Rex, a small German Shepherd at the heart of Mike Dowling’s new memoir, Sergeant Rex, ranks as the longestserving military working dog (MWD) in the Marine Corps. In this thoughtful account of their shared tour of duty in Iraq in 2004, Dowling shows Rex to be impressively brave, competent, even funny in the way only a dog can be. But canine courage is an old saw. Dowling is neither the first soldier to write well about dogs in the Middle East — pick up Royal Marine Pen Farthing’s moving bestseller, One Dog at a Time, which covers his rescue efforts for the strays of Afghanistan — nor the first to venerate the canines of combat. (William Putney’s Always Faithful and Lisa Rogak’s The Dogs of War are the standard- bearers in this department.)
What’s confounding and original about Mike Dowling’s narrative is how genuinely he writes about protecting Rex, all the while embroiling him in situations of brute violence and deadly risk. Deployed as one of the first 12 Marine dog teams embedded with infantry units since the Vietnam War, Rex and Dowling were successful in their assignment to sniff out IEDs (improvised explosive devices, or bombs). Rex alone unearthed hundreds of caches.
This track record no doubt contributed to a Pentagon task force’s conclusion that MWDs are better bomb detectors than any military technology, by far. The armed forces have taken note MWDs on active duty rose from 1,800 in 2001 to 2,700 in 2011, with about 500 dogs being trained each year. With their unparalleled sense of smell, dogs are functionally suited to the task. Physically and mentally, however, they experience some of the same maladies as their human counterparts. Though the military does not make statistics readily available, dogs are also suffering from a canine form of PTSD and traumatic injury, as well as dying in considerable numbers. So when Dowling “speaks” for Rex through italicized interjections of die-hard zeal and ooh-rah patriotism on missions in the most dangerous areas in and around Fallujah and Baghdad, it’s difficult to believe his assertions that he has the dog’s best interest in mind. After all, every dog in the military is drafted without consent.
Dowling, a voluntary soldier, writes about the U.S. military cause with pure enthusiasm. A capable dog handler, he nurtures Rex’s skills. He loves this dog, and cares for him with unassailable constancy. That much is apparent. But Dowling conflates Rex’s interest in doing the job before him (for the reward of a game of ball) with a conceptual allegiance to the American values these soldiers are defending. In one harrowing scene, Dowling brings Rex, who is already injured, along on a mission anyway. “A barrage of blasts” rattles their vehicle and “Rex goes jittery as hell. He keeps glancing at me with a look of real pain on his features.” In another scene, Rex fixes his protector with “a lonely, frightened gaze, like he’s convinced he’s been abandoned.” In yet another, Rex urinates out of fear. No matter how faithfully allied Dowling is with his dog in combat, these scenes are nevertheless excruciating for an animal lover to read.
Early in the book, Dowling reflects on setting out for their first mission. “Rex trusted me 100 percent, in that unique bond between man and dog. Yet he had no choice in my taking us to war, and he had no idea of the dangers we were flying into.” Everything Rex accomplishes, everything he survives — Dowling is right: Rex does deserve a Purple Heart for his courage. And Dowling deserves the acknowledgment he has earned too. But a medal for military service would mean nothing to a dog. He would not understand why he was receiving it.
Celebrated veterinarian and author Nancy Kay, DVM, a winner of the Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award, is back with another excellent guide to help you f ind top-notch health care for your dog. Organized as a set of twelve reasonable things you can expect from your vet, Your Dog’s Best Health brings clarity to many murky issues for pet owners Should I expect 24-hour care for my dog when he’s hospitalized? Is it considered appropriate to ask for cost estimates up front or a second opinion? Written with Kay’s trademark humor and intelligence, this book provides all the reassuring answers to questions you were afraid to ask.
This is a truly lovely book, both in its writing and illustrations, about the love between a little girl and the “best hound dog in the world.” It is also a story about the death of a dog, written in a clear, non-sentimental way that makes it an appropriate choice for the introduction of this difficult topic to a young reader (actually, it’s suitable for a reader of any age). The illustrations beautifully express the joy that a dog’s friendship brings, and the poignancy of memories that will last forever. This is a rare achievement in a children’s book.
A second book from influential behaviorist and trainer Pamela Reid, Dog InSight brings together more than 40 essays on canine behavior, techniques to modify it and the principles behind both. Originally published as monthly columns in Dogs in Canada magazine, the chapters in this book cover key tricks of the trade, such as calming signals, social learning and operant conditioning. Typical problems are handily addressed — excessive barking, resource guarding and separation anxiety, for example. Readers will benefit from the technique explanations; understanding why a given cue works helps independent trainers go much further with their dogs. Particularly poignant (and rare for a training book) is the final chapter on easing the pain of loss, in which Reid suggests rites of passage for dogs in their last days, as well as tributes to those we have lost.
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.
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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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