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Book Review: Chaser
Exploring Smart Dogs
Chaser: Unlocking the Genius of the Dog Who Knows a Thousand Words

Chaser, by John Pilley, is the story of how a man and a very smart, committed Border Collie won what amounts to the canine world’s grand “spelling bee.” Chaser learned to differentiate at least 1,022 words—more than any other animal—most of which were related to toys. Throw in some basic grammar, her ability to categorize her toys by function and shape, and the start of imitative behavior and you have an engrossing and remarkable tale.

The man behind this canine phenom, John Pilley (a professor emeritus of psychology whom Chaser knows as “Pop-Pop”), is himself rather amazing. Pushing 80 when he began Chaser’s lessons, Pilley spent four to five hours a day enriching his new dog’s social and learning experiences. He and co-researcher Dr. Alliston Reid later published their findings in the journal Behavioural Processes and garnered lots of media coverage, so you may be familiar with the narrative’s broad strokes. To fill in the details, read this book, which will also give you tips on how to tap into your own dog’s genius.

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.

Culture: DogPatch
Interview with Sue Halpern
Author of A Dog Walks into a Nursing Home
Sue Halpern

In 2009, her daughter away at school and husband traveling the world for work, Sue Halpern found herself in a quiet home, and restless. Pransky, her seven-year-old dog, was bored. Both were ready for a new engagement. Halpern wondered: could Pransky call on her Labrador and Poodle roots and become a service dog? Could they work together to bring joy to some new corner of their world?

Author of five books and dozens of articles for leading publications, Halpern turned to an expansive library, delving into everything from Aristotle to Temple Grandin. After a rigorous—and occasionally hilarious—training regimen, the two became a certified therapy team and soon were making weekly rounds at a local nursing home. Halpern recounts the story in her new book, A Dog Walks into a Nursing Home: Lessons in the Good Life from an Unlikely Teacher. She spoke to Annik La Farge about their adventure.

Annik La Farge: Your book left me interested in putting my own dog to work as a therapy dog. What advice would you give us? How does a person know if she and her dog will make a good team?

Sue Halpern: For years, I thought Pransky would make an excellent therapy dog because she was smart, attentive, open and loving, which are necessary attributes, but I also knew that she was a bit too playful. I had to wait until I knew I could absolutely count on her to do the right thing— to not go frolicking down the hall if I accidentally dropped her leash, for instance. She always had the right temperament, she just had to grow into it completely, which seemed to happen when she was around five. I think you’ll know, instinctively, if your dog will do well in a therapeutic setting because you’ve watched him or her interact with people of all ages, sizes and conditions. Pransky has always been one of those dogs who sits patiently while small children pull her tail. And she never jumps up on people. Jumping is a therapy-dog sin.

La Farge: At the heart of this book is the idea that dogs love—and even need—to work, just as humans do. Pransky was a bit bored before she found her calling as a therapy dog; how did working change things for her, and what turned out to be her special gift?

Halpern: Pransky is a social animal, like most dogs. She loves to be around people and she loves to be around dogs, but most of the time, she just gets to be around me, which is not so interesting. When I say, “Today is a work day!” or “Do you want to get dressed for work?” she perks up and gets quite excited. Tuesday, the day we go to the nursing home, orients her week. I don’t know if it would be too anthropomorphic to say that she looks forward to it, but it sure seems so. Her special gift—and I’d argue that this is not really special to her, but to all therapy dogs, which doesn’t make it any less special—is the joy she brings with her and spreads around. Pransky is an enthusiast. She’s always happy to see you. Her (self-controlled) exuberance is infectious.

La Farge: Death is a constant presence in a nursing home, and you write about it with real poignancy. How does it affect Pransky?

Halpern: On a day-to-day basis, I don’t think it does affect her. But when someone is actively dying— a situation we’ve only encountered three times in four years—her compassion is visible. It’s something I write about in the book, and something I’ve found quite moving. Most of the time, though, she’s unconcerned by people’s infirmities, which is a gift. She lets people be their essential selves, which has nothing to do with being sick or being old. When they’re with her, they can forget that they had a stroke or have diabetes or a heart condition.

La Farge: I loaned your book to a friend who works with dogs for a living. Interestingly, what most captivated her was your description of life in a nursing home; she was relieved to see this institution, which fills most of us with dread, humanized— and by a dog, no less. What’s the takeaway here for institutions, and for professionals who care for the sick and aging?

Halpern: I entered the nursing home with a certain amount of trepidation and was shocked to find out how much fun it was to be there with my dog. By the end of our first day, most of my preconceptions were blown to bits, which was a very good thing, since most of my preconceptions were not only wrong, they were grim. The literature on the positive effects that dogs (and other animals) have in hospitals and nursing homes is getting more robust every year. Dogs lighten the mood for everyone, staff included. Pransky dispenses the best medicine there is, indiscriminately and without a co-pay.

La Farge: The first part of the book is about what you teach Pransky—the complex matrix of training and behaviors required for a professional therapy dog. What did she end up teaching you?

Halpern: My dog has taught me that with her by my side, I can do things that my normally reticent self would never be able to do, like spend time with infirm strangers. But more importantly, and somewhat paradoxically, she’s taught me that by following her lead and being more like her—which is to say, not seeing people as a collection of disabilities, but simply as potential friends—I become a better human.

Culture: Reviews
Mr. and Mrs. Dog: Our Travels, Trials, Adventures, and Epiphanies
Published by Univ. of Virginia Press

The World Sheepdog Trials in Wales are the Olympics of the herding-dog world. Rather like an open-air ballet, highly trained, highly intelligent dogs move flocks of willful sheep with minimal long-distance direction from their humans. This was the rarefied environment into which Donald McCaig took his Border Collies Luke and June (the Mr. and Mrs. Dog of the title) to compete. His account of how the three of them arrived at this event spans McCaig’s 25 years of raising and training sheepdogs; he not only shares his stories, he provides a valuable commentary on living with and loving dogs.

Culture: Reviews
Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts
Published by Scientific American/FSG

When the first fully adult animal—Dolly, a sheep— was successfully cloned in 1996, it made headline news around the world. Since then, the practice of meddling in animal biology has speeded up exponentially. Humans have been tinkering with animals for centuries, of course— witness the incredible spectrum of dog breeds—but the new tools scientists have been adding to their toolboxes over the last two decades have taken that activity to a whole new level. Anthes not only reports on this phenomenon, she raises important questions about our responsibilities to animals, and about the impact of this experimentation on the living world.

Culture: Reviews
A Dog Walks into a Nursing Home: Lessons in the Good Life from an Unlikely Teacher
Published by Riverhead

What do you do when your bright and gregarious dog is bored senseless? Sue Halpern hit upon the perfect solution: put her to work. Pransky, Halpern’s Labradoodle, was six years old and a proven quick study when the two began training as a therapydog team. Once they began making their visits to the local “county home,” Halpern’s belief in Pransky’s skills was confirmed; her partner was very good at her job. Though the bulk of the book focuses on Pransky’s interactions with the home’s residents, Halpern also comments on our attachment to dogs, and theirs to us.

Culture: Reviews
E. B. White on Dogs
Published by Tilbury House, Publishers

This marvelous collection of classic essays, letters and assorted writings from master wordsmith E. B. White was assembled by his granddaughter and should be on the bookshelf of every person who cherishes good prose and good dogs. White, a dog enthusiast, was a keen observer, and his witty and concise writings predate the blogosphere by nearly a century. Nonetheless, his personable storytelling retains its freshness and immediacy and will charm and enlighten a new generation of dog-lovers.

Culture: Reviews
The Soul of All Living Creatures
What Animals Can Teach Us About Being Human, Published by Crown
 the-soul-of-all-living-creatures

With its title calling to mind a quote from Hippocrates — “The soul is the same in all living creatures although the body of each is different” —this book is a thoroughly engaging and thoughtful consideration of the ways in which humans can benefit from closer attention to the ways of animals. Dr. Virga describes his conversion from emergency room clinician to behavioral vet medicine, then shares his experiences treating problems experienced by animals both domestic and exotic. His insights into the animal mind have the potential to inform our relationships with our own companion animals.

Culture: DogPatch
Q&A with author of Wilderness
In Conversation: Lance Weller and Katherine Griffin
Q&A Weller, Wilderness

First things first: tell us about your dogs.
We have a Border Collie, an English Mastiff and one who has a lot of Shepherd in her, and maybe a little Dane. And then we have a mutt we found in a parking lot; he was really on his last legs. We were going to take him to the pound, but he gave me the look, and that was that. Then he promptly threw up all over the car.

Who was your first dog?
Her name was Tessie—she was a Miniature Collie. My parents got her for me when I was three or four. She wandered away when we were on vacation and I never saw her again. That helpless feeling of loss found its expression through Abel’s journey.

The book is many things, but at heart, it’s a story of woundedness and healing. How do you see dogs as a part of that?
I’ve never gone through the sort of travails I put Abel through, but I spent a long, long time trying to be a writer—trying to get Wilderness to the table. I could not for the life of me figure out how to get anybody interested in it. And then I got sick and couldn’t work on anything for the longest time. It was a nasty bout of Bell’s palsy—a nerve branch that feeds half of your face seizes up and dies. So half your face is paralyzed. For six months, I didn’t leave the house, and it really started to wear on me.

But I had my dogs. And they didn’t care what I looked like, and they licked my face. (Not to say that my wife wasn’t the same way, except for the face-licking.) But I could always count on throwing an arm around my dog, or my dogs, and feeling a lot better. People have said that Abel suffers from PTSD. I don’t know about that, but I do know that dogs will heal you.

How do your dogs help you write?
I always have a dog here in the room with me—usually two. One lies right behind me, or right on my feet. It keeps me connected and honest.

Culture: Reviews
Book Review: The Possibility Dogs
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Possibility Dogs - Susannah Charleson

One of our favorite books was Charleson’s first, Scent of the Missing, about training both herself and her dog, Puzzle, for search-and-rescue work. This time, in The Possibility Dogs, she takes a similar approach but refocuses it on training dogs (all of whom are rescues) for psychiatric service and therapy duty. She learns how to evaluate dogs in order to find those who might have the right personality for this activity; for many shelter dogs, this is literally a lifesaver. Not only is the book a testament to the strength of the human-dog bond, but also, an informative training guide and a truly inspiring personal story.

Culture: Reviews
Book Review: Wilderness
Published by Bloomsbury
Lance Weller, Wilderness

Wilderness is an achingly beautiful book. It takes you deep into the heart of a Civil War veteran scarred by nearly unspeakable tragedies and losses, and traces his ultimate redemption, which begins the moment a red-blond dog steps out of the forest and into the light of his cook fire.

When we meet this man, Abel Truman, he lives in a shack by the sea on the wild coast of Washington state, alone save for his dog. Old and sick, haunted by memories, he sets out to cross the mountains to make peace with his past. As Abel and the dog make their way through the rugged landscape, we learn Abel’s story in a series of flashbacks: the events that shattered his young family, the astonishing carnage of the Battle of the Wilderness, the former slave who nursed him afterward.

Once Abel begins his journey, his dog—and a mysterious wolf-dog who slips in and out of the tale—leads him in directions he never intended to take. The animals move him to take risks and reconsider his past, and to safeguard the life of an orphaned child.

Weller writes beautifully; his descriptions of the landscapes are nothing short of magnificent. So are his descriptions of the dogs, and of the bond between humans and dogs. The wolf-dog harries an elk, Weller writes, “low to the ground, moving like water over stones.” Abel, seeing that his dog is sick, feels “something break apart inside him.”

Though the book contains violence and cruelty, it has tenderness, kindness and wisdom at its core. It’s true and deep, funny and real. Ultimately, it evokes the essential ways that dogs weave their way into our lives: as sentinels, guides, companions and catalysts for crucial turning points in our journeys.

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