrus Mills, DVM , reluctant owner of a small-town Vermont clinic.

Trout adeptly weaves three plot lines: the David v. Goliath nature of independent and corporate vet practices, Mills’ awkward pursuit of an emotional life, and the gamut of situations vets encounter daily. And once again, Mills finds himself the reluctant guardian of a dog—this time, a service dog with a mysterious background.

Trout writes from a place of deep knowledge and regard for the bonds people have with their companion animals, and his wry sense of humor provides many smile-inducing moments. It’s an enjoyable read.

Culture: Reviews
Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior, and Evolution
By Raymond Coppinger and Lorna Coppinger

Dogs, dogs, and more dogs: Fact, fiction, or something in between?

In their book, Ray and Lorna Coppinger promise a startling new understanding of many matters pertaining to canines, including how the domestic dog became a separate species from the wolf. Coppinger is a behavioral ecologist, he and his wife have studied dogs for many years, and their book is filled with personal stories.

The Coppingers accept that dogs descended from wolves, but they assert that they now constitute two separate species. Herein lies their “startling new” hypothesis. Dogs were the first domesticated animal and many theories have been offered to explain why and how domestication may have happened. Most of these theories, as do the Coppinger’s, rely on using present conditions to make claims on past cultures. This can only be a highly speculative exercise. The Coppingers criticize the more commonly held view of the domestication of dogs that “people created dogs by artificial selection,” during which individuals were chosen for such traits as friendliness, tameness, and trainability and then mated with one another. They call this the “Pinocchio hypothesis.” They contend that “the offspring of tamed (and/or trained) wolves do not inherit this tameness,” but they offer scant empirical evidence to support such a claim. They also point to the lack of archaeological evidence that Mesolithic people had access to a large enough population of trained or tamed wolves to select for tame behavior, but they never state how many wolves would be “big enough.” 

Suffice it to say, we still know little that’s verifiable about the origins of dogs. But it’s not surprising that different authors balance facts and guesses differently and come up with a variety of plausible scenarios for the evolution of dogs. The Coppinger view is just another to add to the mix. This book will surely stimulate more discussion and, let’s hope, more detailed analyses of what we know and don’t know.

Other topics in this book include canine behavioral development, social behavior and communication, genetics, morphology and a discussion of why different breeds of dogs behave differently. Some of Coppinger’s assertions puzzle me, such as their claim that dogs who don’t live in packs don’t understand dominance relationships. A visit to any dog park or a glance at any textbook on animal behavior shows clearly that many different animals understand dominance relationships, even those who typically live alone. They also assert that “Intelligence is dependent on how many [brain] cells the dog has, and how those cells are wired together.” I know of no research that directly relates the slippery notion of intelligence to the number of cells packed into an individual’s cranium nor any that has studied in detail how nerve cells are wired together and what difference the “wiring patterns” make. Perhaps the authors mean cells in one specific region of the brain. Still, there have been no studies of which I’m aware in which individual differences in the number of cells (anywhere in the brain) have been related to individual differences in intelligence in domestic dogs or any other animal. They go on to write that, “Exactly what a dog can learn to do is genetic.” This assertion ignores the incredibly rich scientific literature on learned behavioral flexibility and diversity in dogs, and in many animals ranging from insects to the Great Apes.These claims demonstrate a lack of scientific rigor. But when the Coppingers claim that some aspects dog behavior provide a “window into the mind of the dog,” without citing Donald Griffin, the “father of cognitive ethology” who first put forth this idea, this omission borders on intellectual piracy.

Throughout the book there’s a disturbing lack of reference to numerous highly-regarded experts in this field (though they do cite my own work liberally). Instead the authors depend on people who have done little (or no) empirical work on dogs or wolves and whose work has not been published in peer-reviewed professional journals, the standard by which researchers are accredited. For example, if the authors had used Brian Hare and his colleague’s well-known and readily accessible work on studies of dog and wolf cognitive abilities, rather than the very preliminary research on which they depended, they’d never have claimed that, “Dogs as a rule are very poor at observational learning.” If such spurious claims prevail for subjects with which I’m not familiar then there’s a major problem in this book.

All in all, I found little in Dogs to be "startling" except for the lack of a clear indication where the line between facts and guesses lay. In a project of this magnitude, this troubles me. There are merits to the book. Advancing a new theory on the origin of dogs does spark examination and discussion, but on the whole Dogs left me unconvinced of the Coppinger's theory. The book is riddled with wholesale generalizations and relies too much on personal anecdotes and unsupported speculation to win my recommendation. Dog lovers and dogs themselves deserve better. Readers beware is the best advice I can offer.

 

Note: This review originally appeared in Bark in 2001. This book was published that year as well.

Culture: Reviews
The Good Boy
Minotaur Books

“Butch did his job . He recognized threat. He defended his handler. And lately, it seems like he’s the only one who will.” In Edgar Award–winner Theresa Schwegel’s new book, Chicago PD K9 officer Pete Murphy is under siege both on the job and on the home front. Fortunately, his partner Butch, a Belgian Malinois/German Shepherd mix, has his back. Butch is also devoted to Murphy’s son, Joel, an intelligent, intensely focused 11-year-old with a penchant for playing detective.

As in her four earlier books—all of which are also set in the city of Chicago —the people in The Good Boy struggle with professional and personal complexities. In Pete’s case, the suggestion that he had an affair with a female judge he was assigned to protect affects his job and his marriage. He’s been reassigned to the K9 unit, fellow officers keep their distance, and his wife and teen-age daughter are furious about having to move to a cheaper neighborhood. Joel, on the other hand, considers their new situation ripe with opportunities for “undercover” work. For Butch, whose specialty is drugdetection, life is straightforward: he works hard, is devoted to Pete and his family, and will defend them—especially Joel—at all costs.

The story hits terminal velocity quickly. Joel, accompanied by Butch, follows his sister when she sneaks out to a party at the home of a boy Joel knows is dangerous. As they spy on the partygoers, Butch scents drugs and leaps into action. In the process, shots are fired. The narrative follows Joel and Butch as the two make their way across Chicago, armed with a map, four dollars and a copy of Jack London’s White Fang, to the one person Joel feels can save Butch from the consequences of doing his job. As his mother frantically waits, and his sister hides her role in the situation and his father anxiously searches for them, Joel and Butch navigate some of the city’s bleaker byways.

Both Joel and Butch qualify as the “good boy” of the title. Joel is bright and innocent and loyal; Butch is honest, and honestly portrayed by a writer who knows dogs and their behaviors (she even knows why dogs’ feet smell like popcorn, an intriguing bit of trivia).

Culture: Reviews
Dog Sports Skills, Book 1
Developing Engagement & Relationship

A couple of years ago, I was walking beside an acquaintance and her Golden Retriever at an agility show. It was difficult to hold a conversation because I was distracted by her frequent leash “pops.” The Golden would start in heel position, forge ahead by a front paw or two and then would be jerked back into place.

This behavior continued for the length of our two-minute walk. Clearly, the dog didn’t understand what to do, and worse, neither did her owner. The correction was so automatic that it had become a mindless habit.

If I had mentioned it, I guarantee she would’ve denied it. She considered herself a “crossover trainer,” that is, someone who previously relied on compulsion and now uses positive reinforcement and force-free training methods.

If only I had been able to give her Dog Sports Skills, Book 1: Developing Engagement and Relationship by longtime dog trainers and competitors Denise Fenzi and Deborah Jones, PhD. The first in a series for dog-sport enthusiasts, it will also benefit dog lovers who would not willingly hurt their canine companions but lack the guidance or resources to learn humane alternatives to aversives.

All of the information is based on scientific techniques and principles of learning, such as classical and operant conditioning. This underscores the authors’ mission: “We feel that it is important to not only understand what to do and how to do it, but also why you should do it in a particular way.”

Just as important, the training exercises are simple to follow and realistic, so the reader does not have to be a professional dog trainer or dog-sport fanatic to follow through. For example, the “Slow Treats” game is a wonderful way to teach a dog self-control; all you need is a handful of treats (or part of the dog’s meal). The tricks chapter includes a variety of fun, easy tricks that reduce stress on the human to get it exactly right, unlike obedience.

Perhaps the most enlightening chapter is the one dealing with stress-reduction techniques. As a dog trainer myself, I often hear students say, “But he does it at home!” Assuming they have been taught what to do, dogs who struggle with stress or distraction in public are often mislabeled “stubborn” or “dumb” by their frustrated or embarrassed owners. In response, that owner might resort to correction-based methods to make the dog perform, even if it erodes the trust between them.

“Am I comfortable holding dogs responsible for their trainer’s lack of skill?” asks Fenzi, who has firsthand knowledge of the patience required to successfully leave compulsion behind for good. She is one of the few obedience and IPO (a protection sport formerly known as Schutzhund) competitors who have achieved success at the highest levels of these sports using positive-reinforcement methods. She and her students around the country are proof that pain does not have to be used to be successful in these exacting activities.

Reading about Fenzi’s evolution as a trainer brings some questions to mind: How responsible are instructors for giving their students the skills necessary to keep their dogs safe and happy? Conversely, how responsible are students for researching trainers before entrusting their dogs to them? While these questions aren’t specifically answered, the authors make it clear that we’re accountable for the training (and trainer) choices we make.

Rather than focusing on how to perfect an exercise, the authors invite their audience to learn how to train their dogs through observation, education and mutual respect. Dog Sports Skills is a thought-provoking guide to achieving an even better bond with your dog, whether your goal is an agility championship or good manners in public.

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