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. 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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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.
An accessible handbook for basic training techniques
We’re always pleased to bring useful finds to our readers, and our latest handy addition is The Dog Trainer’s Complete Guide to a Happy Well-behaved Pet by Jolanta Benal. This thorough guide breaks down basic techniques to resolve the most common problems, and makes the process fun for the new dog parent. With both a well-organized table of contents and a comprehensive index, this book gives readers easy access to the specific cue, problem behavior, game or name they seek. Benal explains her approach clearly and debunks a number of myths about dogs’ learning styles. The information boxes with items like “Dear Dog Trainer” Q&As or the Quick and Dirty Tips are handy little hits of dog knowledge.
A portable soft snack dispenser
High-value treating at the park is a mess-free possibility. Perfect for heel training or just letting your best friend know you care, the TreatToob by Paww has a friendly design that’s easy to fill with “smoothie” delights from peanut butter to liverwurst and even baby food—plus it’s a breeze to clean. The dripless cap even holds an ID window so you can mark the contents. For now, find them at Amazon.com, but expect them to be at many retailers soon.
Temple University Press, 304 pp., 2011; $35.00; William Morrow, 448 pp., 2011; $26.99
When dealing with ethics and adults, one cannot teach — one can only remind,” says Professor Bernie Rollin in his new book, Putting the Horse before Descartes. In this book and HSUS CEO Wayne Pacelle’s The Bond, two of the most influential “remind-ers” and animal welfare allies recount their battles for reform across the wide frontiers of controversy. Their victories are numerous, groundbreaking and far from complete; their predictions for the future are optimistic. I hope they’re right.
Bernie Rollin has invested his rich academic career building the ethical underpinnings of animal rights and welfare, steering generations of veterinary and other students in the direction of contemplating those issues and pursuing effective public advocacy based on that foundation. Here, he fools us into reading a philosophy tome, with a mix of often hilarious biography, condensed and readable expositions of his approach to animal rights, and (occasionally tedious) later accounts of his battles to improve animal welfare in venues as diverse as veterinary education, shelter practices, research, rodeos and industrial agriculture.
Central to Rollin’s ethical approach is the concept of telos, the fundamental animal nature of each species. Telos, the author states, means that “fish gotta swim; birds gotta fly.” Each species has the right to be treated by humans in ways that respect that essence. Indeed, the true animal husbandry practiced throughout most of agricultural history is an exchange that reflects that imperative; the farmer or rancher was only as good as the condition of his animals.
Decline of the husbandry principle is demonstrated in the recent rise of both factory farming and animal research. Food animals have become fungible commodities of inventory, and as research subjects, critters are means to the end of commercializing products that pass regulatory muster as “safe” (for humans). Rollin’s concern for lab animals deepens when he contemplates the unknown consequences of gene splicing, especially for the splicees.
In The Bond, Pacelle identifies and builds from the instinctive affinity that unites sentient lives across the boundaries of species. He believes that, in the intersection of our lives with those of other beings, we must honor that covenant, reminding readers of the violations that abound in mankind’s power over other animals. Pacelle skillfully describes his organization’s campaigns to redress those abuses: in factory farming, animal fighting, the fur trade and sheltering. Indeed, his ringing endorsement of “no-kill” would almost convince the new reader that HSUS invented the concept.
Both authors have devoted their lives to their missions as advocates and remind-ers. Both see the rise in public concern for animals as pointing the way to a better future. It’s not completely clear to me that it will: Is this trend a harbinger of a more humane age? Or does it simply indicate that we will palliate suffering and respect telos in the most intimate, immediate and convenient of bonds but continue to ignore, tolerate and tacitly enable the greater cruelties visited upon animals we don’t have to see every day? A first step in the direction of change is always transparency. Both these volumes ably raise our awareness, and push us toward lives that will require conscious choices between those contrasting futures.
Simon & Schuster, 336 pp., 2011; $26.99
With Susan Orlean’s much-awaited Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, readers face a sad story, but not for the reason you might think — that a wonderful, heroic dog will die in the end. In fact, this dog lived many lives, first in silent movies in the 1920s and again in the 1950s in one of the most popular television series in American history. And to some degree, Rinty still lives, though when I mentioned this book to my 45-year-old, dog-loving sister, she struggled to recall him. “He was a famous dog, right? On TV?”
The story begins with Lee Duncan, a man whose entire life was defined by two things: his boyhood years in an orphanage and his unshakable belief in the puppy he rescued from a World War I battlefield in France and named Rin Tin Tin.
Orlean, author of The Orchid Thief, follows the story with the passion of an investigative reporter who’s also a lover of dogs, and her research is stunningly deep and comprehensive. Like the best of nonfiction, her book casts a wide net, and off the spine of Rinty’s biography she hangs a great many narrative excursions: the history of dogs in war; Hitler’s unsettling devotion to animal welfare; the story of Hollywood, from silent movies to color TV; the evolution of marketing in popular culture. But at the heart of Rin Tin Tin is “Lee’s private story about the possibility that love can be constant,” and that “a dog could make you whole.” This is what the dream, and the entire franchise, was built on.
The parts I liked best describe Rinty’s amazing acting talent: his ability to display an extraordinary range of emotion and his uncommon agility and physical grace. Unfortunately there’s little here to explain how Duncan actually trained the dog, and it’s not until halfway through the book that we learn about his first efforts at obedience training, which began in the 1930s after Rinty became a star.
Ultimately, Lee Duncan’s story is a lonely one of unfulfilled dreams, fortunes made and lost, and human connections that were at best tenuous. Despite the many hours she spent with his memoirs and archive, Orlean felt that he was “at once ingenuous and impenetrable … he remained a mystery.” The same can be said of Rin Tin Tin, the dog who has, for almost a century, stood as the embodiment of “bravery, loyalty and courage against evil of all kinds.”
This book leaves us hanging because, in the end, no dog is truly knowable. In this age of relentless human exhibitionism, it is perhaps this mystery that explains why we admire and revere dogs so much.
Author Susan Orlean describes Clash of The Wolves, a 1925 silent film starring Rin Tin Tin:
“The wolves, led by Lobo, attack a steer and the ranchers set out after them. The chase is fast and frightening, and when Rin Tin Tin weaves through the horses’ churning legs, it looks like he’s about to be trampled. He runs faster and for longer than seems possible. He outruns the horses, his body flattened and stretched as he bullets along the desert floor, and if you didn’t see the little puffs of dust when his feet touch the ground, you’d swear he was floating. He scrambles up a tree — a stunt so startling that I had to replay it a few times to believe it. Can dogs climb trees? Evidently. At least certain dogs can. And they can climb down, too, and then tear along a rock ridge, and then come to a halt at the narrow crest of the ridge. The other side of the gorge is miles away. Rin Tin Tin stops, pivots; you feel him calculating his options; then he crouches and leaps, and the half-second before he lands safely feels very long and fraught. His feet touch ground and he scrambles on, but a moment later he somersaults off the ledge of another cliff, slamming through the branches of a cactus, collapsing in a heap, with a cactus needle skewered through the pad of his foot.”
Scientists have only recently caught on that canines are not just a fertile subject for their particular specialties — psychology, anthropology, zoology, ethology and more — but also a topic that the publishing world seems eager to promote.
This trend has been a long time developing. Nobel Prize–winner and ethology’s co-founder, Konrad Lorenz, wrote Man Meets Dog (1950), breaking ground that lay dormant until anthropologist Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s bestseller, The Hidden Life of Dogs (1993), reintroduced the genre of dog studies to the non-scientist reader. A few years later, journalist Mark Derr followed up with Dog’s Best Friend (1997), a book that grew out of his Atlantic Monthly investigative piece about the AKC and the dog-show world. Another dry spell was finally broken by psychology professor Alexandra Horowitz’s Inside of a Dog (2009), which garnered an extraordinary amount of well-earned praise. At long last, it seems that the (overly) popular dog-memoir craze has given way to illuminating and well-researched books that explore the science behind our favorite species, written for the general public.
For example, in the May issue of Bark, we reviewed Dog Sense, a fascinating book by British anthrozoologist John Bradshaw, in which the author provides a compendium of current research (both his own and others’) into dogs’ origins and behavior. More specifically, he details their evolution from a wolf-like ancestor into proto-dogs and then the first domesticated species; he also investigates how this very long-term relationship has affected both canines and humans. He goes on to clearly explain how today’s dogs differ behaviorally and culturally from wolves, and why the dominance/ pack paradigm put forth by many trainers (including Cesar Millan) is not only the wrong way to understand dogs but has also done them a great disservice. It makes for engrossing and thought-provoking reading.
Paleoanthropologist Pat Shipman takes a similar synoptic approach in her engaging new book, The Animal Connection: A New Perspective on What Makes Us Human, and adds valuable insights into the dog’s evolutionary story. She combs through research in her own field as well as in archeology to test her hypothesis that animals (dogs among them) have shaped our species’ evolution. As she says, “I believe that a defining trait of the human species has been a connection with animals…. Defining traits are what make humans human … and they are partially or wholly encoded in our genes.” She does a rigorous investigation — every bit as compelling as a forensic TV drama — into the three big advances that contributed to our modernity: tool-making, language and symbolic behavior, and the domestication of other species to support this position.
In the chapter, “The Wolf at the Door,” Shipman suggests how domestication might have happened. As importantly, she refutes other theorists, such as Raymond Coppinger and his “protodog- as-village-pests” model. She writes about Belgian researcher Mietje Germonpré, whose work recently dated a proto-dog fossil skull to 31,680 BP — proving that dogs were domesticated long before humans congregated in settlements. (It was an amazing 20,000 years before the next species, the goat, was domesticated.) Shipman questions why so few representations of wolves/dogs (as well as human figures) appear in prehistoric art, and incorporates anthropologist Anne Pike-Tay’s suggestion that if domesticated dogs were helping us hunt, they were “perhaps placed in a completely different symbolic category from other animals,” adding, “dogs might have been put into the human family category as an extension of the hunter.” All of which attests to the fact that dogs have been a part of the human family since our own prehistory — an extremely long time.
All of these books, the classics and the current crop, should be read by dog lovers. Not only do they contribute to our understanding of our first friends, they also have the potential to improve dogs’ welfare by educating us as to what we can and can’t expect from them. We owe it to dogs to learn more so this age-old relationship can grow even stronger. Here’s hoping this trend continues and more groundbreaking books are on the way.
Dogwise Publishing, 136 pp., 2010; $16.95
As human to a couple of large, highly prey-driven dogs, I was thrilled and relieved to learn of Clarissa von Reinhardt’s book, Chase! I had done a fair amount of research over the years on the topic but hadn’t learned much beyond the fact that good management and a fail-proof recall were in order. Until I read Chase!, that is.
Every good training program begins with a solid foundation, and Reinhardt’s is no exception. The fundamental element of the program is what Reinhardt calls “communicative walks,” which she defines as “using the walk as an opportunity to build a strong bond between you and your dog through interaction and communication,” including discovering “sausage trees” together, among other activities. (The sausage tree is one of several unique and creative training ideas.)
Reinhardt provides instructions for humanely and effectively training behaviors ranging from basic to the more unusual. She also includes a chapter on mental stimulation, in which she emphasizes the importance of play and outlines games that are appropriate and inappropriate for prey-driven dogs.
While I found everything in the book to be of use, I did not find everything of use to be in the book. Two things in particular were conspicuous in their absence: instructions for training a fail-proof recall and a serious discussion on working with dogs who have killed prey animals.
Regardless, Chase! is definitely worthwhile if you’d like to be able to allow your prey-driven dog off leash. Reinhardt’s training philosophy is right on: “The success of anti-predation training doesn’t just depend on how well you train your dog to steer his natural tendencies in an alternative direction— toward you—but also how well you concentrate on the dog as your partner.”
Avery Publishing, 320 pp., 2010; $26.00
After the birth of Snuppy, the world’s first cloned dog, a handful of biotech entrepreneurs envisioned a thriving business that would provide grieving dog lovers with genetically identical clones of their deceased pets. In Dog Inc., Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist John Woestendiek exposes the grave folly behind those science-fiction dreams.
Woestendiek travels between the United States and South Korea, following the companies looking to cash in on cloning technology, and their clients, who hope cloning really will approximate resurrection.
Although much of the book focuses on the salacious story of Bernann McKinney, a woman obsessed with cloning her Pit Bull, the strength of Dog Inc. is in Woestendiek’s ability to lay out the science and laboratory politics in a way that’s both accessible and engaging. Readers will understand the X-inactivation process that made the first cloned cat so physically distinct from her progenitor — and, consequently, such a public relations failure — as well as the allegations of scientific fraud levied against Woo Suk Hwang, one of the pioneers of canine cloning.
Woestendiek never outright condemns canine cloning, but the details leave little question as to where he falls in the debate. He shines light on the poor treatment of the laboratory dogs used in cloning, the cloned puppies who do not survive the process and the heartbreaking fate of Snuppy himself. As for the actual clones, Dog Inc. tracks kittens, puppies and even a bull cloned at great financial and biological cost, only to prove physically and behaviorally distinct from their genetic parents.
The book serves as a valuable reminder that, like people, our pets are far more than the sum of their DNA.
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