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.
Jeremy P. Tarcher; $23.95
Anyone who lives with and loves dogs knows there’s no better way to unwind from a hard day or combat life’s large and small setbacks than with a canine cuddle session. Dogs pick up on our emotions and, in their own ways, offer solace and diversion.
This ability, which we value so highly in the ordinary circumstances of our daily lives, is of even more significance during extraordinary times and in difficult circumstances. Rachel McPherson, founder and executive director of The Good Dog Foundation (and one of Bark’s 100 Best & Brightest), is intimately acquainted with the valuable work dogs do — helping children with autism; comforting the sick, the lonely and the traumatized; and providing assistance for those with physical challenges. In Every Dog Has a Gift, McPherson not only shares insights from her own experiences, she also collects the stories of others who have been helped and healed by dogs.
Before creating the foundation, McPherson was a film and television producer well-known for her documentaries. In fact, it was while producing a documentary on therapy dogs that she fell in love with her subject — and the rest, as they say, is history (read more at thegooddogfoundation.org).
The stories in this book will touch your heart, inspire you and make you smile in recognition of all the ways dogs save and heal us. For many of the troubles that ail us, “dog medicine” is the best medicine of all, and in this book, you’ll meet some terrific practitioners.
Men, dogs, 3,000 sheep and 150 miles
Anointed as the “first essential movie of this young year” by the New York Times, Sweetgrass holds promise for appearance on our next decadal list. This cinéma vérité documentary, made by Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, follows—and perhaps is engulfed by—a herd of 3,000 sheep as they, their shepherds and assorted dogs make their way 150 miles up into Montana’s mountains to their summer sweetgrass pasture. While most reviewers extol the visual and vocal impact of the fascinating sheep, dogs—both Border Collies and Great Pyrenees (see if you can find the dog in the photo)—also play a part. This arduous trek was one of the last made by the Allested family and, as the filmmakers note, was undertaken to “carry on tradition against all odds.” A compelling backstory to an American pastoral. We, for one, can’t wait to see it. For a schedule of showings, check out sweetgrassthemovie.com.
Harper, 336 pp., 2008; $23.95
I must admit that when a review copy of the novel The Art of Racing in the Rain arrived on my desk, I wasn’t optimistic.
Strike one, it is not only written in a dog’s voice, but the dog narrates the story in retrospect as he nears death. Other than in the hands of a master storyteller—Paul Auster in his compelling novel Timbuktu, or E.B.White in the enchanting Charlotte’s Web—such a species-overreaching device is prone to cloying pitfalls.
Strike two, the narrator-dog Enzo’s human companion, Denny, is a race car driver, so the racing theme—as suggested by the title—is not only an important metaphor, but also drives much of the book’s plot.Watching or reading about racing has never held any interest for me.
As it turns out, there was no strike three. In this third book by Garth Stein, a Seattle author, playwright and filmmaker, these seemingly disparate elements are so masterfully worked and blended that it didn’t take long to fully engage me, the very skeptical reader, in his dramatic story.
The book begins with the very old Enzo reflecting on the twists and turns of his life and that of his beloved human, Denny Swift.Adopted by Denny from a farmer who claimed that his female Lab had accidentally mated with a Poodle, the prescient and plucky Enzo contends that his father was a Terrier because, as he says,“Terriers are problem-solvers.” This lineage distinction plays out throughout the book.
Soon after getting Enzo, Denny falls in love with Eve. They marry and have a child, Zoë, who’s born the day Enzo turns two and Denny is away racing in Daytona. Except for the loneliness that Enzo feels because Denny is spending more time pursuing his racing career, everything goes well for the young family in their early years. Enzo occupies himself by spending an inordinate amount of time watching TV and videos of memorable races (something he learned to do as a pup sitting on the sofa alongside Denny), as well as composing koanlike aphorisms, making doggish observations and bemoaning his lack of opposable thumbs and his inability to speak.
But when they come, downturns happen in quick succession. Eve becomes very ill and moves in with her protective parents, taking the child with her. Then Eve dies, and a battle ensues between Denny and his in-laws for custody of little Zoë.Through the ensuing tumultuous time, it is Enzo who remains Denny’s steadfast friend, and an honest witness to wrongs perpetrated against Denny.He also fulfills his promise to Eve to protect Zoë and watch over Denny.
The storyline occasionally borders on the incredulous and melodramatic, and there were times I wanted to put the book down because I felt that the drama just went over the top—could anyone possibly have as much bad luck as this Denny? Yet there was something so appealing and inviting about the voice of the scrappy, likeable and, yes, very believable Enzo that I read on.
By the book’s end, Enzo is dying, but he firmly believes that his dog-time on earth only means that in his next life he will be reborn as a human—a feat dear to his tenacious Terrier heart. This reader came away not only with a newfound respect for race car drivers and the mettle it takes to master the “art of racing in the rain,” but for Garth Stein’s ability to spin a compelling, entertaining and transporting story.
Free Press; $16.99
Feed Your Pet Right is an invaluable overview of the invention, production, distribution, marketing and regulation of pet food. This handy paperback covers everything from the “big picture” (nutritional standards, labeling lingo and industry structure) to consumer tips (for example, on the label, every ingredient listed after salt is negligible in amount). Food, supplements, treats, chews and snacks are all addressed.
At a time when the debate over canine diets — raw, grain-free, home-cooked, vegetarian, organic — has reached a frenzy, Nestle and Nesheim bring a calming tone to the subject. Leaving ideology behind, they clear a path through the jungle of dog food choices. Nestle, an NYU professor of nutrition, food studies and public health, and Nesheim, a Cornell professor emeritus of nutritional sciences, are academics active in food politics. At its best, their book is groundbreaking, as in the chapter on conflicts of interest in the cozy and unquestioned relationship between pet food manufacturers and veterinary schools/veterinarians. Veterinary school curricula generally do not cover nutrition. Pet food companies happily fill this gap by providing free courses, textbooks, lab equipment and industry internships. Small wonder that many veterinarians sell food made by the very companies that taught them pet nutrition.
Also noteworthy is the chapter examining the ethics of pet food research. According to the authors, impartial scientists do not conduct such research; it is done exclusively by pet food companies and carefully designed to prove that their products are beneficial. Industry studies analyzed by the authors were further weakened by specific protocol failures, including inadequate subject pools and sloppy control groups. Moreover, industry research is characterized by secrecy. Contrary to good science, these studies cannot be reproduced by an independent third party.
Certain “Conclusions” by the authors are provocative, particularly that “Commercial Pet Foods Are Pretty Much Alike, Nutritionally Speaking” and “By-Products Are By-Products, and Not Necessarily Bad.” Can a kibble made with agricultural-grade grain and unspecified animal by-products really be as nutritious as one containing a named organic protein and vegetables? And why does the book give such short shrift to both the benefits and drawbacks of raw feeding?
In addition, their analysis of homecooked and raw diets underrates the benefits of whole foods for dogs and of controlling the contents of your pet’s food. This is particularly surprising given Nestle’s emphasis on whole foods for people in What to Eat and her alarm over the lack of quality control in the pet food industry in Pet Food Politics. In Feed Your Pet Right, most kibbles are deemed equivalent and as good as homemade food. But how can extruded, rendered, non-humangrade sources provide the same quality as whole, fresh foods meeting USDA “people food” — or, even better, organic — standards?
Notwithstanding these concerns, the authors’ assertion that “balance, variety and moderation work for pet food as well as for human food” is a welcome and commonsensical conclusion. The underlying message is a Canine Golden Rule: do for your dog as you would do for yourself. Every dog person will learn something from this must-read book.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; $26
In a dog book, I look for great information, a wonderful story about the relationship between humans and dogs, and anecdotes that are funny, insightful and memorable. Rarely do all three components come together, but Susannah Charleson’s memoir has the whole package. Beautifully written, informative, charming in every detail that chronicles the life and work of Susannah and her dog Puzzle, and laugh-’til-you-snort funny, it’s a magnificent work.
Charleson reveals the physical, mental and emotional challenges of search and rescue through her relationship with Puzzle, whom she raises from puppyhood to be her partner. People in this line of work must be able to handle challenging physical and emotional situations — think extreme heat, harsh cold, sleep deprivation, enclosed dark spaces, endless waiting, dense thorny vegetation and biting insects. Extensive navigation and orienting skills (which Charleson retains from years of being a pilot) are essential, as is an understanding of the behavior of missing people and the physics of scent. Dog handling skills and knowledge of the differences between distracted behavior, alerts and finds are, of course, necessary. As a biologist and trainer, I find fascinating the subtle yet extensive communication between dog and handler.
Though most of us have not raised and trained a search and rescue dog, it’s easy to relate to Puzzle’s puppy antics, which will amuse anyone who’s ever been exasperated by a puppy’s behavior. Similarly, Charleson’s descriptions of Puzzle’s fears ring true and contain great wisdom. Many readers will also recognize the growth of the relationship between these two main characters. Puzzle’s bond with Charleson is slower to form than she would like.
Many great relationships take time to develop, and this one continues growing to the point that Puzzle’s preference for searching with Charleson, as compared to another handler, becomes obvious to the entire team. Once, when Charleson blacks out on a walk and drops the leash, Puzzle stays with her despite her usual tendency to exploit every opportunity at freedom.
Reading this book is like eating from a delicious buffet. The following is an example of Charleson’s wordsmithing:
“Puzzle, just a few months shy of two, is in that marvelous place where puppy energy and adult strength and coordination intersect. This is a happy time for her, and it shows. After training with the team or after training sessions at home, she is talkative and cheeky, full of dog mutters for me and play-bows for the Poms, tossing toys their direction for a game. Her engagement with the world is a pleasure, her energy a challenge.”
I highly recommend this book to anyone with a fascination for forensic drama. As for dog lovers, none among us will resist a tale with such descriptions as this: “I stroke my newly-certified Golden, who has wasted no time going belly-up beside me in the deep shade of pecan trees. Any celebration worth doing is, apparently, worth doing upside down, unconscious, teeth bared.”
Thomas Dunne Books; $24.99
When a Western soldier goes off to war in a hard-bitten country like Afghanistan, he prepares himself for heat and dust, danger and hostility. He is expected to put his emotions on hold, trust no one, get the job done and get out. But if he is an animal lover, with a couple of pampered hounds waiting back home, it is impossible for him to ignore the hungry packs of dogs who linger outside every military outpost, desperate for food and just as eager for human companionship.
I know this because I manage a small animal shelter in Afghanistan, and I receive dozens of emails each month from foreign servicemen and -women who have adopted a local dog or cat — sometimes a terrified new mother with pups or kittens, sometimes a scarred Shepherd being forced to fight — and are frantically trying to save it before their deployment ends and they are whisked off in a helicopter, leaving their best friend behind to its fate.
One of the first such messages I received, more than four years ago, was from an Englishwoman named Lisa whose husband, a sergeant with the British Royal Marines, was desperately trying to rescue a group of dogs in Helmand, a remote province where British forces were fighting daily battles with the Taliban. After numerous emails and phone calls, several harrowing journeys and frustrated rescue attempts, three of the dogs and 13 puppies finally reached our shelter in Kabul.
I realized it had been a miraculous escape, but I knew only the barest outlines of the story until much later, when I read One Dog at a Time by Pen Farthing, whose wife had called me back in 2006. What he and his fellow marines endured to save the dogs amid firefights and mortar attacks, what they confronted in official disapproval and local animosity, and what they gained from the affection and gratitude of the dogs of their particular war, make a vertiginous and inspiring memoir of compassion amid combat.
The most moving passages are those in which Farthing confesses his own ambivalence and anguish. How can he win the “hearts and minds” of Afghans when he finds a frenzied, cheering crowd of policemen egging on two bloodied dogs to fight? How can he make a split-second choice about which dogs to squeeze into a truck to safety, and which to leave behind? How can he worry about a stray mutt when his fellow marines are dying, when Afghan villages and schools have been reduced to rubble?
“Maybe deep down, I was just missing life back home and looking after these dogs was my way of pretending I was somewhere else,” Farthing confides at a low moment, when he realizes he may have to abandon the pack of once-wary creatures he has seduced with food, shelter and belly rubs. Although caring for the dogs keeps him and his fellow marines human in a hellish time and place, he also experiences a frustration I too know well: the visitor’s inability to change a society where fear, neglect and abuse of animals are widespread.
In the end, the exhausted and injured marine made it safely home with just two of the Helmand dogs, Nowzad and Tali. A third, Jena, came to America and now visits me at the beach every summer. Most of the puppies succumbed to a virus, and the other grown dogs were lost to the desert, perhaps also dead by now. But the title of this valiant book declares a practical philosophy I also share, and that Farthing and I — though we have never met — both carry on in our continuing Afghan missions. You try, you fail and you focus on saving one dog at a time.
Pen Farthing can be reached at nowzaddogs.co.uk. Pam Constable can be reached at kabulcritters@ gmail.com.
The Experiment; $15.95
Paul McGreevy’s love of dogs shines through in A Modern Dog’s Life: He loves the smell of dogs’ feet (and advises readers to take a sniff), advocates hu-mane training methods and takes an uncompromi s ing l y strong stand against choke chains.
Readers will enjoy McGreevy’s many practical suggestions. To make sure clients positively reinforce their dogs, he tells them to “make your dog’s tail wag.” Included among his points are the importance of novelty in terms of toys and canine playmates, ideas for making visits to the vet more pleasant, and using the possibility of a walk to motivate dogs to perform desirable behaviors.
McGreevy covers many of his topics with attention to the science behind them. For example, he discusses research related to the meaning of barking as well as the importance of physical contact for establishing bonds between people and dogs, and his consideration of current investigations into paw use and canine laterality (“handedness”) was fascinating. I would have liked the names of the scientists who conducted the research and citations of the original work.
He is particularly engaging when he talks about how dogs learn, and his explanations of overshadowing, stimulus control, omission training and secondary reinforcers are excellent, as is his summarization of the current status of many areas of dog training and major changes that have occurred in recent decades.
However, on occasion, McGreevy makes statements without citing evidence. Here are some of the comments that left me with doubts: Dogs don’t get bored eating the same food day after day because they swallow it so quickly. They can’t taste the difference between one snack and another. They are more likely to be aggressive toward male visitors because they anticipate that males are more likely to create trouble and threaten resources. They can’t tell whether or not another dog is intact.
Perhaps of greatest value is McGreevy’s coverage of problems that arise because too little emphasis is placed on breeding for temperament. He eloquently discusses medical and behavioral issues that result from the unfortunate combination of closed breed books, breed standards open to interpretation, and breeding for success in the show ring rather than for qualities that are desirable in pets whose main “job” is to be companions.
McGreevy writes in a conversational style that makes for pleasant reading, and clearly wants the best for our canine companions in this crazy modern world. My favorite of McGreevy’s remarks reveals just how charmed he is by dogs: “[M]ost dogs have the true Olympic spirit: taking part being more important than actually winning.”
Random House; $23
Intensely moving, without a hint of sentimentality, Let’s Take the Long Way Home — part memoir and part biography of a friendship — should be read and cherished by Bark readers. Gail Caldwell is a fiercely private, independent, talented writer (with a Pulitzer Prize for criticism) and a dog enthusiast. So, when a dog trainer commented that she reminded her of another Cambridge writer who also had a new puppy, and added that she should try to get together with her, Caldwell wisely heeded the advice. What followed was the making of a remarkable relationship with Caroline Knapp (author of Pack of Two), one based not only on personality similarities but on the trust each of them — both reserved women — placed in the other, allowing them to open up and choose to take the “long way home” together.
Be prepared for tears from the book’s opening, which starts with Knapp’s death and the observation that “grief is what tells you who you are alone,” to its end, which closes with the knowledge that “the universe insists that what is fixed is also finite.” But this isn’t a maudlin tale, nor is it overtly expository like many memoirs can be; rather, it is revelatory, joyous and inspiring. Caldwell expertly draws the reader into her story as a hard-driving feminist from Amarillo, Texas, who saw “drinking as an anesthetic for highstrung sensitivity and a lubricant for creativity,” then realized that surrendering her addiction was a “way to get back all your power.”
When Knapp enters her circle, Caldwell notes (reflecting on the first of their many long dog walks), “Even on that first afternoon we spent together — a four-hour walk through late-summer woods — I remember being moved by Caroline: It was a different response from simple affection or camaraderie. … I found it a weightless liberation to be with someone whose intensity seemed to match and sometimes surpass my own.” Both shared deep bonds with their dogs — Caldwell with Clementine, a Samoyed, Knapp with Lucille, a Shepherd mix — both had stopped drinking at age 33, and both had early health problems. They also traded sports passions — Caldwell’s for swimming and Knapp’s for rowing. But, “everything really started with the dogs.” The two women reveled in unlocking the mysteries of canine behavior and in the triumphs earned through polishing their training skills. Theirs was a tight, close friendship, the kind that calls to mind Polonius’s counsel to “grapple them [friends] to thy soul with hoops of steel.” Caldwell generously allows the reader into their most intimate moments, including when Knapp learned of the cancer diagnosis, her last months in the hospital, and the brief reprieve when Knapp married her long-time companion, Mark Morelli, with Lucille as their ring bearer and Caldwell as her “humble handler.”
On a personal note, I must share with you the jolt I felt when I read about Caroline in the hospital, telling Gail that the only assignment she hadn’t been able to finish was one I’d given her (“a dog lover’s magazine” in the book). Caroline was slated to contribute to our first anthology, Dog Is My Co-Pilot. I was thrilled when she offered to write an essay and eagerly awaited it; news of her death (which I learned of through a New York Times obituary) came the day her essay was due. As Caroline asks Gail, “What am I supposed to write about … the only thing worse than losing your dog is knowing that you won’t outlive her?”
As it is, with Caroline Knapp’s Pack of Two, and now with her best friend’s enthralling “pack of four” memoir, both their stories will endure, classics that outlive us all.
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