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Culture: Reviews
E. B. White on Dogs
Published by Tilbury House, Publishers

This marvelous collection of classic essays, letters and assorted writings from master wordsmith E. B. White was assembled by his granddaughter and should be on the bookshelf of every person who cherishes good prose and good dogs. White, a dog enthusiast, was a keen observer, and his witty and concise writings predate the blogosphere by nearly a century. Nonetheless, his personable storytelling retains its freshness and immediacy and will charm and enlighten a new generation of dog-lovers.

Culture: Reviews
The Soul of All Living Creatures
What Animals Can Teach Us About Being Human, Published by Crown
 the-soul-of-all-living-creatures

With its title calling to mind a quote from Hippocrates — “The soul is the same in all living creatures although the body of each is different” —this book is a thoroughly engaging and thoughtful consideration of the ways in which humans can benefit from closer attention to the ways of animals. Dr. Virga describes his conversion from emergency room clinician to behavioral vet medicine, then shares his experiences treating problems experienced by animals both domestic and exotic. His insights into the animal mind have the potential to inform our relationships with our own companion animals.

Culture: Reviews
Book Review: The Possibility Dogs
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Possibility Dogs - Susannah Charleson

One of our favorite books was Charleson’s first, Scent of the Missing, about training both herself and her dog, Puzzle, for search-and-rescue work. This time, in The Possibility Dogs, she takes a similar approach but refocuses it on training dogs (all of whom are rescues) for psychiatric service and therapy duty. She learns how to evaluate dogs in order to find those who might have the right personality for this activity; for many shelter dogs, this is literally a lifesaver. Not only is the book a testament to the strength of the human-dog bond, but also, an informative training guide and a truly inspiring personal story.

Culture: Reviews
Book Review: Wilderness
Published by Bloomsbury
Lance Weller, Wilderness

Wilderness is an achingly beautiful book. It takes you deep into the heart of a Civil War veteran scarred by nearly unspeakable tragedies and losses, and traces his ultimate redemption, which begins the moment a red-blond dog steps out of the forest and into the light of his cook fire.

When we meet this man, Abel Truman, he lives in a shack by the sea on the wild coast of Washington state, alone save for his dog. Old and sick, haunted by memories, he sets out to cross the mountains to make peace with his past. As Abel and the dog make their way through the rugged landscape, we learn Abel’s story in a series of flashbacks: the events that shattered his young family, the astonishing carnage of the Battle of the Wilderness, the former slave who nursed him afterward.

Once Abel begins his journey, his dog—and a mysterious wolf-dog who slips in and out of the tale—leads him in directions he never intended to take. The animals move him to take risks and reconsider his past, and to safeguard the life of an orphaned child.

Weller writes beautifully; his descriptions of the landscapes are nothing short of magnificent. So are his descriptions of the dogs, and of the bond between humans and dogs. The wolf-dog harries an elk, Weller writes, “low to the ground, moving like water over stones.” Abel, seeing that his dog is sick, feels “something break apart inside him.”

Though the book contains violence and cruelty, it has tenderness, kindness and wisdom at its core. It’s true and deep, funny and real. Ultimately, it evokes the essential ways that dogs weave their way into our lives: as sentinels, guides, companions and catalysts for crucial turning points in our journeys.

Culture: Reviews
Book Review: The Patron Saint of Lost Dogs
The Patron Saint of Lost Dogs

It’s refreshing to read a novel whose protagonist is a small-town veterinarian, and who better to write such a book than Nick Trout, surgeon at Boston’s Angell Animal Medical Center, author of three nonfiction books and Bark contributor as well!

In The Patron Saint of Lost Dogs, a down-on-his-luck veterinary pathologist, Cyrus Mills, comes home to Vermont with the intention of selling his estranged, recently deceased father’s vet practice. Things don’t exactly go the way he thought they would, however. His dad’s imprudent business ways— among them, rarely asking his clients for payment and becoming the town’s “patron saint of lost dogs”—leaves little for Cyrus to recoup.

The novel has seven chapters, one for each day of Cyrus’s first week in town, during which a mean-spirited bank manager tries to collect on a huge debt. With good-natured tutoring from a much older vet, Cyrus refocuses his skills on living animals; he also discovers how important both his patients and the community can be to him. As he learns how to be a country vet, he uses his pathologist’s insights to correctly diagnose more than one tricky condition.

This all makes for a charming and engrossing reading experience, one with —dare we say it?—great cinematic potential.

Culture: Reviews
Book Review: Animal Wise
The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures
Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures

This enthralling book might change the way we perceive other species who share the planet with us. Animal Wise is a spinoff of a 2008 article the author wrote for National Geographic about how animals think.

As you read through Morell’s conversations with some of the top researchers in the biological sciences, you cannot help but feel slightly envious. How fortunate she was to have had an assignment that took her to (among other places) Kenya, Venezuela, Australia, England and Japan, and to spend time with scientists and their animals, plus learn about their field studies firsthand. We’re lucky that Morell is such an able and enthusiastic storyteller and can deftly interpret complicated theses and theories for us.

She explores what these researchers have discovered about the mental and emotional lives of animals ranging from ants and trout to parrots, elephants, 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.” Not, as others have done, to see how unique the human mind is, which we learn is not all that much.

The book opens with the smallest subjects, rock ants who use complicated social communication skills to teach other ants. Next up are fish, who also learn from one another. Amazingly, parrots each have their own names, and have “conversations” with flock friends. And, yes, rats laugh; elephants mourn; and fish, alas, feel pain (in fact, trout have 22 pain receptor cells on their heads alone). Morrell shares these findings, and many others, with a journalistic sense of having a front-row seat, and it makes for a compelling read.

Culture: Reviews
Book Review: The Truth About Wolves and Dogs
Dispelling the Myths of Dog Training
The Truth About Wolves and Dogs

Many books about dogs cross my desk, and a few immediately catch my eye. Often, it’s simply a title or a cover photo that attracts my attention. Mark Derr’s How the Dog Became the Dog was one of the more recent ones, as was Stephen Budiansky’s The Truth About Dogs some years ago. Unfortunately, Budiansky’s book had so many errors in it that I became suspicious of any book with the word “truth” in the title.

So, when I received a copy of Toni Shelbourne’s new book, The Truth About Wolves and Dogs, I opened it cautiously and began reading. In a nutshell, I was very pleased, especially with Shelbourne’s candor about what we know and don’t know, and her dismantling of training methods that entail abusive behavior on the part of the human trainer, such as those used by Cesar Millan.

The Truth About Wolves and Dogs is a practical guide to who wolves are; who their descendants, our best friends, are; and how what we know about the behavior of wild and domesticated animals can be used to better understand them and help us adapt to their world and them to ours. A significant take-home message is that dogs are not wolves. They are domesticated animals who have undergone their own unique changes as they became dogs.

I also found the discussions of dominance (it is not a myth) and the notion of alpha animals to be well grounded. Finally, I like the way Shelbourne ends her book, imploring readers to “Say ‘no’ to inappropriate training methods … Let’s have a revolution and let our dogs be dogs. Let them be our faithful companions, acknowledge and welcome the fact that they have thoughts, feelings and express themselves, just as we do.” Amen.

Culture: Reviews
I Thought You Were Dead: A Love Story
Algonquin Books; $23.95

“I thought you were dead,” Stella says to Paul when he returns home from a bar, on page one of Pete Nelson’s new novel. Delivered by an aging, arthritic Labrador/Shepherd mix, the line displays the dry wit and dog logic that makes Stella and, by extension, much of this novel a delight.

 

At the center of the story is Paul Gustavson, a writer in Northampton, Mass., whom we follow over the course of a year while he pens Nature for Morons, deals with the fallout from his father’s stroke, and dates for the first time since a messy divorce. Much of the story unfolds in conversations (the best between Paul and Stella, more on that in a sec) and instant messaging exchanges; the “action” takes place in Paul’s head. Nelson does a fine job weaving the narrative so that while the end surprises, you can look back and recognize the necessary telltales in the fabric of the story.

 

Yes, Stella talks. And the conversations are so charming and matter-offact that it hardly seems worth asking from whence this special power comes. It might just be Paul’s creative projection.

 

In a typical exchange, Paul asks Stella, “If you could be a vegetable, what vegetable would you be?”

 

“Is a tomato a fruit or a vegetable?”

 

“There’s been some debate. Why would you be a tomato?”

 

“To get next to all those hamburgers,” the dog says.

 

“But if you were a tomato, you wouldn’t want to eat hamburger.”

 

“Of course I would. Why would I change, just because I’m a tomato?”

 

Paul dissertates on human behavior (particularly his own self-destructive actions) for Stella, but her smart, simple questions expose the truth, including her sharp assessment of his love troubles — based on observation. “Don’t forget,” she says, “there were three of us in the room, not two.”

 

Although the love story of the title likely refers to a long-distance romance with a divorced would-be singer named Tamsen, the affaire de coeur that captured and held my attention was between a man and his dog. Paul and Stella are like an old married couple, in the best ways, sharing an abundance of tenderness and humor forged during 15 years together. In one of my favorite moments, Paul snuggles with a frightened Stella during a thunderstorm. In their cave under a blanket-topped kitchen table, he comforts her with the story of how humans and wolves first threw in together. If that’s not love, what is?

Culture: Reviews
Book Review: The Genius of Dogs
How Dogs Are Smarter Than You Think
The Genius of Dogs

The Genius of Dogs is written in a pleasant, conversational style that is enjoyable to read. Its strength lies in the sections on the history of canine-specific research, which are easy-to-read, informative summaries of the progression of particular lines of study.

Among the well-covered topics are Belyaev’s genetic studies on foxes; the vocal communication of dogs; and Rico and Chaser, the dogs famous for knowing the names of hundreds of objects. Other sections of the book are less successful. More than once, I found myself puzzled by conclusions that didn’t follow logically from the available data. This gave me the impression that the authors already had opinions about how dogs’ minds work and were trying to force the data into supporting those viewpoints.

A notable weakness comes in the discussion of Hare’s own research. Although the authors say they will include work that contradicts Hare’s results, they fail to mention any of the reputable studies disputing his major findings about dogs’ responsiveness to human gestures. Notably absent are the well-known research studies challenging Hare’s conclusion that dogs are better than wolves at following human gestures.

Hare has reason to be proud of both the volume of research into canine cognition his experiments have inspired as well as his trailblazing open-mindedness in using his own pet dog as a subject at a time when such use was discouraged. His innovative work has motivated a new generation of scientists to ask new questions about how dogs think and communicate. I’d love to see him embrace the full range of studies that expand on his original work with dogs, as these are part of his legacy.

Culture: Reviews
Book Review: Pukka's Promise
Science and storytelling make compelling reading
Pukka

In Merle’s Door, Ted Kerasote explored the canine-human bond–its when, how and why. Readers learned how wolves likely joined humans in a symbiotic relationship that enriched both, ultimately leading to the rich diversity of dog breeds we have today. Kerasote also explored animal consciousness—how allowing dogs to be free-thinking enriches their lives and partnerships with us.

Readers of Merle’s Door flooded Kerasote with letters about their own dogs and the relationships they shared. Many also mentioned that their dogs had died far too young, often from cancer, and asked why some breeds seem to be more prone to certain health issues than others. These intimate revelations and immediate questions prompted Kerasote to write his most recent book, Pukka’s Promise: The Quest for Longer-Lived Dogs (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

Because we take such joy in the bond, we want to maximize our canine companions’ health and life spans, allowing that bond to flourish as long as possible. Kerasote is no exception. After Merle’s death, he went on a quest, not just for a puppy, but more importantly to readers, for answers to two basic questions: why do dogs die so young, and what can we do about it?

Pukka’s Promise picks up where Merle’s Door ended, and is similar in style—heartfelt stories of life with his new dog Pukka (and the other freeroaming dogs of Kelly, Wyo.) mixed seamlessly with detailed reporting on cutting-edge research into canine health. The book is dense with information, insights and investigations into matters that affect the health and longevity of our four-legged co-pilots. It’s also full of the personal, evocative stories of the human-canine bond that made Merle’s Door a national bestseller.

Kerasote takes nothing as gospel and nothing for granted. He challenges current dog breed standards and breeding practices, and the clubs that promote them. He questions veterinary-care dogma, especially when it comes to what we feed our dogs, how we vaccinate them and how we regulate their reproduction. He digs deep into veterinary literature and writings of progressive thinkers in veterinary medicine, talks to animal-welfare advocates, and provides historical context for the current trend of breeding for looks over function and health. In the process, he offers some rays of hope for positive changes in breed standards.

Digging deeper, he also chases down the truth behind the hype when it comes to topics like food choices, toxic toys, too-frequent vaccination schedules and spay/neuter. In some instances— for example, dog toys—he pays for lab tests to find out what something is really made of. He asks experts uncomfortable questions and parses true wisdom from traditional thinking. In a heartwrenching section, motivated by his desire to fully understand the challenges shelters face, Kerasote takes us with him into an animal shelter as unwanted dogs are euthanized.

Throughout Pukka’s Promise, we peek over Kerasote’s shoulder as Pukka grows and learns about the world and as Kerasote applies what he learns—from choosing Pukka’s breeder and deciding how many diseases to vaccinate him against (and when) to what to feed him, among other things. Glimpses of Pukka’s charmed life are interwoven with vast amounts of important information based on the latest research, all of which is presented in a very accessible and engaging way, one that encourages you to draw your own conclusions and make the best choices for you and your dog. By distilling years of in-depth research on a wide array of canine health topics into a provocative, thought-provoking book, Kerasote has done us all a huge favor.

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