Culture: Readers Write
Those who share their lives with sporting dogs (as I do) face unique challenges: dogs who are hardwired to laser focus on anything that moves and have the physical stamina to run, leap and course for what seems like forever. Dawn Antoniak-Mitchell is well acquainted with these training trials, and in From Birdbrained to Brilliant: Training the Sporting Dog to be a Great Companion (Dogwise), offers sound advice on how to “work with the ‘sportiness’ in our dogs, instead of against it.” Many of these dogs, especially those used for hunting, have been trained using harsh methods to break them so they’re “biddable.” Luckily, this book subscribes to a much more humane, reward-based approach. Key points like how to motivate your dog and become her gatekeeper “for access to all good things” are stressed, as is creating and sticking with a training plan. As Antoniak- Mitchell observes, to teach your sporting dog to be a great companion, you must be as focused, enthusiastic and creative as she is. And it turns out that the secrets to achieving that goal are to be found in this very helpful book.
Also due out in August is the must-read, The Mountaintop School for Dogs and Other Second Chances (Houghton Mifflin) by Ellen Cooney. This novel is a moving and joyous romp featuring impulsive, 24-year-old Evie, who is on a quest to untangle a troubled past by seeking a new life path as a dog trainer. Though she has scant experience with actual dogs, she applies for a position at the Sanctuary, which she thinks is a school for trainers. Apprehensive and excited, she learns that she must first spend time as the sole guest in a mysterious inn, overseen by a reclusive innkeeper. Little does Evie know that the Sanctuary is actually the command center for a network of underground animal rescuers led by four elderly ex-nuns.
All the dogs are wonderfully, fully drawn characters with heart-wrenching backstories. They reside at the Sanctuary, and Evie first encounters them when they are brought to her at the inn to assess her training skills. The dogs, Evie and, in fact, most of the other characters are all involved in some kind of transformative recovery program. The wounded dogs are tenderly given a place of refuge, while their f ledgling trainer/companion is tutored by a lama-like nun to “never, ever give a dog who comes to you anything but love.” This is a brilliantly crafted, uplifting book, with its message of “Rescue. Best. Verb. Ever” evident on every page.
Now it is summer and its long, warm days have arrived, we hope to catch up on our reading. To encourage you to do the same, we’ve compiled a roster of some of our favorites from newer to recent classic shelves. We would like to suggest our picks for a well-versed “dog culture” reading roster. These 10 books will enhance your understanding of your dog, along with entertaining and inspiring you. Enjoy!
Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures by Virginia Morell (Crown) explores what researchers have discovered about the mental and emotional lives of animals ranging from trout to dogs, and many others. She went in search of the “minds of animals to better grasp how the other creatures around us perceive and understand the world.” Her journalistic storytelling skills makes for a compelling read.
Edgar Award-winner Theresa Schwegel’s newest book, The Good Boy (Minotaur Books), includes an unforgettable character, Butch, a Belgian Malinois/German Shepherd mix trained as in drug-detection work. Butch and his K9 officer partner, Pete Murphy, navigate some of Chicago’s bleaker byways in this story. Both Joel, Murphy’s 11-year-old son, and Butch qualify as the “good boy” of the title. Joel is bright and innocent and loyal; Butch is honest, and honestly portrayed by a writer who knows dogs and their behaviors (she even knows why dogs’ feet smell like popcorn, an intriguing bit of trivia). Put this one on your reading list!
Read the interview with Theresa Schwegel for insights into her portrayal of Butch and the choices she made in his creation.
If you haven’t read it yet, make sure that this summer you pick up, Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz a fascinating journey into the dog’s rich sensory world, providing valuable insights into what it’s like to be a dog. If you think you know your dog, think again. Horowitz peels away the layers of pre-conceived notions and gets to the core of canine-ness to reveal that Canis familiaris is anything but familiar.
Read an interview with Alexandra Horowitz here.
A new must-read, The Mountaintop School for Dogs: and Other Second Chances (Houghton Mifflin) by Ellen Cooney is due out in August. This novel is a joyous romp featuring an impulsive, twenty-four-year old, Evie, who is on a quest to untangle a troubled past by seeking a new life path as a dog trainer. Little does she know that the she has enrolled in a command center for a network of underground animal rescuers, lead by four elderly ex-nuns. This is a brilliantly crafted, uplifting book, with its message of “Rescue. Best. Verb. Ever,” being evidenced throughout its pages.
First-time book author, Matthew Gilbert goes behind the scenes of a typical dog park, in his enjoyable Off the Leash: A Year at the Dog Park (St. Martin’s). He’s a dog-phobic convert who falls hard for his first pup who helps him to get immersed in a whole new world at a nearby dog park. The pair discover an engaging human pack replete with all the quirks, revelations and drama that come with your average (canine) nation state. This is a witty and memorable read that will delight and enthrall off-leash readers everywhere.
See a sampling of this book here.
In August, Spencer Quinn is back with another of his widely popular Chet and Bernie mystery books. In Paw and Order (Simon & Schuster), the seventh in this series, we find the intrepid duo being swept up in a case of international intrigue. Chet, the canine copilot extraordinaire, is always the unforgettable one in this partnership. Read one, you’ll want to read them all!
Susannah Charleson’s second book about dogs, The Possibility Dogs is every bit as enthralling as her first, Scent of the Missing. In this new book she refocuses her work from search-and-rescue to training rescue dogs for psychiatric service and therapy duty. She becomes an expert on evaluating shelter dogs to find those who might have the right personality and drive for this work. This book is an informative training guide but also a truly inspiring personal story.
For an excerpt on our site click here.
Rex and the City, by Lee Harrington. First published over seven years ago, this book still is one of the finest examples of the ever-popular canine memoir genre. Rex was a “behaviorally-challenged” sporting breed mix rescued by a NYC couple, who proves a trifle more than they can handle. But when it comes to exploring what it takes for “newbies” to learn about co-existing with a canine (and with each other), this is one of the funniest and exquisite accounts of the journey. A love story at its finest. As one reviewer noted: “Harrington shows us that learning how to live with a canine is the surest way of learning how to live."
For a sample of Lee Harrington's work read this.
A Small Furry Prayer: Dog Rescue and the Meaning of Life by Steven Kotler is part Hunter Thompson part Carlos Castaneda but mostly so original that it’s difficult to peg. A fascinating examination of the “cult and culture” of dog rescue. The story takes place in rural northern New Mexico—a perfect place for the author and his wife to start their dog sanctuary, Rancho de Chihuahua—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 gleefully throws himself into being part of the pack, taking the big dogs and the many Chihuahuas on forays into the foothills, 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 this delightful and insightful book.
In What the Dog Knows, Cat Warren explores the science and wonder of working dogs, guided by Solo, her German Shepherd. To harness Solo’s energies, she decided to try him at scent work—specifically, cadaver scenting. Her own training for this field was also a challenge, one that at times was more than she thought she could handle. This is a story of how Warren discovered what the worldview of a working dog really is, and how she and Solo not only learned to navigate it but also, to excel at it. This book offers new avenues to learn about the cognitive and emotional lives of one’s own dogs, and is highly recommended by this reviewer.
Click for a conversation with Cat Warren.
A Dog’s History of the World: Canines and the Domestication of Humans (Baylor University Press) by Laura Hobgood-Oster is a small book packed with interesting insights into the canine-human bond. She rightfully posits that our own species would not have succeeded without our oldest friends, and gleans support for her position from a variety of fields, including archaeology, history and literature. The only quibble we have is with the inclusion of the oft-cited theory about the evolution of the “first” dog; this is a fluid field of study, and some of the research in the book has already been successfully challenged. However, that doesn’t detract from the overall impact and delight this book brings to the field of canine studies.
A century ago, pets didn’t even warrant the meager legal status of “property.” Now, they have more rights and protections than any wild animal on earth. How did we get here—and what happens next? That’s what Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs (Public Affairs) by David Grimm is all about.
Grimm discusses all aspects of the issue, providing readers with enough information so they can make their own decisions about whether humans should celebrate or condemn the better treatment of cats and dogs. We are entering a new age of pets/companion animals, one that is fundamentally transforming our relationship with them and reshaping the very fabric of society. Citizen Canine is an easy, enjoyable, must-read for all who want to know more about these fascinating beings.
From celluloid reels and family classics to foreign cinema and indie flicks, The Bark presents its list of 12 favorite dog “father” movies showcasing a father (or a paternal figure) and a leading canine character. These movies explore familial bonds, rights of passage and, of course, love. Invite your dad, son or daughter for a night at the movies—all the films on our list are guaranteed to tug at your heart. Most can be seen on Netflix, hulu or youtube. If you have a favorite that didn’t make this list, let us know! (Be sure to click on the titles for trailers and videos.)Beginners Probably the only film that garnered an Academy Award for an actor, Christopher Plummer, who plays both a devoted dog “father” but also a father to a human son. This charming, true-to-life movie also costars Ewan McGregor, as the son, and a remarkable performance from Cosmo, a Jack Russell Terrier, who steals each scene. An understated story of self-discovery, life and love. See our interview with McGregor and Cosmo’s trainer too. - Rent or Buy Beginners on Amazon The Cave of the Yellow Dog This is a quasi-documentary that concentrates on a nomadic family in Mongolia—father, mother, three small children—and the impact made upon them by a stray puppy. The acting from six-year-old Nansalmaa Batchuluun is remarkable. As Bark’s reviewer noted, “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.” This is revelatory story about a culture in transition and the universality of the strength of the human-dog bond. See Bark’s interview with the director. - Buy The Cave of the Yellow Dog on Amazon
Sounder Let’s not mince words, this is a tearjerker, but one that is devoid of mawkish sentiment. A story of a black’s sharecropper family in the 1930s and their trusted dog, Sounder, a great hunter and loyal companion. He’s affectionate and joyful, and the pride of the family. With amazing performances from Paul Winfield, Cicely Tyson and the young, Kevin Hooks, this four-time Oscar-nominated film is a powerful story about racism and injustice, but also about how a family overcomes insurmountable obstacles and about the hope that is represented by their dog, Sounder. - Rent or Buy Sounder on Amazon
Babe While everyone knows this is the one of the two seminal movies about a smart pig so one might wonder what it is doing on this list. Babe, the piglet, not only has aspirations for sheepdogdom, but is coached along by a real Border Collie, Fly. So it has a well-deserved spot here—besides it is also one of the best movies ever made about animals. All the animals are beautifully crafted and fully realized characters, and James Cromwell as Farmer Hoggett puts in a memorable performance especially in the scene when he takes Babe to the herding trial and the pair go on to prove to one and all that you can do just about anything if you put your mind, and snout, to it. As he gently intones to Babe at the film’s end, “That’ll do, pig. That’ll do.” - Rent or Buy Babe on Amazon
Old Yeller This 1957 Disney classic is a coming-of-age tale set in the post-Civil War frontier. His father away on a cattle drive, young Travis must act as the man of the house, watching over his mother and younger brother. He’s initially mistrusting of a yellow stray dog who wreaks havoc and steals food, but the dog wins his affections and proves his loyalty by battling bears and boars to protect his new family. The tragic conclusion has overwhelmed generations of viewers, and the themes of love and loss resonate as clearly today as they did on the film’s first release. - Rent or Buy Old Yeller on Amazon
My Dog Skip Based upon a memoir by Willie Morris, one time editor of Harper’s magazine, My Dog Skip takes place in 1942. Young Willie has few friends and the prospect of a lonely summer, until his mother decides her son needs a dog. Skip changes Willie’s life forever. Best friend, talented performer, endearing dog-about-town … Skip introduces Willie to new worlds, new friends, seemingly the whole town. Moose (Eddie from Fraser) steals the film with his lively portrayal of Skip. - Rent or Buy My Dog Skip on Amazon
Where North Begins (Rin Tin Tin) Considered to be the first film starring Rin Tin Tin, this 1923 silent black and white reel has a the young German Shepherd puppy adopted by a wolf pack after being lost in transport across Alaska. As a grown “wolf-dog,” Rin Tin Tin comes to the rescue of a young trapper, Gabriel Dupré, who is attacked while transporting furs and left for dead. The young man and dog become fast friends, and Rin Tin Tin again proves his bravery by saving Dupré’s sweetheart when her life is threatened. Surprisingly realistic given the early age of cinema and the demanding feats asked of its canine star. - Buy Where the North Begins on Amazon
Because of Winn-Dixie One of the few “dog” movies featuring a little girl (the other is our pick, “Cave of the Yellow Dog”), in this case, a lonely 10-year-old named Opal. Having been abandoned by her mother when she was only three, finding a large scruffy dog at the supermarket, gives Opal another way to explore the world and her community and come out of her shell. Also because of Winn-Dixie, her father, played by Jeff Daniels, agrees to tell her ten things about her missing mother. Inspired by her attachment to her dog, Opal learns many things that summer. - Rent or Buy Because of Winn-Dixie on Amazon
Lassie Come Home This is the first film in the Lassie series, made in ’43 and starring Roddy McDowall and canine actor, Pal, in a story about the profound bond between the boy and his dog. When a poor Yorkshire family is forced to sell their beloved Rough Collie to a rich duke, the dog does everything to escape and make her way back to her “boy.” A lovely young Elizabeth Taylor plays the duke’s granddaughter who, sensing how much the dog loves her family helps Lassie escape. A movie classic that launched an industry, but its poignant and uplifting story is well worth your viewing. - Rent or Buy Lassie Come Home on Amazon
Umberto D This is one of the greatest films of all time and a classic masterpiece by Vittorio De Sica. This is a story about a retiree, played by a 70-year-old non-actor Carlo Battisti, who finds that the bond he has with his dog, Flike keeps him tethered to his own fading life. In fact, the dog shows him why he must continue to live. As Roger Ebert summarized it: “Umberto loves the dog and the dog loves him because that is the nature of the bond between dogs and men, and both try to live up to their side of the contract.” (This film was recently remade starring Jean Paul Belmondo, in a French version, “Mon Chien Un Homme et Son Chien.”) - Rent or Buy Umberto D. on Amazon
The Thin Man (any or all of this six-part series) Although it starred the sophisticates William Powell and Myrna Loy (as Nick and Nora Charles) it’s the performance of Asta that made this series from the ’30s all the more enjoyable. Adapted from the last novel written by Dashiell Hammett, Asta, the Charles’ dog/child was a female Schnauzer in the book, but in the movies the role went to male Wirehaired Fox Terrier(s). As a Bark reviewer noted, Skippy who played Asta in the first two movies, was “a consummate canine comedian who was the perfect counterpart to the socialites lushes the Charles.” - Rent or Buy The Thin Man on Amazon
My Dog Tulip This animated full-length feature film was adapted from J.R. Ackerley’s startling 1956 memoir that then, and even now, has a way of evoking either readers’ displeasure or intense admiration. Award winning-filmmakers Paul and Sandra Fierlinger codirected this film, and have done an artful job at bringing this eloquent study in love and adaptation to the screen. With the voices of Christopher Plummer, Isabella Rossellini and Lynn Redgrave this inimitable story of a man’s love for his dog showcases Ackerley’s determined efforts to ensure an existence of perfect happiness for his Alsatian, Tulip. See our review and interview with the filmmakers. - Buy My Dog Tulip on Amazon
Very Fetching, 2012, 180 pp; $16.99
I’d like to see Barbara Shumannfang’s book Puppy Savvy: The Pocket Guide to Raising Your Dog Without Going Bonkers in the hands of more people with new puppies. It’s upbeat and full of practical wisdom conveyed in an easy-to-read conversational style.
Shumannfang understands normal puppy behavior and offers smart advice for helping puppies behave appropriately in human houses. She focuses on setting puppies up to succeed by considering what we DO want them to do, making that happen and rewarding the puppy for doing it. Her training advice is positive, humane and modern.
Refreshingly, Shumannfang acknowledges that puppies can be emotionally and physically exhausting. She lets readers know that it’s okay to feel overwhelmed sometimes, while offering information and ideas to prevent that feeling from overriding all others as you raise a puppy.
This book covers the issues typically facing puppy guardians—house training, puppy biting, jumping up, chewing, grooming concerns, crate training, exercise, play, training basics, interactions with kids, whining and barking, and when to seek additional help. It can be read straight through, but it’s also easy to use as a reference.
Shumannfang uses a lot of humor, so you can look forward to laughing as you read Puppy Savvy, knowing that what you learn will mean you will be laughing more as you raise your puppy than you would without this book.
Nick Trout’s first novel, The Patron Saint of Lost Dogs, charmed readers everywhere, including here at Bark. A Boston-based veterinarian, Trout has an insider’s view of vet practices, the people who run them, and the quirks and foibles of clients and their pets. With this book, he continues the story of Patron Saint’s Cyrus Mills, DVM , reluctant owner of a small-town Vermont clinic.
Trout adeptly weaves three plot lines: the David v. Goliath nature of independent and corporate vet practices, Mills’ awkward pursuit of an emotional life, and the gamut of situations vets encounter daily. And once again, Mills finds himself the reluctant guardian of a dog—this time, a service dog with a mysterious background.
Trout writes from a place of deep knowledge and regard for the bonds people have with their companion animals, and his wry sense of humor provides many smile-inducing moments. It’s an enjoyable read.
Author of The Good Boy
What could be better than a novel that combines a strong sense of place, a fast-moving story and a dog as a primary character? Theresa Schwegel’s newest book, The Good Boy (Minotaur), fulfills all these requirements and then some; Butch, a Chicago PD K9, races through its pages in a most authentic way. Despite a busy book-tour schedule, Schwegel kindly took time to answer a few questions—like all dedicated dog people, she enjoys talking about her co-pilots.
Bark: In the acknowledgments, you thank the dogs who inspired you, Wynne and Wiley and CPD K9 Brix. Tell us more about the first two, and how you came to know Brix.
Theresa Schwegel: Wynne is my wonderfully neurotic Australian cattle dog mix; Wiley is my stomach-brained Ridgeback-Lab. They’re rescues and they’re my best friends. My husband trained them when they were puppies, and they’re easier off-leash (especially since Wynne’s herding instinct only tangles us). They both exist in Butch— his yin and yang, I suppose—as does Brix, the German Shepherd/Belgian Malinois mix I met when I asked a detective friend to find me a working K9. And yes—Brix is Butch’s physical model; I’d seen Bloodhounds work as well, but I needed a dog who could track and trail and detect and protect.
Bark: Your portrayal of the world of the working police dog has a lot of authenticity. Were you already tapped into it, or did it require research?
Schwegel: Research, of course. I need to see what I write, whether it’s a place or person or procedure. I was fortunate to spend time with some German Shepherds; both a trainer and a former K9 officer were kind enough to let me peek into their homes to see how a working dog lives off the clock. And Brix’s handler, Tara Poremba (now a trainer for the Chicago Police Department), was instrumental in teaching me how a dog team works; at one point, we staged a mock drug search at a neighborhood bar. Truthfully, though, I think Butch’s authenticity comes from living with my two dogs. I think Wiley would be a great K9 if I put bacon in the Kong.
Bark: Butch has a brief foray into dog fighting. What made you decide to add that element?
Schwegel: I felt Butch needed to fight his own fight, too. To be the real “good boy.” What limited research I did with regard to dogfighting was mortifying. The culture, the language, the cruelty. Despite the tough bullying scenes in the book, I could only bring myself to allude to the dogfight.
Bark: Butch really is a central character, one who in some ways drives the action, or at least inspires a lot of it. Did you start with that intent, or did it develop as you wrote?
Schwegel: I knew Butch would cause Joel’s journey, and I knew he had to go along (Joel would need someone to talk to). He became a central character as I realized he was the only one who couldn’t tell a lie (and everybody else in the book was buried under them). His “personality”—if I may anthropomorphize, because I always do— developed as a result of his interactions with Joel.
Bark: We were also interested in your choice to give Jack London’s book White Fang a role in the story; what inspired that? Are you a reader of dog books, or other mysteries with dogs in them? Any favorites or recommendations?
Schwegel: I wanted Joel to have a city map and a moral compass on his journey. White Fang is one of my favorite soul-searching books, and so it was an obvious choice. I don’t really seek out “dog” books, though two favorites that both feature dog-as-narrator are Timbuktu by Paul Auster and The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein.
Bark: Are there any more “Murphy and Butch” books in the works?
Schwegel: I don’t have plans for a series, though I had a writer-friend recently comment that Joel would be a “pretty interesting dude” if I let him grow up. The novel I’m working on now jumps to the other end of the spectrum, as it deals with financial exploitation and elder abuse. (I must admit, though, that I’m partial to the idea of giving the detective a dog.)
“Butch did his job . He recognized threat. He defended his handler. And lately, it seems like he’s the only one who will.” In Edgar Award–winner Theresa Schwegel’s new book, Chicago PD K9 officer Pete Murphy is under siege both on the job and on the home front. Fortunately, his partner Butch, a Belgian Malinois/German Shepherd mix, has his back. Butch is also devoted to Murphy’s son, Joel, an intelligent, intensely focused 11-year-old with a penchant for playing detective.
As in her four earlier books—all of which are also set in the city of Chicago —the people in The Good Boy struggle with professional and personal complexities. In Pete’s case, the suggestion that he had an affair with a female judge he was assigned to protect affects his job and his marriage. He’s been reassigned to the K9 unit, fellow officers keep their distance, and his wife and teen-age daughter are furious about having to move to a cheaper neighborhood. Joel, on the other hand, considers their new situation ripe with opportunities for “undercover” work. For Butch, whose specialty is drugdetection, life is straightforward: he works hard, is devoted to Pete and his family, and will defend them—especially Joel—at all costs.
The story hits terminal velocity quickly. Joel, accompanied by Butch, follows his sister when she sneaks out to a party at the home of a boy Joel knows is dangerous. As they spy on the partygoers, Butch scents drugs and leaps into action. In the process, shots are fired. The narrative follows Joel and Butch as the two make their way across Chicago, armed with a map, four dollars and a copy of Jack London’s White Fang, to the one person Joel feels can save Butch from the consequences of doing his job. As his mother frantically waits, and his sister hides her role in the situation and his father anxiously searches for them, Joel and Butch navigate some of the city’s bleaker byways.
Both Joel and Butch qualify as the “good boy” of the title. Joel is bright and innocent and loyal; Butch is honest, and honestly portrayed by a writer who knows dogs and their behaviors (she even knows why dogs’ feet smell like popcorn, an intriguing bit of trivia).
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