Culture: Stories & Lit
Severn House Publishers, 224pp., 2011; $28.95
It’s been way too long since the last Holly Winter mystery hit the shelves — 2007, to be precise, when All Shots was released. But finally, oh finally, our patience is rewarded with the 19th in the series: Brute Strength.
Fights, frights and mysteries break out at every turn in this new book. Amazingly, none of them are of the canine variety. Rather, Holly’s family and friends are the ones doing the scrapping. Turning down adoption applicants for her local Alaskan Malamute rescue group doesn’t win Holly any points, either. The big story, however, is the way catastrophe seems to surround a new neighbor, a woman with a gorgeous and slightly overweight Malamute female, the latter of whom has her almond-shaped eyes on Sammy, Holly’s young Mal.
Add references to Jane Austen, clueless (and careless) breeders, and observations on real-life training techniques and the scientific investigation of dog cognition and you have a literary meal dense and rich enough for the hungriest Malamute. Speaking of which … Over the years, I’ve learned as much about the behavior of northern breeds by reading this series as I have from much more serious works. At least once, and usually more often, I find myself smiling in recognition as Conant describes a typical behavior — in this case, the mealtime feeding frenzy, which Holly chooses not to train her dogs out of: “I have seen sick and dying dogs become indifferent to food and refuse it altogether. These raucous displays of appetite are confirmations of health, and I revel in every leap and every shriek.” To which I say amen.
As she frequently does, Conant keeps multiple story lines going, wrapping them up tidily at the end, albeit with a major scare as part of the conclusion. Now, when’s the 20th Holly Winter mystery coming out?
Skyhorse Publishing, 240 pp., 2009; $14.95
Randy Grim, founder of Stray Rescue of St. Louis (strayrescue.org), started his canine-focused career by driving around East St. Louis every morning before work, searching for feral dogs and spending weeks taming them. From those early years came an acclaimed book, The Man Who Talks to Dogs, coauthored with writer Melinda Roth.
Now Grim and Roth have collaborated on another book—one that sent them into gales of laughter every time they sat down to write. It’s called Don’t Dump the Dog, and it’s Grim’s answer to every lamebrained excuse he’s ever heard from people returning dogs to his shelter.
He wrote it to convince his therapist he wasn’t the crazy one.
Every week at therapy, Grim would throw himself on the couch and rail against human idiocy. For the dogs, he had nothing but sympathy. But for the woman who wanted to dump her dog because her boyfriend didn’t like him? Or the one who wanted to trade her senior dog for a puppy because he was getting gray around the muzzle and bumping into things? Or the guy who wanted to exchange a high-energy dog for a couch potato who’d watch TV? Only exasperated fury.
Some of Grim’s answers need no more than a line: “Dump the boyfriend.” But between these “Quick Fixes,” he inserts hysterically funny chapters laced with the most practical dog-behavior advice around. His favorite trick is teaching a dog to relax; his favorite training tool is hot dogs.He’s endearingly neurotic himself (he’ll let dog throw-up sit for days because he has “avoidance issues,” and he resorts to vodka or Xanax as needed).As a result, the book’s never preachy—but it’s immensely instructive.Grim’s expertise with ferals yields solutions for abused, timid, aggressive or hyper dogs.
What he can’t solve are the people. People return dogs because they bark— “Did they expect them to sing Handel’s ‘Hallelujah’ chorus at the door?” They return dogs because they’re moving, or having a baby—“That, I just don’t get at all.” He says he left out some of the best—like the guy who complained that the dog was lazy, or the woman with white furniture who wanted to exchange a white puppy because his fur darkened in adulthood.
He was afraid nobody would believe him.
St. Martin’s Press; $24.99
Adding to the long (and growing) list of dog-related memoirs, Steve Duno’s Last Dog on the Hill: The Extraordinary Life of Lou tells the story of a dog who truly is extraordinary. Lou saves the lives of people and dogs, takes down criminals, and has a profound impact on just about every creature with whom he comes in contact.
Fate, if one believes in such things, plays a central role in Last Dog on the Hill, beginning with Duno’s first glimpse of Lou, his mother and littermates scurrying up a hill beside a northern California highway. Duno and his girlfriend stop the car and get out for a better look at the pups. Duno whistles, “just to see what would happen.” All of the dogs continue into the tree line at the top of the hill … except for one: “the last dog on the hill,” who, though feral, “made a mad downhill dash toward us, as if recognizing someone.”
When Duno hesitantly allowed the flea- and tick-infested, six-month-old Rottweiler/German Shepherd mix into his car, it marked the beginning of a nearly 16-year friendship. It was a friendship that would change the lives of both man and dog in more ways than Duno could have imagined were possible, perhaps most significantly by inspiring Duno to become a dog trainer and an author of pet care and training manuals. And while some of Duno’s ideas about dog training and “dominance theory” (barely noticeable in this book, but evident in some of his others) are outdated, his relationship with Lou is clearly based on love and trust, and is immensely rewarding for both of them, as well as those around them.
It’s easy to anthropomorphize when writing about dogs, and Duno does. But Lou, with his keen ability to sniff out bad guys and assist in the rehabilitation of fearful and aggressive dogs, provides a persuasive argument for anthropomorphizing, and doing so doesn’t affect the strength of Duno’s prose, which is engaging and even lyrical at times: “The essential crime committed against all dog owners is born of the love we hold for them, which, like the love of a child, runs deep. No parent should have to bury a child, they say, but that is what we dog owners must do, not once but time after time, throughout our lives. While we remain unchangeable to their sweet eyes, they run from birth to the grave in an instant of our own measure.”
Lou, not unlike Ted Kerasote’s Merle, is a once-in-a-lifetime dog who teaches even more than he learns, gives far more than he takes. Duno, in a fitting tribute to his best friend, offers Lou’s story to us, and we are better for it. As Duno puts it, “Lou set me straight. He gave me these words. He wrote this story.”
When Julie Klam was 30 years old, single and living in a tiny New York City studio apartment, she rescued a Boston Terrier and named him Otto. Initially described to her as a dog who just needed a little love—evoking images of “the dog version of the Charlie Brown Christmas Tree”—Otto helped Klam grow up, figure herself out and embrace responsibility.
In what the author refers to as her “dogoir,” Klam recounts, in charming, heartfelt and often seriously funny detail, her experiences with Otto, her subsequent Boston, Beatrice (adopted when Klam was married and very pregnant) and the many dogs she’s fostered through her work with Boston Terrier rescue. Structuring the book into specific, light-hearted life lessons (How to Listen to that Small, Still Voice; How to Keep the Yin from Strangling the Yang), Klam explores, in a unique and never preachy way, an important truth about the enormous amount of love dogs can bring into people’s lives if they are given a chance. “I began to understand that ‘dog’ was its own category of ‘love,’” Klam writes. “Sometimes you just need to hold and kiss a member of the dog species. Even when humans are available.”
Klam also discovered that sometimes people don’t get the dog they want, but they get the dog they need. For dog lovers, this book is both what they want and what they need. Klam’s writing has such a warm, friendly and engaging quality that it’s as if your best friend is telling you wonderful stories about her dogs. You Had Me at Woof is a book that, upon completion, makes you think about sending the author pictures of all your own dogs and asking her many questions.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Shed some light on those dark winter walks.
K9 Night Patrol Cap
SpotLit Pet Tag
Click-N-Glo Safety Ring
Villard, 320 pp., 2008; $24
It's always "beer-thirty" for Gill, the underemployed commitment-phobe at the center of Merrill Markoe’s new novel, Nose Down, Eyes Up. Launched by his own stunning lack of maturity and a dog-ona- mission named Jimmy, Gil ricochets through a tidy plot that has him bouncing like a pinball between his longtime girlfriend Sara, a well-meaning animal communicator, and his ex-wife Eden, “a sexual idiot savant”—with an entertaining rebound into the heart of his dysfunctional family in Sedona.
This is classic Markoe terrain and a perfect bookend to Walking in Circles Before Lying Down (Villard, 2006). As in her previous novel, this anti-hero can talk to dogs, and one of the wickedest consequences of his talent is how it throws into relief Sara’s abilities.When a Chihuahua named Cecile “tells” Sara she’s not eating because of emotional issues, Gil hears that the new holistic dog food tastes like soap.
Most voluble among the dogs is Jimmy, whom Gil raised from puppyhood. The square-headed black dog with wavy fur, something of a canine motivational speaker, offers advice for securing walks, treats and bed privileges.“Memorize this phrase: ‘Drop nose, raise eyes.’ It’s the cornerstone of my teachings,” Jimmy tells the neighborhood hounds.
But Jimmy’s confidence in the way things work is shaken when he discovers Gil is not his biological dad. Clearly rattled, he explains, “I figured I was in a transitional phase, like a caterpillar larva. That one day I’d wake up, lose a lot of this hair, and start walking on my hind legs. Maybe get a set of keys and learn to drive.” Being told he’s property —“Like a lawn mower or a vacuum cleaner? Like a slave?”—doesn’t improve the situation.
When Jimmy reconnects with his actual DNA, dog and man are forced to redefine the true meaning of family, especially the reconstituted kind wherein dogs play a central role. In the wrong hands, this could have been saccharine territory, but not with Markoe, who slathers her warm fuzzy insights in a funny, tart sauce.
How the New Science of Dog Behavior Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet
Dogs and wolves may have more than 99 percent of their DNA in common, but when it comes to understanding dogs, John Bradshaw says it does them an injustice to look to wolves as models. Not only did domestication have a profound impact, but also, many early wolf studies were carried out on groups of unrelated animals forced together in artificial environments, which resulted in behaviors not exhibited by wild-living wolves.
Using this model has led to what he calls “one of the most pervasive—and pernicious—ideas informing modern dog-training techniques”: that dogs are driven to set up dominance hierarchies. This has real consequences for their well-being. Bradshaw suggests that many of the behavior problems that result in dogs being abandoned or euthanized can be laid at the door of inept training, especially training based on force.
What matters, he says, is how dogs actually learn. Bradshaw, director of the Anthrozoology Institute at the University of Bristol, provides a wellgrounded overview of the Canis family’s evolutionary journey. He also considers dogs’ brainpower, emotional states, sensory capacities and problems that come with breeding for looks rather than temperament.
The point of all this science is to lay the foundation for his central thesis: “If owners were able to appreciate their dogs’ intelligence and emotional life for what it actually is, rather than for what they imagine it to be, then dogs would not just be better understood—they’d be better treated as well.” 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.
Listen to John Bradshaw's interwiew with Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air.
The Bark editors' pick for must-see film paints an intimate story on a wide canvas.
Across the rolling grasslands of Mongolia, a young dog gambols and sniffs. His adoptive owner, six-year-old Nansal, follows the dog on her tiny horse. In the distant background, a curtain of luminous rain cleaves the face of a mountain. It seems illuminated from within, and suggests a weightless portal into a possible heaven.
The Cave of the Yellow Dog, a new quasi-documentary from Mongolia, is the second feature by Byambasuren Davaa. The Oscar-nominated director of The Story of the Weeping Camel (2003), Davaa has a knack for creating states of enchantment on film—or rather, for capturing those states with her careful regard for landscape, animals and the spiritual relationship between humans and the physical world.
Whereas The Story of the Weeping Camel focused on its titular species to the near-exclusion of Homo sapiens, The Cave of the Yellow Dog concentrates on a nomad family in the Altai region of northwest Mongolia—father, mother, three small children—and the impact made upon them by a stray puppy.
Little Zochor (Mongolian for “Spot”) is frisky, unfettered and troublesome. He’s not unlike Nansal (played beautifully by Nansalmaa Batchuluun), an uninhibited child who discovers him in a cave while collecting the dung piles her family uses for fuel. Zochor is mostly white, with black ears, and a black muzzle with a pencil-thin white stripe down the center. Mischievous and immature, he has a mind of his own, and is more than happy to follow Nansal home.
Her father (Urjindorj Batchuluun) distrusts the dog. He’s just lost two sheep, and worries that tiny Zochor could be attached to a pack of wolves who will find his scent and eliminate more of the family’s herd. Such is the cultural shift in the Mongolian steppes—when nomads abandon their lifestyle, selling their goats and sheep and yaks and moving the city, they leave their dogs behind. The dogs then mingle with wolves, losing the lessons of domestication.
Nansal can’t accept this. “It’s not about wanting him or not,” her mother tells her. To illustrate, the mother tells Nansal to bite the palm of her hand. She can’t, of course. “Although it seems so close,” Mother says, “It’s still too far away to bite.” Lesson for Nansal: “You can’t have everything that you see.” It’s a strong argument that her parents make, but when you’re six and besotted with a dog, as only child can be, any word against that beloved animal is unbearable.
The real scene-stealer in The Cave of the Yellow Dog is the remarkable Nansalmaa Batchuluun. Davaa must have spent weeks engendering the child’s trust, so great is the sense of spontaneity and unguardedness in her scenes. In her “Director’s Notes,” included in the film’s electronic press kit, Davaa says, “I am convinced that every person has his own—often undiscovered—creativity. My task as the director was to convince my protagonists of their own creativity.”
Equally key to her job, I’d surmise, was the miracle of luck, of simply waiting for the right moments and being there with the camera when they unfolded. When Nansal plays with Zochor, her fascination and delight are so genuine that we see them vibrate throughout her body. When Nansal’s father tells her she can’t keep the dog, or tries to make her leave it behind when it’s time to break camp, the child’s pouting and desperation are heartbreaking. Is there anything more dreadful to a child—especially one whose faith is still untested by pain and loss—than separating from a beloved animal?
It’s rare to witness a child whose screen presence feels so wholly natural. When it happens—as it did with Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet, or Mary Badham in her scenes with Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird, or Victoire Thivisol, the four-year-old French child in Ponette, or Zhou Ren-ying, the scrappy waif in the Chinese film, The King of Masks—it feels miraculous. This is one of the great joys of the movie-lover: to see a soul revealed, to witness a blending of part and actor so complete that we can’t distinguish where one emerges and the other disappears.
The “actors” playing Nansal’s family in The Cave of the Yellow Dog are in fact a nomadic Mongolian family who allowed Davaa to film them in a mixture of real and semi-staged moments. Consequently, there’s a crunch of authenticity when Mother cuts a block of cheese, milks the goat or sits at her sewing machine to make a school outfit for Nansal; when the father skins a pair of sheep, hoists the skins onto his motorcycle and drives off to sell them in the nearest town.
There’s also an ease and rhythm that draws from built-in intimacy: the puppylike, unself-conscious interplay of younger sister and brother; the patient discipline of the young, industrious mother. There’s a gorgeous moment when Nansal and her sister lie flat on the moist grass of the treeless steppes. Looking upward to the clouds, they identify shapes of animals—an elephant, a giraffe. We all have these moments in our childhood, when the natural world seems abundant with surprise. Davaa captures such a moment, and makes it so immediate that we’re carried back to our pre-analytic, pre-grown-up way of seeing.
In the middle of Cave, Nansal mounts one of the tiny Mongolian horses, her legs barely reaching the stirrups. Unsupervised by either parent, she takes the family’s herds of goats and sheep out to graze. Zochor tags along, but when he wanders off and gets lost, Nansal follows him, neglecting the herds.
At this point, Davaa dips into a fairy-tale world: As night falls and the rain pours, Nansal, reunited with her dog, hears a voice across the plains. It’s an old woman, toothless and apparently blind, whose robust, melodic call seems a vindication of her survival—an appreciation to the gods for all she receives. The woman takes in Nansal, dries her clothes and covers her, and tells the legend of the yellow dog: of a rich man’s daughter, incurable with illness, who recovers only when an unlucky yellow dog is removed from her home.
Davaa’s pacing is sensitive and her camerawork, lucid and intimate. Some of the best moments in her film involve the customs and happenstance of nomadic life. There’s a great sequence recording the family’s slow dismantling of their ger (or yurt), a collapsible structure that travels with them when they break camp. First, they remove a series of fitted felt tarps, then the khana (wooden framework) and uni (support columns), then the carpets that covered the earth and shielded the family against the cold and moisture.
The tarps are folded and loaded onto a series of yak-driven carts. Dressers, kitchenware, sewing machine, children—everything becomes part of the nomadic family caravan. I won’t divulge whether Nansal’s beloved Zochor is part of the caravan, only that the dog, in a moment of peril, finds the opportunity to prove his value to the doubting father.
The yak team pulls the wobbling carts slowly away from the camp, and in the opposite direction, a jeep races by, blaring a political slogan from a bullhorn. Once the jeep has passed, Davaa fixes this image on the screen. She lets it play out, and allows us to wonder if Nansal’s family will resist the pull of modernity, or opt for the spiritual enrichment of their ancestral way of life.
Read Cameron Woo's interview with director Byambasuren Davaa here.
Two new books reveal worlds expanded by dogs
Last year, more dog-centric books were published than at any time in history, it seems. One in particular stood out, earning high praise both from us and many other reviewers: Gail Caldwell’s masterful Let’s Take the Long Way Home. Like many of the current books, it’s a memoir, but unlike most of them, it’s not really about dogs, but rather about a friendship in which a shared love for dogs played a central part.
Taking a similar nonlinear approach, two more books, Dog Walks Man (Lyons Press, $22.95) and A Small Furry Prayer (Bloomsbury, $24), deserve your attention. What do these two have in common? They are both experiential stories of how dogs enlightened and enhanced the authors’ perceptions of themselves and the natural world.
In Dog Walks Man, art critic John Zeaman scours his New Jersey neighborhood to find ideal areas to walk with his Standard Poodles (Pete and later, Luke). From mundane around-the-block trudges to expeditions into the urban jungle of the Meadowlands, the author seeks a life that “consists of wildness,” and the dogs are perfect partners in discovering it. When he felt like dogwalking was becoming a chore, an oftrepeated Groundhog Day-like scene, Zeaman simply found more varied and interesting spots to take the dogs—the “fringe,” as Thoreau called these nature nooks.
Similar to the prophet of Walden, Zeaman’s slow-paced musings—on art, natural history or his dogs’ social graces—have a calming, meditative quality to them. There are also many humorous “aha” reflections that make a reader feel that she has much in common with the author. For example, he considers what he calls “dog-walking marriages”—a relationship with another dog-walker whose dog gets along with yours, whose schedule matches your own and with whom it can seem that you spend more time than you do with your “at home” partner.
If Dog Walks Man is contemplative and mellow, Steven Kotler’s A Small Furry Prayer is a book about questioning and questing. Subtitled “Dog Rescue and the Meaning of Life,” it takes place in r ural n orthern N ew M exico—a region where “there weren’t too many normal people around.” Which made it a perfect place for the author and his wife to start their dog sanctuary, Rancho de Chihuahua (ranchodechihuahua.org)—home to not very “normal” dogs: special-needs dogs who are too old or too frail or simply too “compromised” to be easily adopted.
Kotler comes to dog rescue fearing that he will feel too much—even refusing to accompany his wife into shelters—but he soon realizes that a dog sanctuary has a way of forcing the issues of empathy and altruism onto its inhabitants (of both species). As for the meaning of life, Kotler does a stellar job of exploring it through the meaning of the human-canine bond, delving into the works of scientists, philosophers and psychologists.
Even better are his observations of the interactions among the sanctuary’s free-range dogs, all of whom are fully realized characters in this story. He gleefully throws himself into being part of the pack, taking the big dogs and the many Chihuahuas on forays into the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, where both dogs and humans experience a “flow state,” defined as “a joyous and complete merger of action and awareness.” Being totally involved in the now, time flies and the ego melts away—a feeling you’ll surely share when reading Kotler’s delightful and insightful book.
Scribner, 368 pp., 2009; $26
If we want to get inside of a dog’s mind, to know how it feels to be that dog, then we must first understand how he sees his subjective universe, or “umvelt.” This is the premise of Alexandra Horowitz’s nearly flawless book, Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell and Know.
Groucho Marx once quipped,“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.” Horowitz turns on the light, climbs inside and shows us what goes on inside of a dog. She teases apart our anthropomorphic notion that dogs are like us. Then, basing her narrative on an exhaustive list of canine studies (she cites 185 references), she reconstructs the dog, piece by piece. For example, she writes, “To understand the dog umwelt, then, we must think of objects, people, emotions— even times of day—as having distinctive odors.” Horowitz adds that because dogs “see” smells, they must remember in smells as well. “When we imagine dogs’ dreaming and daydreaming, we should envisage dream images made of scents.” They are not chasing bunnies; they are chasing bunny odor.
Writing about science in a vernacular to which non-scientists can relate is tricky. Too erudite and you lose your regular folks. Too folksy and the science loses its application. Horowitz takes the middle road. Using her “dog-person” voice, she focuses on what the research means rather than the technical intricacies of its methodology. References are in the back of the book according to chapter and include empirical research, observational studies, books and personal conversations.
A psychologist with a PhD in cognitive science,Horowitz touches on smell, vocalization, vision, play, sense of self, cognition and the interaction between dogs and people. She’s organized the book based on a dog’s point of view. For instance, the chapter about olfaction is titled “Sniff” and includes sections such as You showed fear and Leaves and grass.
Horowitz enhances her already detailed description of canine knowing with poetic accounts of the relationship she has with her own dog, Pumpernickel. In the chapter about olfaction, she writes, “Since I’ve begun to appreciate Pump’s smelly world, I sometimes take her out just to sit and sniff.We have smell-walks, stopping at every landmark along our route in which she shows an interest.”
If you’re just looking for answers to some timeless canine questions, you’ll find them here, too. Why is a dog’s nose wet? To catch odor molecules. Why does a dog scratch the ground after he defecates? To spread the odor. Do dogs know what size they are? Yes. Do dogs laugh? Maybe. Do dogs “pack”with their human family? Not really—as she writes, “We and our dogs come closer to being a benign gang than a pack.”
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.
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