Every day, books about a dog saving a life or teaching a lesson land on our desk. Rarely, however, are points made more poignantly and convincingly than in this new memoir, George the Dog, John the Artist: A Rescue Story.
This inspiring story by former petty thief and once-homeless John Dolan—who today is an internationally respected artist—is really about George, the stray Staffordshire Terrier who started him on his remarkable journey of self-discovery and redemption.
Dolan narrates their story, which is quite unlike others in this genre. In a very down-to-earth, vérité voice, he recalls his early east London life and how years of neglect and poverty led to more than 30 prison incarcerations (some of which were intentional, a way to get inside during the cold winter months).
As a child, Dolan had a knack for drawing, a talent that he resurrected once he became responsible for George’s welfare and keeping himself outside of prison for the dog’s sake. They were living near Shoreditch High Street in London, a district that had become hip and arty. At first, Dolan and George got along by hanging out on the street and begging; the well-trained, friendly dog was a big draw. But as Dolan describes it, “I was always thinking about how I was going to get off the street and make an honest living for myself and George. Seeing all the art around Shoreditch, I began to wonder whether I could make a few quid out of drawing something myself.”
He started with meticulous renderings of local buildings, some of which he did thousands of times until he got them right. His self-confidence steadily grew, and the man with the pad and pencil and his dog became neighborhood fixtures. His first commission came from a woman who asked him to draw George.
As he readily admits, “George was the reason I could call myself an artist.” That drawing was the first piece that he felt he ever fully completed. The woman was thrilled with it, and after that, he started drawing George regularly. His art sold, opening up a whole new life for the two of them. In September 2013, he had his first solo show, “George the Dog, John the Artist,” which was a sell-out. This entertaining, inspiring story is unique in the annals of dog-saves-man tales and definitely merits your attention.
Now that summer is here with its long, warm days, we hope to inspire you to catch up on your reading. Here’s a list of a few of our favorites, both new and classic.
What the Dog Knows by Cat Warren
Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz
Do As I Do by Claudia Fugazza (DogWise)
Animal Wise by Virginia Morell
Zoobiquity by Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, MD and Kathryn Bowers
The Secret History of Kindness: Learning from how dogs learn by Melissa Pierson
George the Dog, John the Artist: A Rescue Story by John Dolan
The Possibility Dogs by Susannah Charleson
Off the Leash: A Year at the Dog Park by Matthew Gilbert
A Small Furry Prayer: Dog Rescue and the Meaning of Life by Steven Kotler
Scents and Sensibility by Spencer Quinn.
The Mountaintop School for Dogs by Ellen Cooney
Timbuktu by Paul Auster
Breath to Breath by Carrie Maloney
Food for Thought
Canine Nutrigenomics by W. Jean Dodds and Diana R. Laverdure
The Secret Life of Dog Catchers by Shirley Zindler
This book, which should be mandatory reading for all veterinary students, is opening new vistas of nutritional science. It is also essential reading for people who live, work with and care for dogs: it takes us to the next level of critical and analytical consideration of companion animal nutrition, picking up where I and two other veterinarians left off in our book, Not Fit for a Dog: The Truth About Manufactured Cat & Dog Food. Specifically, on the so-called epigenetic effects of nutrients on health and behavior under the banner terminology of “nutrigenomics.”
The term references the interaction between diet and various food ingredients and the regulatory genes that influence metabolic, immune, neuroendocrine and other systems and bodily processes and functions. These fascinating connections are clearly and concisely addressed by Dodds and Laverdure, who highlight the need for special diets for dogs with certain genetic issues/anomalies, various health problems (from cancer and liver disease to arthritis and obesity) and a host of other common canine health issues.
This information is coupled with a detailed review of changes in diet and nutraceutical supplementation that may be indicated to help treat a variety of diet-connected health problems. The book takes us into the new integrative dimension of veterinary and human medicine, in which optimal health, disease prevention and treatments are considered from genetic and nutritional perspectives.
In explaining the interplay between genes, nutrients and intestinal bacteria (the “microbiome”), this book reaches a new level of understanding of some of the dynamics of diseases hitherto unrecognized and unaddressed by human and animal doctors—professionals who now have, with this book and the emerging science of nutrigenomics, a more integrated and holistic perspective. Chapter-highlighting summaries and practical instruction give the book a tutorial quality that enhances the learning experience.
One of my greatest enjoyments was reading about the vital importance of a healthy gut flora population—the microbiome—and how dietary ingredients can harm or improve this symbiotic community, which often benefits from oral probiotics and prebiotic nutraceuticals.
The early part of the book gives the reader a deeper understanding of the importance of optimal nutrition, and identifies certain basic nutrients and essential nutraceutical and herbal supplements, as well as food ingredients to avoid (a number of which are still in far too many manufactured pet foods).
In addition to their companion animals, readers of Canine Nutrigenomics will have reason to reconsider what they’re eating themselves, and what they’re feeding their families. It also brings the cruel realities of livestock and poultry factory farms and misuse of antibiotics, hormones and other drugs; polluted and over-fished oceans; nutrient-depleted soils and pesticide-contaminated, genetically engineered crops of industrial agriculture to mind, along with the mainstream pet food industry, a subsidiary of this “agribusiness.”
In the face of this reality, Canine Nutrigenomics offers a way out of the dystopia of what I call the Ouroboros of the food and drug industrial complex, which continues to create an increasingly unsafe, non-sustainable and nutrient-deficient food chain while profiting from selling a myriad of petrochemical and pharmaceutical products (many to treat and prevent crop and livestock diseases), and costly diagnostic and therapeutic interventions to treat (but not prevent) a host of human and companion-animal maladies.
Our dogs, consumers in this industrial rather than humane and organic food chain, are our sentinels. Like the canaries down the mineshaft, they alert us when they succumb to health problems similar to those we see in the human population.
This book is part of the nascent transformation of agriculture and the “One Health” revolution, which connects public health and disease prevention with optimal nutrition. We must all join and support it in the marketplace with our dollars.
Canine Nutrigenomics provides an excellent directory to this evolution in human consumer habits, and scientific validation of the Hippocratic injunction to let our food be our medicine and our medicine, our food.
Read the book for dog’s sake, for health’s sake and for Earth’s sake—and join the revolution!
Culture: Stories & Lit
Book reviews of Do As I Do and Canine Play Behavior
Two excellent new books from Dogwise Publishing, Claudia Fugazza’s Do As I Do and Mechtild Käufer’s Canine Play Behavior, are invaluable resources for those who are serious about understanding and communicating with their dogs.
Fugazza, who is completing her PhD research in canine social learning at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest (renowned for its canine study programs), burst on the training scene with the hypothesis that dogs can and do imitate people. As we know, dogs are keen observers of humans; what they do with this knowledge is part of their social learning repertoire.
When comparing wolf and dog learning, researchers at Eötvös have found that when both species are faced with an insolvable task, the wolves—even those who have been hand-reared—are more “dogged” in trying to sort out the problem for themselves, whereas the dogs actually turn and “look in the direction of their owners as if they were asking for help.” (Miklósi, et al. 2003) As Fugazza notes, “this predisposition to look at humans paved the way” for the special bond we have with our dogs.
Taking dogs’ natural inclination to observe us to the next step, she developed a groundbreaking training protocol (detailed in the book/DVD combination) that taps into our dogs’ “copy cat” skill set. The exercises are definitely fun to do, but also will have practical application in training service dogs and canine athletes. Though rather simple, these training exercises demonstrate dogs’ complex cognitive skills and involve motivation, attention, memorization and replication.
So, when you set up your first training lesson, you need to know what motivates your dog (treats, play or praise). The action you choose must be replicable by the dog, who may use her mouth as we do our hands. The process itself is straightforward. It starts by asking the dog to stay still and observe you; you then demonstrate the behavior (say, walking around a table), return to the initial position and give the cue, “Do it” (which your dog has learned in the first phase of the training). When your dog offers the right behavior—i.e., mirrors your action— you reward her. This certainly makes for an entertaining game (and one that can be done inside or outside), but more importantly, it also enriches our relationship with our dogs and, Fugazza says, allows both “dog and human to achieve a deep and reciprocal level of understanding.” Brava, Claudia Fugazza!
As Marc Bekoff notes in the foreword to Mechtild Käufer’s Canine Play Behavior, “play is the most natural way for dogs to learn.” We have often reported on this in The Bark, both for the reason Bekoff notes and because it is such a vital part of their behavior throughout their lives. Käufer collects findings and analyses on the subject from many leading scientific researchers in this fascinating volume.
There are numerous reasons why dogs as a species are so playful, including the fact that play stimulates their endogenous reward system. It not only feels good while they play, according to Bekoff, it also causes them to feel relaxed, excited and happy all the same time. This complex emotional state only occurs during play.
We also learn that play behavior is not “an immature form of adult behavior but rather, a separate behavioral category drawing on its own neural structure.” There certainly is science behind it, and learning to follow their rules will help us direct their play behaviors in a fun and safe way. Along with marvelous photos illustrating all facets of play, this book provides a valuable reference, one that will help the reader better understand one of the most important aspects of dog behavior.
Another dog named Dash surfaces in the new addition to the “Dog Diaries” historical fiction series. This one, Dog Diaries #5: Dash by Kate Klimo (illustrated by Tim Jessell), is about an English Springer Spaniel who joins the Pilgrims on their Mayflower voyage to the New World. Dash and his Mastiff friend, Mercy, have front row “seats” for all the action, from the arduous ocean journey to the settlers’ first harvest with the Wampanoag Indians, whom they had befriended. An ideal Thanksgiving read. (Ages 7 to 10)
Norman, Speak! by Caroline Adderson (illustrated by Qin Leng) is a lovely picture book. Norman is adopted by a family who wants to give a home to the dog who has been in the shelter the longest. This is the first important lesson offered in this insightful book. Though the family loves Norman, they think he might not be the brightest because he doesn’t seem to understand them. But one day at the dog park, an Asian man calls to his dog in Chinese, and Norman runs up to him, too, listening intently to what the man has to say. Mystery solved! Norman “speaks” Chinese. Inspired by the need to communicate with Norman, the family signs up for Chinese lessons. They find the language difficult to learn, which helps them understand Norman’s difficulties with English—another valuable lesson. (Ages 4 to 7)
For the DIY set of all ages, we highly recommend Pop-Out & Paint Dogs & Cats by Cindy Littlefield. Thi s fun-packed book provides blank animal templates —13 breeds of dogs and 5 of cats— with ample painting/coloring instructions. You pop out these heavy-paper templates, paint them and then, if you like, trace them onto other paper for even more paper dogs (great idea for tree decorations). The dogs can also stand on their own with the help of paper clips. There are even directions about how to make other items, like a dog house, an agility course, collars and leashes, all for your new paper pups. This clever book packs hours’—maybe days’—worth of creative, artistic endeavors between its covers.
(Simon and Schuster)
Not long ago, Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, MD, looked at the connections between human ailments and those suffered by other animals. In the process, she coined a new word, zoobiquity, to describe that nascent field of study. The 2012 publication of her book of the same name marked an awakening interest in exploring the “animal-human overlap.”
Now, as an apt complement to that work, comes Animal Madness by Laurel Braitman, a science historian with a PhD from MIT. In her book, Braitman explores the ways in which the human mind and its disorders are inextricably linked with those of other social animals. She was launched into this line of study by her struggle to understand and heal Oliver, her compulsive, phobia- and anxiety-plagued Bernese Mountain Dog. Through caring for Oliver, Braitman experienced firsthand the challenges that animals with extreme mental illness present to themselves and to the people who love them.
Oliver’s trauma began when he was pushed aside by his first family after the birth of a child, an event that severely affected his mental and emotional life; Braitman and her then-husband only learned about this after adopting him as a four-year-old from his breeder. When the dog’s intense separation anxiety caused him to leap out of the couple’s fourth-floor apartment window, it became clear that it was almost impossible to leave him alone. As a result, their lives were increasingly constrained by Oliver’s fears, anxieties and compulsions. In trying to understand just how to best to help him, Braitman began to wonder how similar Oliver’s experiences were to those of humans with mental and emotional problems.
As the subtitle notes, the scope of this book spans multiple species—not just anxious companion animals but also, compulsive parrots, depressed great apes and donkeys, suicidal sea mammals, jealous elephants, and many others. While Oliver’s plight—which Braitman admits had her acting like a service animal for her own dog—runs through the book, she also covers topics like Charles Darwin (a firm believer in animal emotions), anthropomorphism (not a bad thing at all, since it allows us to understand “the other” better) and animal-pharma (an industry that has become quite pervasive in the treatment of animal psychological problems). Regarding the latter, she notes that initially, these drugs—which are projected to reach $9 billion in annual sales by 2015—were only prescribed by vet behavior specialists but are now readily available from most general-practice vets.
While some of these stories can be difficult for animal lovers to read, most have mediated recoveries. However, taken together, they make a salient case for acknowledging the “parallels between human and other animal mental health,” which, as Braitman notes, “is a bit like recognizing capacities for language, tool use and culture in other creatures.” And, given how important emotional enrichment is to all social animals, she definitely has qualms about the capacity of any social animal to lead an emotionally stable life in captivity in a zoo environment.
In the hands of an observant and engaging writer like Braitman, this story is an outstanding example of a rigorous investigation presented in a most accessible way. Readers will also be rewarded by the deep compassion and gratitude she shows for all her subjects, both the animals and the humans who care for them. As she humbly observes, Oliver was “one anxious dog who brought me the entire animal kingdom. I owe him everything.”
For more insights, see the Q&A with Laurel Braitman.
Culture: Readers Write
Those who share their lives with sporting dogs (as I do) face unique challenges: dogs who are hardwired to laser focus on anything that moves and have the physical stamina to run, leap and course for what seems like forever. Dawn Antoniak-Mitchell is well acquainted with these training trials, and in From Birdbrained to Brilliant: Training the Sporting Dog to be a Great Companion (Dogwise), offers sound advice on how to “work with the ‘sportiness’ in our dogs, instead of against it.” Many of these dogs, especially those used for hunting, have been trained using harsh methods to break them so they’re “biddable.” Luckily, this book subscribes to a much more humane, reward-based approach. Key points like how to motivate your dog and become her gatekeeper “for access to all good things” are stressed, as is creating and sticking with a training plan. As Antoniak- Mitchell observes, to teach your sporting dog to be a great companion, you must be as focused, enthusiastic and creative as she is. And it turns out that the secrets to achieving that goal are to be found in this very helpful book.
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.
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