The bold strokes of today’s young-adult lit
Imagine star-crossed lovers of old would blush and faint before indulging in the kind of libidinal excess that courses through young-adult novels these days. But Paul Griffin knows better than all that. An award-winning novelist who also trains dogs and works with incarcerated young people, Griffin has penned a highly praised new book, Stay with Me, that celebrates the drama, heartbreak and fragile sensuality of today’s accelerated teenage life.
Stay with Me recounts the tragic fate of a sweet rescued fighting dog named Boo and her unlikely caretakers, two 15-year-old lovers hamstrung by burdensome disadvantages. Mack Morse, an abandoned, then abused high-school dropout, has a rap sheet and a special knack with dogs. He also struggles with violent thoughts that manifest as a hissing in his head, “like when you roll the radio to static and dial up the volume.”
The only remedy? You guessed it his coworker —bright, comely and selfdeprecating Céce Vaccuccia, who studies assiduously and parents her own mother, Carmella, whom she describes with characteristic teenage sarcasm as a “never-married, twice-knocked-up and ditched alcoholic with crippling bunions.”
While each of these facts may be true about Carmella, and the judgment behind them heartfelt, there’s no doubt that Céce loves her mother. This is much the same for all of Griffin’s characters. We are drawn into the oppressive grind of their lives; their words are sharp and their fates are grim, but their essential moral fiber withstands the wear and tear of their preventable, regrettable mistakes. These are, despite their deplorable decisions and even heinous acts, good people.
Mack compels Céce — scarred by a dog attack during childhood — to befriend his dog, Boo. “You’ve got to go a long way into evil to turn a Pit against people,” says Mack. “They forgive easy as rain falls.” And so, in turn, does Céce. The magic of love’s force transports the couple to a new and terribly temporary happiness. But when Boo suffers brutal violence yet again, Céce is nowhere to be found and Mack acts on an aggressive impulse, destroying any prospects for their future together.
While Mack’s character develops and deepens as a result of his poor choices, Céce’s prospects wither following his withdrawal. But her world is open now to the solace of a loyal dog, something she would never have had without learning to trust Boo, and the heedless abandon she experienced with Mack.
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 the classic shelves, as well as some newer ones.
THE SCIENCE OF DOG
Man Meets Dog was first published fifty years ago, becoming a classic that every dog lover should read‹a slim, witty volume by the Nobel Prize-winning scientist, Konrad Lorenz. It was the first to delve into the canine mind and also launched the debate to what extend do its wolf ancestors affect modern dog behavior.
The Hidden Life of Dogs is a book made famous for the number of miles that Elizabeth Marshall Thomas clocked while tracking a Husky on his daily forays in her anthropological quest to answer, “What do dogs really want?” It is an enthralling account that brings a fresh understanding to the emotional lives of dogs.
Somewhere along the path of evolution two distinct animal species made the choice to “cooperate not to compete.” In The Animal Attraction Dr. Jonica Newby, an Australian veterinarian, poses the more fascinating question "If we didn¹t link up with dogs, where would we be today?" Her answers about our co-evolution are both surprising and wildly entertaining.
In Dog Sense, animal behaviorist John Bradshaw outlines what we can expect from our co-pilots as well as what they need to live harmoniously with us. 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.
Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz is 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.
Dog’s Best Friend by Mark Derr who writes about the “culture of the dog” like no one else‹he goes well beyond the in’s and out’s of breeding and training examining all aspects about what makes our relationship to dogs tick.
MEMOIRS & LITERATURE
Scent of the Missing by Susannah Charleson. A fascinating memoir of the adventures of a Search and Rescue pup and how both she and her human partner mastered the course together.
In Dog Years, poet Mark Doty recounts how two dogs rescued and supported him during a time of deep grief. A tender, amusing and insightful reflection on the bond with have with animals.
The Proof is in the Poodle by Donna Kelleher, a holistic vet who has written a thoughtful and sensitive exploration of the ways we help out animals heal—physically, emotionally and spiritually. (2012,Two Harbors Press)
Garth Stein’s novel, The Art of Racing in the Rain, is a beautifully crafted tale of the wonders and absurdities of human life as only a dog could describe them.
Rick Bass’s Colter: The True Story of the Best Dog I Ever Had is a gorgeously written memoir about a remarkable “brown” dog who possessed a genius for the hunt. It is also a powerful contemplation about the natural world and how a dog can unveil its secrets to us, if only we are wise enough to watch and listen.
Donald McCaig’s Eminent Dogs: Dangerous Men is a book about the fascinating world of sheepherding and Border Collies and how the history of these dogs is infused by character of the people who admire then and who “partner” with them. Part memoir, travelogue, and part investigation into one of the oldest alliances mankind has struck with canines.
Dog Walks Man, a collection of humorous and absorbing essays by John Zeaman, conveys how the routine act of dog-walking can connect us to the joys of the nature.
Pack of Two: The Intricate Bond Between People and Dogs by Carolyn Knapp is the seminal book about, as its subtitle proclaims, the bond between people and dogs. A must read for all dog people—affirming that we aren’t alone in our dog-centricity. Knapp explored why dogs matter to us and concludes that we love them for themselves—for their very otherness and dogginess.
My Dog Tulip by J.R. Ackerley. This book is a lovely, unsentimental and very moving biography of a dog, an Alsatian female named Tulip. Ackerley is charmed and fascinated by her and his descriptions about her behavior and habits are among the more tender “love” stories ever.
Lee Harrington’s Rex in the City is the modern day story about how a young couple learned about the challenges of adopting an abused, untrained dog and bringing him up in a small NYC apartment. The author shares both her pains and her joys of their life with a troubled dog. But readers will be reminded—in a delightful way—that love does indeed conquer all.
Patricia McConnell, PhD, CAAB, has written a shelf-load of books in which she decodes the mysteries of canine behavior. Two we particularly like are The Other End of the Leash, which focuses on why we behave as we do around our dogs and how it affects them, and (with Karen London, PhD), Love Has No Age Limit, a much-needed primer on adopting an adult dog.
If you’ve wondered vets do day-to-day, read veterinary surgeon Nick Trout’s Tell Me Where It Hurts and Love Is the Best Medicine and get clued in.
WHO DONE IT?
David Rosenfelt’s Andy Carpenter is a reluctant attorney whose real passions are dog rescue and his Golden Retriever, Tara. One Dog Night is the most recent entry.
In Spencer Quinn’s “Chet and Bernie” mysteries, narrated by Chet the dog, comments on the way dogs see the world ring true (and will make you smile). The fifth book, A Fist Full of Collars, is due out in September.
Our long-time favorite, Susan Conant, released a new “Holly Winter” mystery earlier this year, thank goodness; Brute Strength is number 19 in the series featuring the Malamute-loving dog writer and, of course, her favorite dogs.
Transaction Publishers, 235 pp., 2008; $34.95
We Give Our Hearts to Dogs to Tear is not your typical, heartwarming dog story. Yes, there are heartwarming passages aplenty. But this book is also full of heart-stopping tragedy. That’s because the author and his human and animal family, including an assortment of Jack Russell Terriers, live in the wild mountains of Montana. Beautiful and rugged, the land is full of dangers ranging from hungry coyotes, bears and mountain lions to crabby 30-pound badgers, snares left by fur trappers, and poison set out by ranchers for coyotes. This is the sort of setting where any dog can get into serious trouble. And no dog can get into trouble like a Jack Russell Terrier.
These 15-pound dogs think they’re 10 feet tall, and immortal. They are fearless hunters. If you have or know a Jack Russell, you will have noticed that they consider what other dogs accept as commands to be mere suggestions. It’s because they think they know more than you do, and they may be right. Although all exhibit the breed’s typical intelligence, courage and energy, each is a uniquely complex, and often problematic, character. Chase’s Nobie was “a bundle of exasperating eccentricities,” whose “personality [had] more kinks than a corkscrew.” Ifrit “had a limitless capacity for love,” yet once, while playing, bit the author so hard he had to get a tetanus shot. Hobson was “sensitivity incarnate,” but prone to anxiety attacks that sent him diving under the bed covers.
The author buys his first Jack Russell as a birthday present for his wife, Diana—by mistake. He thinks he heard her say she wanted one; she remembers saying nothing of the kind. The couple already had plenty of animals: among them, 11 horses, two wildcats, a Mastiff and a coyote. Neither of them had any idea that Jack Russells were small dogs, and no clue that they had such huge personalities. But as it turns out, the breed was a perfect match for the big-hearted, life-loving, risk-taking couple. Transplants from Minnesota, they’re the sort of folks who, though perennially broke, fell in love with a dilapidated 3,000-acre Montana ranch that they knew was “too expensive, too primitive and too remote”—and promptly bought it.
Their Jack Russells are just as adventurous as they are. With a frenetic zest for life, these pint-sized dogs hunt ground squirrels, take out marmots and challenge badgers. They fall off rock ledges, collide with skunks, get quilled by porcupines and nearly drown in rushing rivers. Every day with the dogs, writes Chase, is “filled with love, play, empathy, anxiety, courage and near sudden death.”
Too often, death catches up with them. Their first Jack Russell, Phineas, dies in agony in less than a year, poisoned. Another is killed by a badger. One dies young of liver disease. Others live to old age—but you’ll cry when they die, too.
The deaths of these feisty dogs, as much as their lives, form the heart of the book. There are lots of great characters, moving descriptions of the land, discourses on the history of the Jack Russell and the dangers of breeding for appearance instead of performance. But these are incidental in the journey that is the book’s narrative core: Chase is looking for immortality for his dogs. Aren’t we all?
Because it’s impossible not to fall in love with characters like Phineas and Ifrit, Truffle and Tigger, Panda and Bungee—especially after you see the black and white pictures—some readers will be angry that Chase chose to bring these fearless, trouble-prone dogs into the dangerous western wilderness. Chase tackles this issue head-on, like one of his dogs might seize a ground squirrel. A former professor of philosophy, Chase takes on some Big Questions: Who are our dogs? What sort of lives do we owe them? How do we honor their spirits? What is the soul? Where lies immortality?
Bereft again and again, Chase tries to find another Phineas. (He gets two Jack Russells the next time, for emotional insurance.) He tries to replicate Ifrit. (This also fails.) He visits breeders, seeking to reincarnate the spirit of Bungee. Of course, it doesn’t work. But the vivid ghosts of Chase’s dogs demonstrate that what does happen is another kind of immortality.
Surely one of the cruelest conditions of life on Earth is that dogs don’t live as long as people. Yet, we “give our hearts to dogs to tear,” as Rudyard Kipling writes in the poem that gave Chase the book’s title. Yes, they tear our heart—but their indomitable, timeless spirits heal it again and again.
Viking, 341 pp., 2008; $23.95
One would have to have a heart of stone not to be captivated by this bittersweet debut novel, now available in an American edition, in which Prince, a Labrador Retriever, narrates his heroic attempts to save his human family from the dangers that threaten their peace and security. That the novel in form is a reminiscence by Prince as he waits to be put down by his owner, who does not understand what Prince has done throughout to save the family from itself, testifies, of course, to the futility of his actions. But that this sad history is communicated to a younger Labrador as a cautionary tale in how best to perform as Labradors expect of themselves, turns it into a larger, tragicomic meditation on loyalty, sacrifice and the possibilities of idealism in a world of disillusionment and irresponsibility.
The situation is this: Originally obedient, the Springer Spaniels, having realized that humans can no longer take care of themselves and hence that the stability of their families cannot be taken for granted, no longer pay attention to humans’ welfare or intervene on their behalf. They begin to slip their leads; they live for the moment and for themselves; they learn to sniff for pleasure rather than for purpose. The humans hardly notice—“Lamp posts were still being splashed. Crotches were still being sniffed.”—and most of the breeds are quietly won over to the Springers’ cause. Not so the Labradors, who institute a compact, based on the immutable principles of “duty over all,” self-denial, non-violence and constant vigilance. To the extent that humans consider the breakdown of family bonds, they explain it through easy sociology: the demands of career, the secularization of Western society, unhealthy diet. But as usual in this novel, the dogs sniff out the problem all too well: Humans overly privilege one sense (sight), which too often makes them the victim of appearances; they don’t understand their own nature, as part of Nature; they are afraid of aging and death; they can’t come to terms with sex; and in general, think that with science, technology and culture, they can control desire and instinct. Relying on such apparatus, Haig suggests, makes humans lovable objects for Labradors’ protective instincts, but teaches them nothing about themselves. And, sadly, it’s the dogs who pay the price: Get too close to them and you’ll get hurt, Prince is warned by a non-Lab; and so indeed he is.
This novel works as well as it does because of two writerly strategies. First, Haig’s sensitive depiction of the Hunter family, who had rescued Prince as a pup from a shelter in a desperate attempt to shore up their own dissolving human relationships, wisely renders them neither evil nor psychopathic, even if disconcertingly typical and familiar in their failings. Adam, the father, irresolute and frustrated in both his career and marriage, becomes involved with a good-looking, ditzy aromatherapist. Kate, the mother, avoids marital intimacy through incessant housecleaning, but too easily acquiesces when her old lover reappears. Hal and Charlotte, the teenaged children, are predictably given over to rebellious acts with seedy friends. Prince knows how few internal resources this weak but finally sympathetic family can muster against threats from the outside. Second, Haig nicely complicates Prince’s personality beyond that of a mere virtuous automaton: At night, Prince dreams of running wild with his ancestral wolves; at one point, he falls into a reverie, intoxicated by the delectable leaf juice, worm blood and squirrel droppings of the park’s smell-heap. He later undergoes a profound crisis of belief when learning that his father figure, a Labrador named Henry, has morally compromised himself in blind adherence to the letter of the pact. Because Haig has made the moral choices complex, Prince’s final self-denying commitment to an ideal that will never be realized is all the more nuanced and profound.
Similarly nuanced and largely successful is Haig’s ingenious evocations of Shakespeare, specifically the two parts of Henry IV: “Prince,” like Shakespeare’s Prince Hal, will reject the temptations of the self-indulgent life represented by the Springer-spokesman “Falstaff,” prove himself by defeating the traitor to the established order—appropriately named Simon “Hotspur”—and accept the values of his father-figure “Henry.” Other allusions are less relevant (there is an impetuous Rottweiler named “Lear”) or inappropriate (“Kate,” the name by which Prince Hal addresses his French wife after he is crowned king, is a bad choice of name for the mother). But it’s especially intriguing that the future of the teenaged son “Hal” is left uncertain. The only human who hears Prince’s words, young Hal cannot accept them, coming as they do from a dog. We are left to wonder in this wise and wry novel if he will remain “in the tavern,” surrounded by the Falstaffs of the world, and whether Prince has died in vain.
Perfect Paws Productions, 2007, Runtime 2 hours 35 minutes; $34.95
When all the pieces of a puzzle snap together, it’s a pleasure to behold. In this instance, the “puzzle” is the pet dog training DVD, Perfect Paws in 5 Days. The pieces include terrific production quality, jazzy dog-themed music and an engaging supporting cast cleverly bound together by Jean Donaldson, an upbeat and innovative dog training expert.
The DVD covers essential training commands: “sit,” “down,” “stay,” “come” and “watch me.” Jean’s entertaining chapter introductions teach dog training theory in small, interesting nuggets. After Jean demonstrates each exercise—assisted by her enthusiastic demo dog, Buffy—you join her and five dog-training teams for classes at the Perfect Paws training academy. With lavish praise and gentle corrections, Jean and her teams demonstrate the right, and wrong, way to practice each behavior. “Push, stick, drop” are among Jean’s unique cues to successful training; your dog will love her signature approach to teaching come/recall.
While this DVD is top-notch, it’s not perfect. First, the DVD menu lists the classes as Lessons One through Five, which doesn’t explain what they include. The extensive bonus material didn’t print from the DVD menu on either a Mac or a Windows PC, but was accessible directly from the disk on both platforms. Those small mechanical complaints aside, Perfect Paws in 5 Days highlights Jean’s original dog-training techniques. Let’s hope it’s the first in a series of equally creative DVDs covering other tricky training challenges.
Buy this DVD
Almaden Books, 238 pp., 2007; $16.95
In this no-kill manifesto, attorney Nathan Winograd identifies the moment when he believes the budding humane movement lost its way. Overruling the wishes of its founder, Henry Bergh, ASPCA agreed in the late 1800s to operate New York’s cruelly primitive dog pounds. Thus, the organization became accustomed to killing animals, albeit more compassionately than under the city’s brutal regime. Winograd argues that the animal welfare establishment has remained mired in 19th-century thinking and processes, to unnecessarily fatal effect for the five million healthy animals destroyed in US animal “shelters” each year.
He traces the movement’s history, highlighting its failed attempts to legislate, educate and coercively sterilize the nation out of its presumed pet over-population problem. Policies have been founded, he claims, on twin (and false) premises: that there are too many companion animals to be absorbed into proper homes, and that the public can be harangued into more responsible care of its pets. This has led shelters to the hopeless approach of “adopting out a few and killing the rest” of their unlucky tenants, while blaming an indifferent citizenry for their thankless task.
He then describes no-kill successes in San Francisco; Charlottesville, Va.; and Reno, Nev., as well as his own shelter management work in rural Tompkins County, N.Y. Here the book comes alive as he reports life-or-death tales of animals who were spared the needle by the best efforts of shelter personnel applying the logic, tactics and creative hard work of the no-kill paradigm: low-cost spay/neuter, foster and rescue care, medical/behavioral interventions, trap/neuter/release for feral cats, and several species of community outreach. In each case, shelters dramatically reduced their kill rates to under 10 percent of all animals without selective intake or “adoptability” analyses to eliminate problem critters—no smoke, no mirrors. He also explodes the claim of inherent overpopulation, demonstrating that sufficient homes are available if only they can be more effectively linked with needy animals.
Finally, Winograd indicts the humane establishment for seeking to discredit—rather than embrace—these successes. San Francisco was proclaimed too urban (and, remarkably, too “gay”); Tompkins County, too rural and Yankee; Charlottesville, too collegiate, and so on. Institutional interests, he believes, have outweighed their life-saving mission. Indeed, the response of the mainstream organizations to this book will be crucial and instructive. One hopes for a collaboration toward better, 21st-century “best practices.” Eyes on the prize, everyone—our behavior should not embarrass our pets.
The world owes much to those rare individuals who see things differently—and who then devote themselves to vindicating their maverick conclusions. Though Redemption is repetitive, may be over-harsh on no-kill’s detractors, and concentrates more on diagnosis than cure, it’s an important work. The shelter world has shielded most of the public from the grim realities of its operations, and has convinced the rest that change is possible only at the margins. This book is a clarion call to the burgeoning, pet-loving community—readers of The Bark, perhaps—to demand better from its shelters, and to participate in the soulful work of saving lives.
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The Penguin Press, 238 pp., March 2008; $25.95
This is a story of a life measured out in dogs. Today, Morie Sawataishi is 94, and when he looks back at the road he’s traveled, the signposts all look like Akitas.
Akitas are dogs of Japan’s snow country: long, heavy legs; tightly curled tails; great stamina; and a thick double coat heavy enough to protect them in all kinds of weather. These were the dogs who are thought to have come onto the main island of Japan with the first tribes of migratory hunters some 2,000 years ago, and who, for 300 years, were inspirations for Japan’s samurai class. The story of Hachi-ko—the Akita who, daily for nine years, met the four o’clock train at the Shibuya station, watching for his deceased master—is known by every schoolchild.
Yet, during World War II, the breed came close to being wiped out. The military paid dearly for heavy Akita pelts, which were used to line officers’ coats, and in those grim times, there was no shortage of sellers.
In Dog Man, Martha Sherrill describes how Sawataishi—a single-minded man with a fierce will—helped save the ancient Akita from almost certain extinction. To Sawataishi, the Akita wasn’t exotic; for him “it was simply the local dog, the regional dog, the breed he’d seen everywhere as a child growing up in snow country.” No one was more surprised than him when, in his 30s and newly returned from a stint in the Japanese navy, he was overcome with a desire for an Akita. By that time, there weren’t many around, and because food was scarce too, feeding a dog was a hard thing to do. But Sawataishi persevered, and one day, came home with an Akita puppy—to the immense dismay of his wife.
This wasn’t the first unconventional thing Sawataishi had done; within days of marrying a well-educated girl from Tokyo, he took her to the island’s far north to live near his family. She returned to Tokyo while he served his time in the navy, but when he completed his duty, back they went to snow country, where everything was not only colder, it was more difficult. Thirty years ago, when he decided to build a traditional cottage on slopes of Mount Kurikoma, everyone else in the family objected, and some thought he’d lost his mind. But build it he did. He didn’t want the things most of his countrymen craved: a golf membership, a fine home in Tokyo, an easy life. No, he wanted space, and quiet, and room for his dogs. And there, on the side of the mountain, he found them.
This is not only a story about a man and his dogs, it is also the story of a time in Japan that Americans heard little about. During World War II, it was hard for those in the U.S. to imagine that there were people in the island nation who didn’t want to kill them, people who were appalled by the military’s raging ambition. In Dog Man, we learn about some of these “other” Japanese and the hardships they endured as every resource their country could muster went to support the military. Who lived in fear of bombers overhead. Who, starving, were urged on to even greater sacrifices by their emperor. Under those circumstances, Sawataishi’s desire for a dog is both a snapshot of normalcy and emblematic of his independent and determined nature.
“In the old days of Japan, honoring the specific look or ‘breed’ was never part of the dog tradition. Spirit was the thing one hoped to keep alive.” Dog Man is a celebration of a man with spirit to spare, and of the dogs that marked and enriched his life.
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Harcourt, 398 pp., 2008; $15
There have been a slew of dog biographies and canine/human-memoirs published lately—many falling into the “can you believe that my dog actually did that” subgenre. Just see what the unbridled success of Marley & Me has spawned! Publishers are, at long last, understanding the power that dogs, and good dog stories, have to sell books. The other thing that some of these books have in common is that they have been written by journalists, who know how to spin engaging stories. John Grogan, whose newspaper column previewed his Marley stories, becomes a bestselling author by compiling his columns into a book about a big, lovable, but oh-so-naughty Lab. The prolific Jon Katz, whose first dog book, A Dog Year, came out 2002, has expanded his title empire by publishing nearly a book a year, and has become a self-styled gentleman farmer and dog “expert.” Now, with the publication of Ted Kerasote’s Merle’s Door: Lessons from a Freethinking Dog, comes a much smarter and more compelling read, making it a welcome addition to the field.
Kerasote—author, journalist, outdoorsman and hunter—tells the story of his dog Merle, whom he found while on a kayaking trip in Utah. The large, red, amiable dog had apparently been living alone for some time, perhaps a reservation dog gone astray, before he met up with Kerasote and his fellow kayakers. The author interpreted the attention the dog directed to him to mean: “You need a dog, and I’m it.” Merle goes on to become the river trip’s mascot, which begins a 13-year journey of co-discovery for dog and man.
From the opening pages of Merle’s Door, it is apparent that it has been written from a perspective and in a style different from that of other recent dog books—more aligned in its naturalistic narrative to Rick Bass’s masterwork, Colter: The True Story of the Best Dog I Ever Had, than to Grogan’s Marley or to Bark’s own Lee Harrington Rex stories. Perhaps because Kerasote has well-honed skills as a nature and adventure writer (see his award-winning book, Out There: In the Wild in a Wired Age), he is able to examine in great detail his relationship with Merle by adroitly weaving canine natural history and behavioral studies in with his dog’s memoir. This is the major strength of the book. And luckily, he looks to the works of leading experts, including those familiar to Bark readers—Patricia McConnell, Mark Derr and Marc Bekoff—to inform the trajectory of his views.
As for Merle, he really is an extraordinary dog, one whose early taste of an independent life is only enhanced by teaming up with his “man.” This pairing is made easier when Kerasote stumbles upon the idea that what his dog most needs is a door of his own (hence the book’s subtitle). So, instead of Merle being reliant on Kerasote for basic aspects of life, including when to relieve himself, he can make those decisions himself. Since they live in Kelly, Wyo., a mostly fenceless and open environment, Merle is able to take full of advantage of his freedom and the trust that Kerasote has in him. As the author notes, “The activities he enjoyed were unstructured and self-motivated—he was able to undertake them, break them off, and resume them according to his own schedule.” To explore his world, to make his own choices—certainly a life that would be the envy of most dogs (and controversial to some dog lovers)!
The author has a firm grasp of what was important in his dog’s life and how important this relationship becomes to the life of the author himself. This book, with its “I am my own dog” hero, establishes a new benchmark in the memoir field. Merle’s Door is a compelling, insightful and tender story that opens new doors into the understanding of the nature of dogs.
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News: Karen B. London
Good lessons in a kids’ book
Presentations to children about dog behavior and about how to act around dogs provide helpful safety lessons. The basic points I like to make when talking with kids are the things I wish that every child knew for the sake of safety. These include:
Recently, I covered these issues in my son’s first grade class with a combination of photos, discussion, an art activity in which the kids drew a good thing to do around a dog and a bad thing to do around a dog, and a book I read to them. The kids loved the book, which is Wendy Wahman’s Don’t Lick the Dog: Making Friends with Dogs, which is geared towards children ages four to eight.
The book covers many things about greeting dogs such as asking permission to pet a dog; being calm; moving slowly; not patting their heads but instead stroking them on the chin and chest; a few of the visual signals by dogs that indicate discomfort; advising children not to hug dogs or to get right in their faces; and letting dogs approach you rather than the other way around. The whimsical, upbeat drawings captivated the children. I love this book because of the great information in it and because kids like it, which means they are more likely to digest the important messages.
Have you seen this book or read it to children?
Culture: Stories & Lit
Bark talks with author Paul Griffin
What lessons do you hope teens take away from Stay with Me? In Stay with Me, Céce and Mack fall in love really fast. I hope kids who read the book realize that it’s okay to slow it down, to take a step back, to be at peace with the folks in their lives — family, friends, neighbors, even people they don’t like. I often talk about dogs when I’m working with kids. Dogs not only live in the moment, they embrace it, and I try to get my kids to do the same.
Mack spends a great deal of time working with dogs. What do you see as the benefits of this activity for young adults? A dog’s friendship is sacred. They don’t know how to violate it. They commit, deeply. We learn from themdevoting ourselves to somebody requires absolute trust. Caring for them well makes us feel we’re capable of bringing a little more happiness into the world.
Who is the hero of this book? Everybody is a hero to me, even the poor guy who does something so destructive he can’t help but hate himself afterward. More than anything, resilience inspires me — the veteran who comes home with PTSD, the prisoner trying to forgive himself, the alcoholic trying to be a good mother and the dog who can wag his tail anywhere. They all have one thing in commonthey choose to keep going; they choose to face the everyday. Once in a while, they might even choose to greet the rain with a smile. That’s pretty heroic stuff.
Stay with Me features several dogs named Boo. Was either Boo based on a dog in your life? Both Boos are combinations of several of my dogs. I currently have a zany Pit Bull, Ray (Liotta), who is very like the dog Mack trains in prison. He was a maniac when I pulled him from animal control, but anybody could see he had a heart of gold. I just built on that and today he’s a cupcake.
The first Boo (the one who’s killed) is based mostly on a very sad Foxhound I rescued when he was 12 or so. Al (Pacino) didn’t have a tooth in his head, and he was terrified, but a total sweetheart, so willing to love and be loved. That same Boo also has some of my little street mutt Bobby (DeNiro) in him—he lived to 19, healthy until the day before he died. He was amazingly resilient, like the failed fight dog Mack adopts.
Tell us about your work as a dog trainer. I’ve been dog-crazy for as long as I can remember. My grandfather was a firefighter with nine mouths to feed: Grandma and the five kids, and then three in-laws, all under the same roof. Deeps (my grandfather) was great with dogs. Back before we knew backyard breeding was not a good thing, Deeps bred and trained German Shepherds to supplement his income. Those Sheps were amazing. The more time you gave them, the more respect they gave you. Kids don’t always get a lot of respect, so I loved working with the Sheps. I felt great, giving them structure in their lives, and I loved what I got back, their absolute friendship. In my experience, every dog and every person is different, so I’m big on being flexible in the training. I use whatever works. If the dog is food-motivated, I get out the cheese and peanut butter. If not, then that guy’s going to be doing a bit of jogging with me and a ton of walking. I never raise my voice.
What do you see as the benefits of working dogs like Mack did? A dog’s friendship is sacred. They don’t know how to violate it. They commit, deeply. I learn from them: Devoting yourself to somebody requires absolute trust. Dogs are pure, and they make me want to be a better person. I don’t know many people who are unhappy when they’re working with dogs. They’ve taught me self-respect. I’m responsible for them, literally am the difference between life and death for them. Caring for them well makes me feel I’m capable of bringing a little more happiness into the world.
What was the basis for the Old Dogs, New Tricks program? Several summers ago I was doing some workshops with 16- to 18-year-old men at Rikers Island, NYC’s version of Alactraz. I’d heard that the police had a K-9 training facility on the island. I begged one of the staff to let me hang with the Sheps, but she reminded me I was there to work with the kids. There are so many amazing programs with rescue dogs, like Puppies Behind Bars, Patriot Paws and many others.
What was it about Mack that made Anthony want him to connect with his sister? My character Anthony doesn’t waste time focusing on problems—he’s too busy drinking in the hidden beauty in people. He sees the real Mack—the Mack even Mack can’t see. When Anthony watches Mack work with that wild knucklehead of a puppy in the beginning of the book, he sees a young man who wants to make the world a more peaceful place. Anthony knows Céce needs to find her way to peace, and helping her get there is going to be a challenge. On the surface, Céce and Mack seem to be an unlikely pair, but Anthony isn’t concerned with the surface. He digs deep, and in Mack he finds a heart of gold.
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