Dog books are getting better and smarter. This year’s bumper crop is testimony to the unflagging popularity and importance of canines in our lives. From stories of incredible courage and redemptive come-backs, to moving memoirs and spot-on training guides, these ten standouts, with a few memoirs also noted, are definitely worth your attention.Dog Walks Man by John Zeaman is a contemplative and humorous exploration of one of the simplest of pleasures: walking with a dog. The narrative’s strength comes from its quiet, meditative pacing. Whether he’s walking along suburban alleys with Pete, the Poodle, or exploring the phantasmagorical landscape of New Jersey’s Meadowlands, the author’s musings on life’s wildness are a pleasure and joy. Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell focuses on her long friendship with Caroline Knapp (author of Pack of Two), inspired—one might even say authored—by their mutual love of dogs. Theirs was a remarkable relationship, one based not only on personality similarities but on the trust each of them placed in the other, allowing them to create a profound and lasting attachment that has transcended grief and transformed lives. The Lost Dogs: Michael Vick’s Dogs and Their Tale of Rescue and Redemption by Sports Illustrated’s Jim Gorant sheds light on a much-ignored facet of the Vick dog-fighting story. Gorant follows the journey of Vick’s Pit Bulls from their rescue through their rehabilitation, illuminating their remarkable capacity for forgiveness and the importance of treating abused dogs as victims in need of help and healing. The Love That Dog Training Program by Dawn Sylvia-Stasiewicz, a comprehensive, easy-to-follow guide to the power of positive reinforcement training from “First Dog” Bo’s trainer. Her approach underscores the need for daily training routines—it will pay dividends. A Modern Dog’s Life: Discover How to Do the Best for Your Dog by Paul McGreevy, PhD, an Australian veterinarian and behaviorist who urge modern dog owners to behave more like a “life coach” rather than an “alpha dog.” He draws upon recent scientific studies to help us better understand our dogs, their motivations, behavior and needs. This book is amusing, erudite and engrossing. One Dog at a Time: Saving the Strays of Afghanistan by Pen Farthing. In this inspiring memoir of compassion amid combat a British Royal marine sergeant, serving in Helmand, a remote Afghanistan province, calls upon the resources and courage of his fellow marines to save the lives of dogs amid firefights and mortar attacks. Photobooth Dogs by Cameron Woo is a charming gift book of vintage photographs celebrating the great fondness and fascination for dogs held by past generations—and delightfully captured in photobooth portraits. These endearing self-portraits are snapshots of friendship and timeless devotion. Scent of the Missing is a memoir by Susannah Charleson. Readers ride along with the author’s canine search-and-rescue partner-in-training, Puzzle, a rambunctious, delightful Golden Retriever, from the moment the pup enters her life through her long training. With wit, charm and a deep understanding of dogs, Charleson’s story of this fully collaborative partnership is unforgettable. A Small Furry Prayer: Dog Rescue and the Meaning of Life by Steven Kotler examines the “cult and culture” of dog rescue. He and his girlfriend run a sanctuary in New Mexico with few resources aside from an intense drive to save dogs. The narrative takes the reader to many places, to the dogs themselves and to an exploration of the meaning of “dog” in our lives—a mind-expanding trip. Good Old Dog by Nicholas Dodman, DVM, is sure to become the most important resource you can have to guide you through your dog’s senior years. The advice gathered from the leading experts at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University is presented by Dodman in a convivial and reassuring voice. This book will take the mystery out of caring for an aging dog. Also noted memoirs:
Quill Driver Books; $25
The past decade has seen a steady increase in the number of pet nutrition books on the market, all geared toward helping people learn more about commercial diets, natural feeding and how to provide optimal nutrition for our companion animals. One of these offerings, Not Fit for a Dog!, written by three distinguished veterinarians, takes this literature to a new level. A thoughtful look at the larger problem of food sourcing and safety, it offers plainspoken advice on how to address the challenge of feeding our dogs (and cats) well.
Not Fit for a Dog! covers a lot of territory, including a review of commercial pet food ingredients, with a focus on what to watch out for; a detailed exposé of the 2007 pet food recalls; problems with prescription diets and why they may not be optimal solutions; and an important overview of chemicals in the environment — toxins that infiltrate not only pet foods, but our foods as well. The authors also take an in-depth look at genetically modified foods and their potential problems. Throughout, two overarching points are made and reinforced: that our own and our companion animals’ myriad health problems are largely preventable through diet, and that problems with food safety are universal. These are points that cannot be made too loudly or too often.
And herein lies the strength of the book: It links multiple topics in ways that shed new light on the subject of companion-animal health. For those new to holism, this book provides an overview of several key issues as well as strategies for challenging the existing paradigm by patronizing local farmers’ markets, growing one’s own food, buying organic products, minimizing toxin exposure in the home and seeking holistic veterinary care. Recipes are included, with supplement and substitution suggestions to help provide nutrient balance as well as fresh, palatable ingredients. Though I would like to have seen more resources for consumer education in canine nutrition — a list of books, sites and tools for furthering owner knowledge and fluency in canine diet would have been helpful — it represents an impressive effort.
In his introduction, veterinarian Richard Allport writes, “If I was able, I would lock every veterinary student and practicing veterinarian in a room with a copy of this book and not let them out until they had read it from cover to cover.” As a canine nutritionist who deals every day with health problems related to poor diet, I would take this a step further and say that I’d like to lock all dog owners in a room until they’ve read this book. Knowledge is indeed power, and this book is a powerful and important resource.
Broadway Books, $23.99
First, a confession: I did not expect this book to win me over. A confirmed cynic, I naturally am on guard against the sentimental or prosaic. But, contrary to my intentions, I fell for the story, its characters, and veterinarian Nick Trout’s insightful writing.
Love Is the Best Medicine is Trout’s second book. His Tell Me Where It Hurts: A Day of Humor, Healing, and Hope in My Life as an Animal Surgeon has been loved by many Bark readers; it offers a behind-the-scenes glimpse into a typically hectic and fascinating day in the life of a veterinary surgeon at Boston’s Angell Medical Center. Love Is the Best Medicine takes a different tack, delving deep into the lives of two exceptional dogs and the people whose lives they affect, not least Dr. Trout’s.
The narrative follows the medical plight of two parties: Helen, a stray elderly Cocker Spaniel with the good fortune to cross the paths of Eileen and Ben Aronson; and Cleo, a Miniature Pinscher with an unusual and enduring gift, whose owner, Sandi Rasmussen, possesses an incredible generosity of spirit. But at its essence, Love is bigger than the story of these two dogs and their people; it is a meditation on benevolence, selflessness and guilt. It is an acknowledgment of the power inherent in an acute bond between a pet and her person. It is what happens when a scientist accepts that this power has the capacity to heal.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the one problem I found: On two occa- sions, the author refers approvingly to Cesar Millan. Dr. Trout would do well to check in with the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, and the Society of Veterinary Behavior Technicians (among others), all of whom have spoken out against the punishment-based methods used by Millan.
Love Is the Best Medicine will likely cause tears, but not from any manipulative pulling of heartstrings. The tears — not to mention chills — come in response to acts of kindness performed by exceptional people and animals. And, while Helen and Cleo truly are extraordinary dogs, and Eileen and Sandi extraordinary dog guardians, they also represent us — when we open our hearts and give away what is so freely given to us.
Oxford University Press, 274 pp., 2008; $110
In Dog Behaviour, Evolution, and Cognition, Ádám Miklósi has done what nobody else has even dared to try, and he does it brilliantly. This book is the first to compile and analyze the research that delves into the mysteries of the domestic dog. It provides an excellent and thought-provoking review of the scientific literature in a variety of areas: evolution, domestication, study methodologies, senses, communication, personality and development.
This book will be the reference on these subjects, and more, for years to come, probably until the happy day when the new research it inspires warrants a second edition. The book presents a unification of information and ideas from the diverse fields of ethology, genetics, zoology, psychology, archeozoology and anthrozoology. A great strength of the book is its constant focus on what we actually know as a result of rigorous scientific inquiry as opposed to what we think we know, based on the unsubstantiated beliefs and anecdotes that are prevalent in the world of dogs. The author points out many cases in which current research has revealed information at odds with the common wisdom. In a similar vein, he reports on the paucity of knowledge about agonistic behavior and aggression and calls for more research, which will be surprising, as many people believe that more is known about these subjects than is actually the case.
It is rare to enjoy reading such an information-packed book cover to cover, but that was my experience with this one. English is not the first language of this Hungarian author, but there is no need for concern—quite the contrary, it would be wonderful if all who wrote in our language were so eloquent and clear. Coming from the European tradition of excellence in ethology and ethological writing,Miklósi’s research and perspective emphasize the value of studying dogs in their natural environment.He makes the case that dogs are a wonderful subject for scientific study outside of the laboratory, and encourages both a comparative and an interdisciplinary approach. Scientists and non-scientists alike will take pleasure in perusing not only what is known about the dog, but also, how we came to know what we know from scientific study. The stories of the observations and experiments that have shaped our knowledge make compelling reading and also allow readers to understand the most likely directions for fruitful future research.
The nature of the relationship between people and dogs is a topic that will no doubt continue to lend itself to productive study. The scientific perspective on the roles dogs have in the lives of people —Do they act as friends? As children? As pack members?—is truly fascinating. Similarly, anyone who has ever loved a dog will be riveted by the sections covering attachment issues between our two species, the complex and variable nature of the human-dog relationship throughout history, cooperative behavior by dogs in relation to people, communication between the two species, behavioral differences by dogs in response to perceived attention or inattention from a person, canine social competence, and how humans and dogs interact socially.
Another especially interesting area concerns domestication as an evolutionary process, including the idea that changing views on human evolution inform our understanding of the domestication of dogs. Related to the mutual evolution of our two species is our ability to communicate with one another without specific training. For example, the ability of untrained humans to decode the meaning of dog barks, with or without experience of the individual dogs and breeds in the study. A further subject of great interest was Miklósi’s emphasis on the behavioral flexibility of the members of the genus Canis, both genetically and phenotypically, and the implications of this flexibility for evolutionary processes, including domestication. Using the comparative method —considering the domestic dog as one species within an intriguing group of animals—allows for greater insights into canine evolution.
The one criticism I have is that the index could be more complete. It does not include all of the scientists who are mentioned in the text, nor all of the terms. I hope that this can be improved in future editions, as a more complete index would make the book even more valuable as a reference.
In summary, scholars and anyone else who is serious about understanding dogs will want to read this book. If you haven’t, you’re not up to date on one of our favorite subjects: the behavior, evolution and cognition of the domestic dog.
Henry Holt & Co., 368 pp., 2008; $27.50
As chronicles of human progress, histories can illuminate and inspire— or they may show how little our species has changed across centuries. Literary scholar Kathryn Shevelow has it both ways in her lively recounting of the events and trends that culminated in the first English anti-cruelty law in 1822. Eighteenth-century England really was “hell for horses” and other beasts who had the misfortune to cross paths with its people.Abuses spanned the social spectrum, from bear-baiting enjoyed by the working classes to the fox hunts of the elites—the latter were only more genteel if you happened not to be their object. Children routinely practiced appalling creature cruelties, with apparent impunity.
At work, too, animals fared poorly, from older equines consigned to labor before the crushing weight of overloaded carts—and thence to starvation while penned for slaughter—to canine vivisections routinely performed in the name of science.
Harsh treatment was justified by such disparate arguments as hallowed tradition, the need to develop callow youth into the Empire’s hardened warriors, Cartesian philosophy equating animals with machines and even Scriptures that granted dominion over the animals. Indeed, early Christian leaders, from the apostle Paul to Thomas Aquinas, provided no comfort for the meekest. Even St. Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals, counseled “respect” for them, but stopped short of compassion.
Further, although animals, as chattel, enjoyed no legal rights regarding their treatment, they could be convicted of crimes and punished in the various fatal fashions of the day. Professor Shevelow describes the particularly grim fate of one Mary Hicks, whose physical affection for her pooch was successfully prosecuted. She was forced to watch him hanged before joining him on the gallows. Such punishments were common enough to define expressions like the rueful “hangdog look.”
But other social forces were at work, portending better days for dumb brutes. Urbanization begat pet-keeping—lap dogs thus gained new status as lovable companions.Advances in taxonomy suggested less separation between humans and other species, and even animal curiosity shows demonstrated to their broad audiences that there was substantially more going on in the animate brain than Descartes believed. Ethicists grafted a “stewardship” obligation onto the biblical “dominion” argument, and reform movements like Abolitionism were philosophical kin to animal advocacy. Finally, there was a dawning recognition that, far from cultivating valor, early animal cruelty more often devolves into serial violence against fellow humans in adulthood.
It remained for brave individuals to seize on these trends to improve the lot of animals in an organized way. Margaret Cavendish, Alexander Pope, Rev.Humphrey Primatt and MP Richard “Humanity Dick” Martin may not be as familiar to readers as Bentham or Gandhi, but they each stood staunchly against the flow of popular opinion, and thereby altered its course. Indeed,Martin championed the first limited anti-cruelty legislation, which passed on its third introduction over a 30-year period. He also co-founded the first SPCA.
So, Homo sapiens clearly made progress in the law and ethics pertaining to other species. But arguments against this groundbreaking legislation may have a familiar ring for contemporary animal advocates. It was variously claimed that Parliament should limit its debates to more important human matters, that bloodsports were traditional and harmless, and that this was a gateway bill to other intrusions on British culture and even diet. There were also serious concerns about enforceability, especially as regards out-of-sight food animals. And it should come as no surprise that the all-too-human SPCA soon bickered itself into factions.
Throughout this saga, Dr. Shrevelow weaves material organized roughly by subject,with specific incidents and other tales of British life of that time, across the bounds of social class. And we get a sense of the heroics and foibles of the tale’s several protagonists, especially Humanity Dick. Anglophiles and fans of history will especially enjoy the book, and those who have accepted some part of the relay pass from these pioneers will be alternately impressed with their pluck, heartened by their success and a bit discouraged that we seem to be fighting similar battles today.
Skyhorse Publishing, 120 pp., 2008; $12.95
Since Carol Lea Benjamin and I share the (unofficial) world’s record for “Most Border Collies tucked under a café table in Greenwich Village,” I am not an impartial reviewer. But I know Carol’s dogs, and dogs are the test of any dog trainer.More on her dogs later.
Carol Lea Benjamin’s Mother Knows Best derived from her brilliant intuition that we should train our puppies as their dam trains them. Mother Knows Best is one of the two or three best-selling training books ever written—and has helped owners train hundreds of thousands of dogs.
Mystery fans will also be familiar with Carol Lea Benjamin’s Shamus award– winning series starring detective Rachel Alexander and her dog Dash.
She’s an International Association of Canine Professionals Hall of Famer, and has won countless honors from the Dog Writers Association of America.
See Spot Sit is a dramatic evolution from Mother Knows Best. It’s the first dog training book which instructs with cartoons. Carol’s charming, funny cartoons illustrate, amplify and comment upon her simple, practical training advice.
Tip #59: “Teach your dog to walk at your side.…Walking on a leash shouldn’t be a tug of war. If your dog pulls ahead, turn and walk in the opposite direction. If he lags behind, crouch and call him to you, arms held open for him.”
Tip #85: “Hang out with your puppy. The time you spend with him early on —training, playing, watching and learning— will pay you back more than you might imagine.” Trainers often suggest you play with your dog. Carol tells you how to play with your dog.
Tip #91: “Throw the ball far but not high. Dogs can get injured if they jump too high.”
Tip #93: “Play dead. Choose games and tricks that your dog does or can do naturally.Watch your dog at play. Does he love to bark? Teach him ‘speak,’ ‘count,’ ‘add.’…Is he light on his feet? Born to jump? Teach him to jump over your leg, over a stick or through a hoop.”
Carol lives a human/dog intimacy most dog owners (and many dog trainers) can scarcely imagine. Carol spends every minute of every day with her service dogs, Dexter, Flash and Sky (in training).When Carol’s swimming at the gym, Flash lies quietly at poolside. In restaurants, hotels or flying to Paris, he’s at her feet.
Carol Lea Benjamin explores her unique experience with simple and—I repeat—practical tips to enrich your dog bond. She’s no ideologue, and never badmouths trainers with different methods. Carol Lea Benjamin is only concerned about you and your dog.
Now, about that shared world record: Carol; her husband, Steve Lennart; and I had dinner outdoors at Pastis. Like most Greenwich Village cafés, the tables are jammed together and are so minuscule we scarcely had room for three plates up top and three sets of feet underneath. When we finished and rose to go, our three Border Collies emerged. The waitress was startled. “I didn’t know there were dogs under there,” she said.
If the sight of plastic bottle and cereal boxes makes you gleefully run for the recycling bin, please resist the urge to deconstruct Eco Dog’s cardboard cover. Tempting though it may be, you’ll find the pulpy contents well worth saving and reusing. Co-authors Jim Deskevich and Corbett Marshall enthusiastically share their favorite all-natural options for your dog’s diet, grooming, health care and home environment.
During the hot summer months, most dog owners rely on a chemical flea preventative. Deskevich and Marshall remind us that our dogs are surrounded by potentially dangerous chemicals from home cleaning products, cars and the air outdoors. So does it make sense to put more chemicals directly on their fur? They suggest nontoxic alternatives for shampoo and flea repellents. I made the herbal flea powder and it proved effective for my five dogs. Plus, the smell was more pleasant than commercial flea repellents and it cost far less.
Dogs like to explore with their mouths, so we buy toys to keep them busy and save our furniture. Tragically, some toys are made with toxic materials and can cause liver and kidney damage, or possibly cancer. Thanks to Eco Dog, you can make your own nontoxic toys at a fraction of the price of most commercial dog toys. The Braided T-Shirt Bone won me over with its sheer simplicity and its smart way to get rid of old T-shirts. My dogs enjoy carrying their “bones”around or tucking them into a couch corner as a pillow.
What I find most appealing about Eco Dog is the way it’s organized into easy, budget-friendly projects.Wanting to do right by our dogs, ourselves and the environment as a whole can be overwhelming. But Eco Dog breaks it down into simple steps that anyone can follow. It also makes you feel good about making natural choices for your dog that will boost his health and longevity, and perhaps that of your human family as well.
Broadway, 304 pp., 2008; $22.95
The first time I read Dr. Nick Trout's book, I curled up in a corner at my local bookstore, chin on my chest with his book in my lap for hours. It was the second time in my life I’d fallen for a veterinary surgeon.
It’s not hard to conclude, then, that what follows will be a largely positive review of Tell Me Where It Hurts. Sure, the subtitle’s a mite contrived, as is the day-in-a-life format Dr.Trout practically apologizes for in his opening bid for his readers’ sympathies. And even if he seems overly eager to make us fall in love with his brand of quirky wit, in the end it’s okay…he’s a surgeon, after all, and even those of the veterinary variety temper their legendary surgical egos with no small dose of charisma.
I mean that as no sly slur, really. All vets love to be loved—present company included. This flaw is part of our innate charm, I think—a forgivably innocuous Achilles heel borne ofmuch client adulation and early success in life. If surgeons offer a bit more bluster than most, well, that’s quite all right—especially if their pomp lives up to its promise.
In his post as veterinary surgeon at Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston, the subject of this memoir, Dr. Trout is uniquely qualified to lead an informative expedition into veterinary medicine’s heart of darkness. After all, his day job is a taxing amalgam of interpersonal skill, medical expertise and technical talent played at the profession’s highest levels.
Instead, Trout trades what might have been a trip down a river of gloomy reality for a veterinary romp in the tradition of the genre’s undisputed genius, James Herriot (of the “All Creatures…” series fame). Exchanging bucolic, 1950s England for 21st-century suburban Boston, UKborn and educated Dr.Trout convincingly recalls everything we ever loved about his countryman, while never letting us forget that this is a thoroughly modern read.
In fact, it would seem that in his urgency to update the master, Dr. Trout manages to raise every notable issue affecting contemporary veterinary medicine—from the feminization of the profession to pet health insurance and the risk of suicide that comes with the territory.Chapter by chapter, he crams it all in, leaving no pet medical stone unturned and no newsworthy animal issue behind.
In the end, Trout relies on his scathing humor and glorious British irreverence to pull out a surprisingly insightful, often hilarious take on himself, his profession, his colleagues, his clients and his patients —in that order. That he does so without raising hackles speaks to his prodigious gift for being downright, self-deprecatingly funny. Yet, in so doing, I can’t help feel his bantering style cuts far from the bone.
But perhaps this more critical opinion is the casualty of a second read. The first go-round breezed by like a busy day at work—one free of responsibilities, as in the voyeuristic, somewhat sadistic pleasure we guiltily succumb to when listening to a smart colleague rant cathartically after a very rough day (preferably over beers at a nearby watering hole).
The second read? I guess I wanted more than a colleague’s easy dissection—some bite, if you will, no matter how droll—if I was going to have a go at the same material again. “Gimme dirt, buddy!” I yelled at the pages (rest assured, in the privacy of my own home this time).
But then, I’m a vet and Dr. Trout’s experiences resonate so well with my worldview of veterinary medicine that I guess I can’t help it if I want a little more Conrad and a little less Herriot in my literature. And, truth be told, I get the vet surgeon spiel every night from the first one I fell for. Thus, I’ve since learned to be critical, even of genius.
Dogwise Publishing, 264 pp., 2008; $19.95
Hold onto your leashes, dog-training fans: Oh Behave! is another great ride from Jean Donaldson. This book is classic JD, with all of the solid science that wins her so many loyal fans in the dog training and behavior community, and it comes wrapped in the wry, dry wit we’ve come to expect from her. While it may be too technical for the casual reader, Donaldson’s latest effort is a jackpot for those who are fascinated by the question of why dogs do what they do. If you’re a behavior addict, as are so many of us who’ve become captivated by the intricacies and possibilities of working with the canine mind, you’ll find much fodder here to feed your fixation.
Behavior: Includes foundation information about canine behavior, including an excellent chapter on social organization. Discusses hierarchies and the urban-legend explanation for the popularity of the flawed canine dominance theory.
Training: Answers a variety of questions about training philosophies and specific training challenges, such as prompting and luring, shaping, and the application of classical conditioning to everyday life.
Behavior Problems: Addresses several concepts and behaviors that fall outside the scope of basic training, including barking, mounting and the use of time-outs in behavior modification programs.
Fear and Anxiety: Explains the evolutionary survival value of fear and anxiety, and describes how to modify or manage some anxiety-related behaviors, including compulsive disorders and separation anxiety.
Aggression: Discusses aspects of aggression, notably the so-called “dog-bite epidemic,” as well as resource guarding, predatory drift, and the touchy topics of fighting-dog rehabilitation and breedspecific legislation.
Genetics and Evolution: Offers thoughtprovoking information on the oftbroached question of whether behavior is a result of nature (genetics) or nurture (environment). The answer, to quote Donaldson, is “All behavior is the product of a complex interaction between genes and environment…The answer is always both.”
Whew! That’s a lot to cover in one relatively slender volume. As always, Donaldson covers it remarkably well, with a plethora of pithy, quotable sound bites. She excels at identifying points of dissension within dog-owning/training circles and setting the record straight, and is not averse to a well-aimed jab or two at those who perpetuate inaccuracies and myths about behavior and training.
Discussing the question of whether dogs are capable of deliberate deception, she says,“Dogs…while masterful at being conditioned to behave in ways that function to get them off the hook, cannot perform intentional deception the way you and I can…The most interesting question to me is why people persist in believing dogs can intentionally deceive …in spite of substantial evidence to the contrary.”
Another favorite: “The pure shaping versus lure-reward debate has been going on for years with neither side offering up much in the way of blind empirical research to support their position that their way is ‘better,’ ‘faster,’ ‘more efficient,’ ‘teaches dogs to think’ or ‘grows bigger brains.’This hasn’t shaken the most zealous in either camp from their biases, however.”
If you’re not already firing up your computer to go online and order your copy of Oh Behave!, then you’re not a true behavior addict. Go play with your dog.
Ecco, 576 pp., 2008; $25.95
For a first novel, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle has already met with great success, rising high on bestseller lists and garnering critical acclaim. In this long, dense and gothic-tinged work, 10 years in the making, author David Wroblewski constructs a Hamletinspired story, with a soupçon of Stephen King thrown in for good measure. The cast of characters— including the mother, Trudy (Gertrude); the uncle, Claude (who, yes, marries his sister-in-law); and the vet, Papineau, a Polonius stand-in—is taken from the bard’s playbook.
The hero, however, is Edgar Sawtelle, a mute and mysterious boy.At the beginning of the book, he, his parents Gar and Trudy, and the lovely Almondine (his cherished companion and a dog who has been with the family since before Edgar’s birth) are living an idyllic life on a farm in northern Wisconsin. But true to the Hamlet trajectory, the story quickly darkens with Gar’s sudden death.
The family’s livelihood comes from the breeding and raising of “Sawtelle” dogs—not a breed, but an idealized über mix. Dogs Edgar’s grandfather, and then his father, found to be noble, honorable or emblematic of an essential, almost indefinable, quality were the progenitors of this new canine phenotype, one “excellent in temperament and structure but of unpedigreed stock.”Much detail about their (and to this reader, problematic) breeding operation is revealed when, at the behest of a familial ghost, Edgar investigates what he believes is his father’s murder, and looks through his grandfather’s voluminous breeding records and correspondences for clues to the crime.
An intriguing part of this endeavor is that in order to be sure the breeding program is achieving its desired outcome, the behavioral and temperamental aspects of each offspring are closely monitored. The dogs are raised by the Sawtelle family until they are two years old, and undergo a rigorous training program,with Trudy as the master trainer. She teaches her techniques (which, unfortunately, seem to be modeled on the Koehler approach) to young Edgar; even though he is mute, he is able to communicate well through hand signals and body movements. In yet another borrowing from Hamlet, Edgar schools his dogs in an elaborate relay game involving what he suspects is the murder weapon (a syringe) in order to “catch the conscience” of his uncle.
It is in the last third of the book, in the section titled “Chequamegon,” where Wroblewski’s storytelling talent really shines, rising above the turgidity of the gothic. After an incident a la Polonius, Edgar runs away from home,taking three dogs (the first litter for which he is solely responsible) with him. The little pack makes a dangerous journey through northern lakes and woods country. This turns out to be more like an ancient truth quest, where young men—and in this case, young dogs as well—test their mettle and resolve to make the leap into adulthood. True canine heirs to the Sawtelle name, the dogs are Edgar’s equal partners, mastering survival skills and expressing their own clear choices.
There is much to admire about this book. While I have reservations about the supernatural elements and the degree to which the Hamlet metaphor is employed, as well as being troubled about parts of the plot (especially those related to dog-rearing), nonetheless, Wroblewski possesses a daring and adventurous talent, and I look forward to seeing the heights he scales next.
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