Culture: Reviews
Notable Books of 2013

2013 was a good year for books that helped us to better understand our dogs and unravel the mysteries of what this unique friendship is all about. Here are the notable books of 2013 that have topped our must-read list.

Neuroscientist Gregory Berns does groundbreaking research with the help of MRI brain imagery of his dog, Callie—along with many other dogs from the Dog Project at Emory University. The goal is to decode the canine brain, and, yes, understand what makes dogs’ tick—do dogs empathize with humans, and have a theory of mind? His findings, chronicled in How Dogs Love Us, make a very engrossing and enlightening read.

Cat Warren never thought that she would become cadaver dog handler, but then she got Solo, a German Shepherd pup whose  “single pup in the litter” status lent him a singular “I am the master of the universe” mindset. So she took the advice of a trusted trainer on how best to channel his singleton’s “energy” and plunged into cadaver fieldwork. What the Dogs Knows is actually about her discovery of what a dog’s worldview really is, and how she and Solo, not only learned how to navigate it but also to excel at it. This makes for a compelling read.

In Chaser, John Pilley writes about how he and one very smart, committed Border Collie went on to win what amounts to the grand “spelling bee” in the canine world, when Chaser, the dog, learned to differentiate over 1022 words. Theirs is an extraordinary story, made especially more so because Pilley was pushing 80 when he began Chaser’s lessons, and spent four to five hours a day enriching his new dog’s social and learning experiences. There is much to glean in this book, including tips on how you might be able to tap into the genius of your dog.

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.

E.B. White on Dogs, edited by his granddaughter Martha White, is a marvelous collection of classic essays, letters and assorted writing, by a master wordsmith and avowed dog enthusiast. His personable storytelling retains its freshness and immediacy and will charm a new generation of dog-lovers.

Donald McCaig, one our favorite authors, is back in good form again with his engaging Mr. and Mrs. Dog a tale on how McCaig and his Border Collies, Luke and June, were able to compete in the Olympics of the herding-dog world, the World Sheepdog Trials. McCaig’s work spans 25 years of raising and training sheepdogs, and also includes his stalwart championing of the working status of these amazing dogs, quite apart from their recent “inclusion” into AKC’s show-ring standards. He, as always, provides a valuable commentary on living and loving dogs.

Dog Songs by the Pulitzer prize-winning poet, Mary Oliver, is the perfect volume to round off our reading list. Oliver is certainly, according to the New York Times, “America’s best-selling poet,” and the reasons for that are numerous. For us it is for her love and respect of nature following a pastoral tradition in poetry, and, her fondness and keen “eye” for dogs. In her latest collection, Bark readers will revisit some works that Bark was honored to first publish, as well as be treated to memorable new material. As she has said of dogs, “I think they are companions in a way that people aren’t. They’ll lie next to you when you’re sad. And they remind us that we’re animals, too.”

Culture: Reviews
Book Review: Decoding Your Dog
Vet Experts Tell Us How

Did you know that the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (ACVB) has fewer than 50 members? To obtain board certification in this specialty, each has gone beyond a DVM to earn various degrees in applied animal behavior, and has completed a rigorous training program as well.

Decoding Your Dog (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, January 2014), with sections on canine behavior written by 20 ACVB diplomates, thus represents the expertise of some of the leading experts in the field. Their goal is two-fold: to make sure dog people have scientifically correct information about dog behavior problems and “to correct widespread misinformation.” The volume is well edited by Drs. Debra Horwitz and John Ciribassi and pet journalist Steve Dale; Victoria Stilwell contributed the foreword.

A concerted effort to debunk the many fallacious, pseudoscientif ic notions all too prevalent in the dog world is really long overdue. This book repudiates, in each and every one of its 14 chapters, the theory of dominance— i.e., dogs want to be pack leaders—that has been promulgated for much too long. In “Creating a Mensa Dog,” Dr. Katherine Houpt outlines that theory: “It goes like this: since dogs are essentially domesticated wolves, and wolves have a rigid dominance hierarchy within their pack, the same must be true for dogs. Simple, right? But the thinking turns out to be wrong.” She then goes on to tell us why it is wrong. Similarly, when this concept appears in other chapters, it’s firmly dismissed as a myth with no scientific basis that harms dogs and our relationships with them.

Another adroitly debunked myth is that dogs feel guilty about infractions people find upsetting, such as house soiling. Dogs must know they’ve done something wrong, right? In “Can’t We Just Talk?” Dr. Jacqueline Neilson explains that while to us, cringing may look like guilt, what is actually happening is that dogs see us acting aggressively and do what they wisely do when faced by an angry bully: offer a submissive response. In the fascinating chapter on aggression, Drs. Ilana Reisner and Stefanie Schwartz remind us that dogs are not mean: “There is no revenge or malice in dogs; they are merely using canine tools to respond to social situations.” Also, that aggression is a response to many different triggers, some of which might not be apparent to us. Consequently, it’s imperative that we learn how to read canine body language and methods of communication. Punishment, they say, “is not necessary when you’re managing your dog’s behavior, and at worst is likely to increase anxiety and aggression.” That means no leash pops, alpha rolls or other “in your face” confrontational techniques (as used by a popular TV personality). It is up to us to defuse the situation, and then work on a strategy to fix the problem.

On less dire subjects, it’s good to know Book Reviews that there is no association between “spoiling,” such as allowing a dog to sleep on the bed, and behavior problems. And that dogs rely on “visual and olfactory cues for communication,” which means it’s best to train them with hand signals first, then supplement with verbal cues.

I found the chapter on separation anxiety by Drs. E’Lise Christensen and Karen Overall to be invaluable, particularly their reminder that “only when dogs are calm can they learn new things, including how to be home alone.” With information ranging from the best ways to start out with dogs to helping dogs as they age, this book is appropriate for both novice and seasoned dog people. The editors have done a good job in making the text readable and approachable; each chapter incorporates case studies, and there is a clear organizational format. Recurring sections (“Facts, Not Fiction,” “Is That Really True?”) and review summaries (“What Did We Say?”) neatly encapsulate the various messages. I have a little quibble with the use of the latter phrase, which sounds like a scolding parent’s “What did I tell you!” But that doesn’t detract from my overall admiration for this book. Decoding Your Dog is an important addition to the canine canon, one that will go a long way toward increasing your understanding of your best friend.

Culture: Reviews
Book Review: The Dog Encyclopedia

This hefty compendium underscores the old saw about the value of pictures. Heavens, dogs are lovely, aren’t they? Flipping through the pages rewards the reader with information on more than 400 breeds, crossbreeds and “unknowns,” in all their sizes, shapes and colors—an exploration that speaks not only to the length of our association with dogs, but just how much we’ve influenced their development. Readers are introduced to many breeds not at all well-known in this country, including the pert little Kooikerhondje from the Netherlands and the Slovakian Rough-haired Pointer, a breed that, it is said, “thrives on company and activity.” Both of these breeds, and many others too, look like charming mixes, which is how “pure” breeds started, after all.

We also learn interesting facts about each breed. For example, the Lucas Terrier is a cross created by Sir Jocelyn Lucas, who—unhappy with the way his breed, the Sealyham, was being modified by show-ring standards—bravely decided “to outcross his dogs with a Norfolk Terrier” to add more vigor. Then there’s the New Zealand Huntaway, who “lacks a breed standard”; this mix of German Shepherd, Rottweiler and Border Collie makes for a very handsome dog.

Along with stunning photos, the book also has helpful “care and training” basics, which, luckily, employ positive techniques, as well as amazing illustrations of canine anatomy and interesting dog-culture coverage of canine evolution, art, lore and history. An engrossing and entertaining book for the whole family to savor.

Culture: Reviews
Book Review: All that Ails You
Published by CreateSpace
All That Ails You

All that Ails You is narrated by Wrigley, a most attentive caregiver: emotionally attuned, good-natured, resilient—just what’s needed in an assisted-living facility. Sure, he’s a dog, but that’s a plus in an environment where it’s sometimes hard to remember that life was once joyful. As All that Ails You makes clear, dog power can be a perfect antidote to illness and loss.

Culture: Reviews
Book Review: Dogtripping
Published by St. Martins

Best known for his “Andy Carpenter” mystery series, Rosenfelt recounts a real-life adventure in this book, something those of us who fret over preparing for a weekend in the country with our dog will find truly daunting: moving 25 dogs across country, from California to Maine, in a caravan of RVs. With typical self-deprecating humor, Rosenfelt not only journals the move, he also shares how he and his wife got involved in rescue work, and the stories of some of the dogs they saved.

See our interview with author David Rosenfelt.

Culture: Reviews
Book Review: Weekends with Daisy
Published by Gallery Books/S&S

Suffering from canine deficit disorder, Sharron Luttrell signed up to be a NEADS/ Prison Pup Partnership co-caretaker, the person who familiarizes an assistance-dog-in-training with daily life on the “outside.” In doing so, she learns to let go and to plumb the depths of her own compassion for the benefit of others.

Culture: Reviews
Book Review: Following Atticus
Published by William Morrow

We review Tom Ryan's Following Atticus. Start with New Hampshire’s White Mountains, add a small dog and an overweight and out-of-shape reporter on a mission, and what do you get? A truly uplifting account of the adventure of a lifetime and a partnership built on mutual trust. A book of “life, growth and redemption.”

Culture: Reviews
Book Review: Short Leash
Published by Michigan State U Press
Short Leash Book Review

In Short Leash: A Memoir of Dog Walking and Deliverance, Pema Chodron has said that the best way to deal with fear is to lean into it, diffusing its effect by letting it inform you and staying present. Suffering the aftereffects of traumatizing attacks, Gary and her dog Barney leaned into their fears and in doing so, freed themselves from them. An inspiring and uncompromisingly honest story.

Culture: Reviews
Book Review: Ask Bob
Published by Henry Holt
Ask Bob

Before there were dog “love” stories, there was the irresistible The Cat Who Went to Paris. Peter Gethers is back with a charming novel about Bob, the type of vet we’d all love to have. There is also a cast of lovable and amusing characters, including a romantic interest who was a little too unyielding for my liking. The animals, both patients and those who are part of Bob’s family, are well drawn, and observations such as “Pet weight is one of the most delicious feelings in the whole world … it is like an extraordinary security blanket,” make Ask Bob a gem of a book.

Culture: Reviews
Book Review: How Dogs Love Us
Exploring Smart Dogs

Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist at Emory University who uses functional MRIs to measure activity in the human brain, had long been a dog-lover, so when his family adopted Callie, a hyperactive Terrier mix, he naturally started to wonder what she might be thinking. This led him to consider how he might apply techniques used in his studies of the human brain to dogs. In the fascinating book How Dogs Love Us, he recounts the methods his team employed, and how their pet dogs made these groundbreaking studies possible.

Training the dogs to maintain a sharp and steady focus as well as enjoy themselves while undergoing this testing was key. An MRI machine requires the subject to remain perfectly still in a tightly enclosed space while being subjected to loud thumping sounds. Luckily, Berns found the perfect training partner in Mark Spivak, who was confident that positive reinforcement and clicker training could shape the dogs’ behavior so that they would freely and voluntarily maintain the required position. As it turned out, Spivak was right. Initial findings showed evidence that dogs empathize with humans and have a theory of mind, and, by extension, that the idea that you must be your dog’s pack leader is a mistake. As Berns notes, “Callie was a sentient being who understood, at some level, what I was thinking and reciprocated by communicating her thoughts within her behavioral repertoire.”

There’s much to learn in this engrossing read.