Science and storytelling make compelling reading
In Merle’s Door, Ted Kerasote explored the canine-human bond–its when, how and why. Readers learned how wolves likely joined humans in a symbiotic relationship that enriched both, ultimately leading to the rich diversity of dog breeds we have today. Kerasote also explored animal consciousness—how allowing dogs to be free-thinking enriches their lives and partnerships with us.
Readers of Merle’s Door flooded Kerasote with letters about their own dogs and the relationships they shared. Many also mentioned that their dogs had died far too young, often from cancer, and asked why some breeds seem to be more prone to certain health issues than others. These intimate revelations and immediate questions prompted Kerasote to write his most recent book, Pukka’s Promise: The Quest for Longer-Lived Dogs (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).
Because we take such joy in the bond, we want to maximize our canine companions’ health and life spans, allowing that bond to flourish as long as possible. Kerasote is no exception. After Merle’s death, he went on a quest, not just for a puppy, but more importantly to readers, for answers to two basic questions: why do dogs die so young, and what can we do about it?
Pukka’s Promise picks up where Merle’s Door ended, and is similar in style—heartfelt stories of life with his new dog Pukka (and the other freeroaming dogs of Kelly, Wyo.) mixed seamlessly with detailed reporting on cutting-edge research into canine health. The book is dense with information, insights and investigations into matters that affect the health and longevity of our four-legged co-pilots. It’s also full of the personal, evocative stories of the human-canine bond that made Merle’s Door a national bestseller.
Kerasote takes nothing as gospel and nothing for granted. He challenges current dog breed standards and breeding practices, and the clubs that promote them. He questions veterinary-care dogma, especially when it comes to what we feed our dogs, how we vaccinate them and how we regulate their reproduction. He digs deep into veterinary literature and writings of progressive thinkers in veterinary medicine, talks to animal-welfare advocates, and provides historical context for the current trend of breeding for looks over function and health. In the process, he offers some rays of hope for positive changes in breed standards.
Digging deeper, he also chases down the truth behind the hype when it comes to topics like food choices, toxic toys, too-frequent vaccination schedules and spay/neuter. In some instances— for example, dog toys—he pays for lab tests to find out what something is really made of. He asks experts uncomfortable questions and parses true wisdom from traditional thinking. In a heartwrenching section, motivated by his desire to fully understand the challenges shelters face, Kerasote takes us with him into an animal shelter as unwanted dogs are euthanized.
Throughout Pukka’s Promise, we peek over Kerasote’s shoulder as Pukka grows and learns about the world and as Kerasote applies what he learns—from choosing Pukka’s breeder and deciding how many diseases to vaccinate him against (and when) to what to feed him, among other things. Glimpses of Pukka’s charmed life are interwoven with vast amounts of important information based on the latest research, all of which is presented in a very accessible and engaging way, one that encourages you to draw your own conclusions and make the best choices for you and your dog. By distilling years of in-depth research on a wide array of canine health topics into a provocative, thought-provoking book, Kerasote has done us all a huge favor.
DVD Review, Anchorhold Films/Tower Hill Films
This new documentary explains why the alpha theory (which has been widely popularized as a “fact” by a famous TV personality) is based on an incorrect understanding of both wolf and dog behavior. And as importantly, why positive reinforcement is the only effective course for dog training. Chad Montrie, the film’s director, has assembled a cohort of highly regarded experts on dog behavior — Sophia Yin, DVM, Alexandra Horowitz, Karen Pryor and Bob Bailey among them — to talk about the history of the “alpha dog” concept and why it still has power to persuade today. Is dominance what dogs actually want or expect within their human families? See what academics and experts have to say on this very important topic. You may purchase the DVD or watch it as a “pay for view” on anchorholdfilms.com.
peter heller has written a remarkable and breathtaking fi rst novel set in a bleak, post-apocalyptic world. It takes place seven years after most of Earth’s population has been wiped out by a fl u pandemic. Hig, a pilot with a 1956 Cessna who — along with his beloved senior dog, Jasper — lives in a small country airport in Colorado, narrates the story. His only neighbor, Bruce Bangley, is an old, misanthropic, ex-navy Seal whose survivalist skills are employed eagerly and willingly when desperate marauders threaten their existence. Jasper does his part, serving as a sentinel, guide, hunting/fi shing companion and keen listener — a relationship probably similar to those shared at the beginning of human/dog friendships.
Searching for reasons to stay alive, Hig is determined to remain attached to the natural world, going off into mountains and “greener woods” to fi sh and hunt with Jasper. Before he leaves on these sojourns, he makes recon fl ights, with his dog as his co-pilot. Although so much life has been lost — including the lives of his friends, his wife and their unborn child — and global warming plagues the planet, there are still vistas of stunning beauty to behold.
It is Hig’s relationship with Jasper during the fi rst third of the book that allows the reader to understand the true measure of this man. This reviewer would be hard-pressed to think of anything in recent literature, except perhaps Rick Bass’s elegiac Colter, that comes close to expressing how tender, complete and vital a relationship between a man and a dog can be.
The Dog Stars, poetic, graceful, funny and, yes, very dark, is a tale of primal instincts and the survivalist spirit. This spirit can be found in the threads that connect us to one another, to nature and beyond, to the stars — and that lead us to seek out new possibilities, even though sometimes it takes a great loss to find our way to them. This is a book about discovering the resiliency of that thread.
Two young women separated by 60 years fight for and find salvation in their dogs—specifically, in their sturdy, wolf like Siberian Huskies. For the Chukchi people who developed the type over more than 3,000 years, the dogs also had a spiritual role as guardians of the gates of heaven. The way people treated their dogs determined whether or not they would be allowed through those gates.
An Echo through the Snow is a tightly woven tapestry of past and present. It begins in 1929, with the Red Army’s eviction of the Chukchi from their northeastern Siberia homelands. Jeaantaa, a young Chukchi woman, is Keeper of the Guardians, the dogs who “had been at the center of Chukchi life since woolly mammoths had lumbered along beside them.” The Keeper’s first responsibility and loyalty was to the dogs, an obligation that came before everything and everyone else, including the Keeper’s own life and family. As Soviet soldiers advance on her village, Jeaantaa gives a precious ceremonial sled and 30 young dogs and puppies to an American who had come from Alaska in search of a lead dog, then flees with a team of elderly Huskies.
The second strand picks up in 1992, with Rosalie, an 18-year-old trying to survive in a small Wisconsin town on the shores of Lake Superior. Slowly being destroyed in an early, disastrous marriage, Rosalie defies her brutal husband to rescue her own Guardian, Smokey, a neglected Huskie that rumor has it will soon be shot by his drunken owner.
Each woman’s path unfurls through the book and in the end, the two paths merge in a surprising yet credible way. In between are marvelous descriptions of traditional Chukchi life, Siberia, sled-dog training and racing, and, of course, the glorious Huskies who are the true, beating hearts of both women’s lives.
Rabies is a relentless killing machine that exploits the very thing we love most about dogs, their sociability with humans. The virus kills 55 thousand people a year; unless bite victims are treated before the onset of symptoms, the pathogen’s mortality rate is nearly 100 percent. According to the World Health Organization, dogs continue to be the source of human death in 99 percent of the cases.
Bill Wasik, senior editor at Wired, and veterinarian Monica Murphy take us into the 4,000-year-old battle against the virus, and humankind’s efforts to cure, treat and prevent it. In addition to reviewing the history of the disease and the legends and myths that surround it, the authors examine an array of folk medicines and dubious cures, from throwing the unsuspecting bite victim into a tank of cold water to making a poultice of the biting dog’s brain.
A word of caution for dog-lovers: the book isn’t for the faint of heart. Suffice it to say that dogs’ lives have not been easy, and they weren’t really our best friends until 1884, when Pasteur and Roux developed the rabies vaccine.
The book includes a case study of how the virus can infect a rabies-free island and kill hundreds of people in only a few years. On Bali in 2009–2010, a botched effort to contain the disease resulted in the brutal butchery of 100,000 dogs. However, one problem with exterminating dogs, infected or otherwise, is that it creates an empty ecological niche and others move into the vacuum, creating even more of a problem. CDC scientists finally convinced authorities to use a trap, test, vaccinate and release program to immunize 70 percent of the canine population, which, statistically, was the reverse “tipping point” required to control the disease.
The book is a terrifyingly entertaining tale of disease, dogs, madness, vampires, werewolves, immunology and hope.
Where metaphors, irony and attitude are unleashed
Who doesn’t love New Yorker cartoons, especially those with dogs in them? Masters like Booth, Cullum, Barsotti, Shanahan and Steig can make even non-dog enthusiasts snicker — nary a “head scratcher” among them.
But the same cannot be said for dogs who show up in other areas of that famed magazine. Though I’ve been one of its devoted readers for 35 or so years, and have a “nose” for my favorite subject, I’ve scarcely noticed dogs in the New Yorker until recently. Even then, the dogs seem to have been kept at leash-length from and not fully integrated into much of the coverage given to them.
There is a certain urbane aloofness and detachment about the New Yorker writing style — it appears to be more feline than canine in nature. Perhaps that started with James Thurber, who was heralded for his dog writing. But as Adam Gopnik explains in this new anthology, The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs (Random House), for Thurber, dogs were really stand-ins for men. So when he “wrote about dogs” he was “writing about men,” and especially “men” in opposition to women and wives, whom Thurber didn’t seem to like much.
There is a lot of Thurber in this collection; each of its rather banally organized chapters — Good Dogs, Bad Dogs, Top Dogs and Underdogs — begins with one of his stories. There are also many contributions from droll, observational commentators like Susan Orlean (three entries) and Malcolm Gladwell (four, including the foreword). All of the book’s elements come from the magazine, including the artwork derived from its memorable covers, lively cartoons, lovely little drawings and “typographical mark-up pages.” Formatted and sized like the magazine, it comes in big at $45 and 400 pages. All in all, a hefty reading experience.
Most New Yorker readers will find the more recent pieces familiar, but the editors also dove into the magazine’s rich archives and pulled up a gem or two, such as “Down the Leash” by Angelica Gibbs (1951) a profile of Miss Blanche Saunders, who popularized obedience training in this country, “huping, pfuing and heeling” her way into posterity. Other more historic pieces, like the one from respected writer Alexander Woollcott (1928), would have been best left in the vault. There are quite a few entries with lost-dog themes (a particular favorite in shaggy-dog stories), and at least two about running with the hounds. I was pleased to see Maeve Brennan’s “The Door on West Tenth Street” (a tender story that has also appeared in The Bark); her work deserves to be read by a larger audience.
A piece that didn’t deserve another airing is here, too — Malcolm Gladwell’s highly controversial “What the Dog Saw,” a naïf, narrow profile of Cesar Millan. When it first appeared in 2006, many of us were astonished that Gladwell never questioned the theories or methods used by Millan but instead, chose to focus on how the man “moves” around dogs, asking dancers and movement specialists — not animal behaviorists, academics or trainers — for their analysis. Had he asked any of the “dog people,” they would have pointed out that the best dog training today relies on rational, effective and, yes, humane methods, not on anachronistic and ill-informed theories.
Very few works about our relationships with dogs make an appearance, but what I consider the finest piece in this collection, Jonathan Lethem’s story, “Ava’s Apartment,” falls in this category. It is masterful in its portrayal of how transformative, and unexpected, that relationship can be. Among a few others, I also admired Cathleen Schine’s achingly sad “Dog Trouble” and “Tapka,” touching fiction by David Bezmozgis.
As noted in its foreword, this anthology is about New York dogs. Thus, readers expecting a more expansive view of the dog world ought not be surprised that its perspective stops somewhere between the Hudson and East Rivers. Nonetheless, The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs is a very handsome package and one that will surely find its spot on many a dog lover’s coffee table.
One underdog in this story, as told by Gorant (author of the best-selling The Lost Dogs), is certainly Wallace. The twice-abandoned Pit Bull overcame negative breed stereotypes when he became a world disc dog champion in a sport dominated by speedy dogs half his size. “Underdog” could also describe his rescuer and disc partner, Andrew “Roo” Yori, whose stoic Midwestern demeanor and athleticism hid a sensitive side sometimes overwhelmed by career, love and self-discovery.
While a student at St. Mary’s University of Minnesota, Roo met and courted his future wife, Clara. A few years after graduation, they adopted two dogs from Paws & Claws, a local shelter. Soon, they were both volunteering, matchmaking homeless pets with adopters.
In the meantime, an adolescent Wallace, who had been confiscated from a suspected dog-fi ghting ring as a puppy, was becoming a handful for the policeman who took him in, and reluctantly, he relinquished the young dog to Paws & Claws. Wallace had another potential strike against him: the policeman had played Schutzhund games with the high-drive pup. Wallace’s breed, lack of impulse control and sheer strength made him potentially dangerous in the wrong hands.
Roo and Clara recognized Wallace’s potential and saved his life, but not without personal and professional sacrifices. In return, he enriched their lives in ways no one could’ve guessed, from introducing them to new friends around the world to pushing boundaries when it came to breed bans and fear.
Ultimately, through family illness, marital discord and financial woes, Wallace was the glue that kept Roo and Clara together. Theirs is an inspiring tale of happiness measured not by achievement and fame, but by transcending the material for special moments shared with the ones we love.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Dog-specific GPS takes the worry out of exploring
Early one morning as I was running trails with my Aussie Finn MacCool and my friend Suzanne, the three of us rounded a bend and were greeted by a woman who said the words I always dread hearing: “Have you seen a dog?” We were in the heart of Cougar Mountain Regional Wildland Park outside of Seattle, a 3,100-acre protected area with 36 miles of trails winding throughout its thickly wooded and hilly landscape. The dog could be anywhere.
As we gathered details from the woman — the dog’s name (Boone) and description, if he was tagged with current contact info, where he was last seen, where her car was parked — Finn sat patiently beside me. Around his neck was a bright neon-orange collar with an antenna extending from it. It made him look kind of like an enormous bug.
Finn was sporting a Garmin DC 40 dog-tracking collar, which uses GPS to transmit information to my Garmin Astro 320. This snappy bit of technology lets me know where Finn is, whether he’s moving or stationary and, if moving, which direction and how fast — all via an on-screen display. While I didn’t pile guilt on top of the poor woman’s distress, I thought to myself, If Boone had been wearing one of these, she’d know exactly where he was.
Initially, the Astro seemed like just a really cool, high-tech toy, similar to the gadgets many of my running friends wear on their wrists to track their own mileage. Faced with the lost-Boone scenario, though, I realized its broader and more critical value for those of us who take our unleashed dogs out into the big world: being able to find them quickly if they become separated from us. Whether you’ve had your dog for years and she normally stays close, or you’ve recently added a new dog to your household and aren’t sure how he’ll react off leash, this “toy” can prevent hours, even days, of misery.
GPS-enabled dog-tracking devices aren’t new; there are several types on the market, all designed to do one straightforward thing: help you find your lost dog. But with most of those products, you pay a monthly fee (roughly $15, depending on the product) to access the GPS signal, and the only information you’re given is where your dog is at that specific moment.
The Garmin Astro 320, on the other hand, will track both you and your dog (up to 10 dogs, actually), recording tons of fun data along the way. It logs distance, speed, stopping time, elevation change and map coordinates — as well as a number of other optional variables that you can program in — all while creating a track, or map, of your movements. You can toggle back and forth between your own information and your dog’s while the two of you are out walking, hiking, horseback riding or cycling (you, not the dog), or running. Then, after saving the tracks, you can upload them to your home computer and view them either in one of Garmin’s programs or in another, such as Google Earth (which is free). The Astro 320 retails for $599, but you never pay a monthly fee for GPS signal access. In three years of use, the unit will pay for itself over the other GPS tracking options.
The Astro is also more reliable and accurate than smartphone GPS apps, which rely on a combination of cell towers and satellites. Garmin Astro’s 12 parallel channel receivers quickly lock onto satellites, and they maintain those locks even in dense foliage or urban settings with tall buildings. Also, smartphone GPS apps have an accuracy of about 50 feet, while the Astro’s is generally accurate to within three feet. I tested this out while running with a friend; he used his smartphone app and I used the Astro. My distance data closely matched the Green Trails topographic map of our route; my friend’s data was off (short) by about 20 percent. (Besides, the smartphone app can’t track your dog.)
Back to the question I really wanted answered: How far does Finn actually travel? I was surprised to learn that he typically runs only 10 to 20 percent more than I do, which was much less than I expected. Apparently, training him to stay close has been successful. But I was even more surprised by the difference in our respective elevation gains. I’ve always joked that Finn is part gazelle, and it turns out I might be right. According to his GPS data, on a run during which I cover 6.7 miles with 1,399 feet of elevation gain, Finn covers 9.0 miles with 5,651 feet of elevation.
The brain of the device — the GPS receiver — is housed in a small black box from which a long, thin VHF antenna extends and transmits signals to the Astro hand receiver. The antenna curves with the collar so that it’s positioned above the dog’s neck. Finn, a small Aussie, weighs about 45 pounds, but the collar and its antenna don’t bother him or slow him down as he crashes through thick undergrowth in enthusiastic pursuit of ever-elusive squirrels and chipmunks. He associates the collar with fun!
The Astro 320 is designed for use with hunting dogs, and it took me a little while to get used to the terminology. For example, when I start a run, I select “New Hunt” and mark the starting point as “Truck” (although I could change that if I wanted to take the time). The factory default settings include various alarms to let you know if, for example, your dog has stopped moving; the first time I used the Astro with Finn, the only settings change I made was to customize it with his name. Another bit of hunting terminology came up after a run with friends, as we returned to our cars. My well-trained friends always offer treats to the dogs in the group. Hearing a chirping alarm on my Astro, I looked at the screen. It said, “Finn MacCool has treed his quarry!” Indeed: His quarry was Tracy, who was holding out a treat!
“When the GPS has said ‘Pukka has treed quarry,’ I’ve been able to bike over to where he is and spy on him: lying on a friend’s deck waiting for them to come out and play fetch; over at Buck’s house, taking a snooze; or at the Kelly Café, hoping for a handout from the tourists.” (Ted’s new book, Pukka’s Promise: The Quest for Longer-Lived Dogs, is due out February 2013.)
While my passion is trail running, there are many uses for GPS with dogs — driving to and touring new places, geocaching, even kayaking, for example. Cecil Moore, who works for Garmin and cheerfully answered all my questions, said he once put the Astro GPS collar on his small dog Jack at the start of a 5K race and handed the receiver to his wife. Because his family knew exactly when Cecil and Jack were nearing the finish line, they were able to jump in and run the last several yards together. He also uses it on family vacations to the Lake of the Ozarks State Park, a large area where dogs are typically allowed off leash in campgrounds and on trails.
Finn wore the Astro during a recent session of my Maian Meadows Dog Camp, which offers a weekend’s worth of off-leash fun: hiking, swimming, lots of games, stick-chasing and playing. Campers were intrigued by the Astro, and impressed that the collar was waterproof (although the GPS antenna on the collar will lose satellite reception if it’s totally submerged). The final tally at the end of the weekend: I covered 10.9 miles; Finn covered … 54.3! Each morning, we did a hike of about 3.8 miles to a nearby lake. Romping with the other dogs and fetching sticks in the lake meant that Finn covered nearly four times my distance. No wonder he’s tired. Finn’s “route” on Google Earth from that weekend of dog camp looks like a child’s wobbly drawing of a lollypop (swimming and playing in camp) on a stick (the morning out-and-back hikes). Garmin, headquartered in Kansas, is known for its personal product support. Friends who use Garmin’s running and mountain-biking products rave about its customer service. I found that also true with the Astro, which has lots of bells and whistles. Availing yourself of their customer service will help you get the most out of it (plus, they love dogs at Garmin).
And Boone? Within half an hour, a hiker found him and called the phone number on his tag, and the woman’s husband drove to the park to pick him up. They were very lucky. With the Astro, I can relax while running through the forest with Finn, knowing that if one day he disappears after a deer, I can at least track him until we’re reunited, eliminating guesswork, worry and dependence on Boone’s sort of luck.
For more info on the Astro 320, go to sites.garmin.com/astro
A round-up of fictional detective sidekicks
Sherlock Holmes left his hound on the moors; any closer and the baying might have disturbed an opium dream. Lord Peter Wimsey never once dangled a full plastic bag from his long elegant fingers and looked anxiously about for a dumpster.
But in many a mystery, it’s the dog who sets the tone. Bluesy southern dawgs, stylish Schnauzers, bird dogs in Scotland, Poodles in Connecticut. The loyal mutt who plays sidekick to the detective. A mysterious yellow or black dog seen near the murder scene, icon of a stranger’s presence. Dogs are as useful as weather in creating a mood. They’re also handy at turning up bodies, alerting to danger or providing comic relief. And, in the hands of authors who understand them, they become far more than convenient clue-bearers. They become characters in their own right, with distinct skills and personalities, significant roles to play, and revealing relationships with the humans.
These are not dogs who type out lists of suspects or chat with the cat in English, cozy dog mysteries that anthropomorphize endlessly, with besotted fans who delight in every dogged pun. An increasing number of serious mysteries include dogs either as family members or working partners. Their authors rely on an old paradox: Dogs reveal human nature. Better yet, they improve upon it.
Had Holmes allowed the hound inside, he might have risked a chewed pipe stem, but he’d have taken himself less seriously. Wimsey might have winced at pawprints on his velvet smoking jacket, but routine walks would have grounded his flightiness. And Chief Inspector Morse would surely have drunk less with a Greyhound curled at his feet.
Keeping It Real
In Bones, when Irene is sitting in the doorway of her tent, frightened and claustrophobic, an expedition anthropologist sends his search dog Bingle to her with a quiet command: “Sleep with her.” Dubious, Irene lies down inside the tent. Bingle enters, circles, settles down and rests his head on her shoulder. Both fall asleep. In Liar, when Irene’s long-estranged cousin is overcome by grief, her own dogs are braver than she is about physically approaching to comfort him. “They pave the path,” says Burke, “and she realizes this is no time to stay aloof.”
Burke also uses dogs’ responses to reveal and develop other characters. “You cannot lie to a dog,” she points out. “You are being read. And they see things in us that observers, who are distracted by speech, perhaps can’t.”
On the Dark Side
She made her name as a dog trainer and writer. Then, one summer in the early ’90s, she went on a “dog vacation” in Vermont. “We’d watch the dogs run, and then [we’d] sit around reading,” she explains. “We brought an L.L. Bean bag stuffed with books, and there were mysteries in it. It was an instant addiction. They are great escape and such fun, and they have this wonderful moral conclusion where justice is served. Unlike real life.”
Benjamin decided she’d write a mystery herself. Hard-boiled, not cozy. But with a dog in it.
“I wanted a real working dog, like the dog in my life,” she says. “I did obedience, won silver bowls and plates and hated every minute of it, and so did my dog. What I liked was solving problems, and finding ways for the dog to use inbred skills.”
Dashiell, the Pit Bull in her mystery series, tracks by scent. He also protects; does therapy at nursing homes; and provides company, cover and foil for Rachel, a smart, solitary detective with a caustic sense of humor. He is modeled on Benjamin’s dog Dexter, a rescued Bull Terrier who took it upon himself to become her service dog, easing the pain of a chronic illness. “Dexter did solve a mystery,” she points out. “He figured out where the pain was and how to help.”
Benjamin was determined to keep Dash a real dog and not fall into the “dog mystery” trap. By the third book in the series, however, she felt secure enough to set the story at a dog trainers’ symposium, killing off each victim by his or her training method. “People e-mailed me for weeks,” she laughs, “saying, ‘You forgot to kill so-and-so.’”
Including Dash in the story presents Benjamin with only one dilemma: Her books are funny in spots, but overall, they’re darker than readers, relieved by the dog’s presence, might realize. “I don’t think murder is a puzzle, I think it’s a tragedy,” she says quietly. “But people have these Disneyish expectations of dogs, as though they are in the world in the same way that Mickey Mouse is. So they read my very dark stories and say, ‘I love your mysteries, they are so funny!’”
Beneath the surface, however, mysteries are dark. They deal with deliberate, unnatural violence—evil, for want of a better word. And dogs, unless they are made vicious, are free of such impulses. When evil shatters the façade of normalcy and throws people’s assumptions about one another into chaos, dogs remain trustworthy. Unlike humans, they are generally knowable and controllable and loyal, and can be reliably trained. They bear no grudges. They are the only character in the mystery that we don’t have to suspect, the only creature whose impulses we can trust.
“Dogs are the stability in the storm,” says child psychologist and mystery writer Stephen White. “Their affection is predictable, their routines are predictable. At the same time, they are playful, they are spontaneous in the way that children are.” White says that if his detective, child psychologist Alan Gregory, didn’t have a dog, he’d get one. “His dogs fit into the stories the same way dogs fit into my life. It’s a cliché, but dogs are family. They provide an emotional anchor.”
When he began writing, White didn’t realize the fictional purposes a dog might serve. He doesn’t outline or strategize, so Emily, the loyal Bouvier, and Anvil, a mischievous Miniature Poodle, just show up in the story whenever it feels natural. But he does realize that their appearance cuts the tension, creating a moment of calm that heightens the suspense when it begins to build again.
A little projection might take place too: Emily and Anvil need to be fed and petted and played with, and that usually happens at tense junctures, when the reader is also feeling a need for comfort. If Anvil’s antics prompt an involuntary smile, all the better. “Anvil—Nate, in real life—is that kind of dog,” White explains. “The dogs are the only characters in my books I don’t make up. They have no fictional traits.” Authors can stick their favorite dogs into their books without fear of lawsuit or severed relationships, which may be one reason dogs add a note of naturalness to mysteries’ elaborate, necessarily contrived plots.
In White’s newest, Blinded (due out February 2004), there’s a moment when Alan is deeply worried. “Emily comes in, and with her beard totally soaked from the water dish, she lays her head in his lap,” says White, “as if to say, ‘Everything is going to be fine.’ Which is something Bouviers do. It’s not something I made up, it’s something I learned from my dog.”
Don’t Shoot the Dog
“Doing something to innocence takes a different level of explaining,” he says slowly. “I think the same thing would happen if you developed a child’s character over time, and then the child got hurt. With a dog, though, people connect immediately.”
After the book came out, the calls and letters bombarded him, all indignant: “You killed the dog!” “No, I actually didn’t,” he says. “But I didn’t have the heart to tell them the real story. I thought, if these people can’t even take a fake dog dying, I’m not going to burden them with what happened. There is sufficient misery in the air already. “The dog that is Emily in the books actually died a year ago,” he adds, “but she’ll never die in the books. If this series continues, Emily is going to be the oldest dog in the history of the planet.”
Susan Conant understands White’s experience from both sides. “You can murder humans by the millions with nary a complaint from the reader,” she says, “but if the slightest harm should come to a dog, you will never be forgiven.” She avoids this peril in her own series, which features a magazine-writer detective and her Malamutes. But she also avoids reading such books. “I tried Cynthia Alwyn’s A Scent for Murder,” she confides. “Alwyn’s a very good writer; she introduced this wonderful dog and I was prepared to love both the dog and the series—and then the dog died. I couldn’t keep reading.”
Asked to introduce three Rex Stout novellas, Conant felt a wary tingle: one was entitled Die Like a Dog. She was convinced that her favorite character, “probably a German Shepherd, would rapidly and gruesomely perish.” Instead, she found a charming Labrador Retriever, “perhaps the most fleshed-out non-series character Stout ever created.” He was not anthropomorphized, she wrote; nor was he reduced, as so many dogs in mysteries are, to “what psychoanalysts might call a ‘part object,’ a nose that sniffs or jaws that menace; or an apparently lifeless possession, a sort of fuzzy umbrella meant to suggest the owner’s personality.” Too often, added Conant, dogs in books sit around like “woofy cuckoo clocks.” In Stout’s novella, the Lab “permits a rare glimpse of an emotional Nero Wolfe and of the boy he once was.”
Cracking a Hard Case
Nevada Barr’s detective, National Park Service ranger Anna Pigeon, starts the series as a restless loner wary of commitment. As she matures, she grudgingly adopts a dog, Taco. Eventually, he saves her life, losing his leg in the process. And in one of the books’ most romantic moments, it is the sheriff’s tender care for the injured dog that convinces Anna that the man’s worth loving. Later, Anna brings Taco along with her on patrols and realizes that his presence disarms hostile motorists: “It was almost as if they didn’t want to appear to be total assholes in front of the dog.”
Dogs like us; we don’t want to disappoint them. They also ground us in everyday, physical reality. Jonathan Kellerman gave his child psychologist detective, Alex Delaware, a drooly French Bulldog named Spike simply as one more way to avoid the usual L.A. clichés. Spike doesn’t track cadavers underwater or bite through rope, he just hangs out at home. Yet throughout the series, his cheerful, frankly needy presence and his recurring need for walks and takeout add notes of domesticity that makes Delaware far more likeable.
Mystery writer Laurien Berenson found that caring for a couple of Standard Poodles added a note of authenticity to her detective’s life. “I get fan mail from people who are amazed: ‘Your dogs actually go out to pee, and they eat on time,’” she says. “The dogs give a structure to Melanie’s life, they keep her busy, they make her more real.” Dogs aren’t just useful literary devices, warns Berenson. As in life, they must be handled with love and knowledge. “If you are not absolutely through-and-through a dog person, don’t just slap a dog into your book because dogs are hot right now,” she says. If you’re sincere, fine, include the dog, “but remember that dogs are dogs. And write the dog as well as you write the person, with actual traits,” she finishes sternly. “Black with a nice nose doesn’t do it.”
The dog’s a character.
And he knows things the humans can’t even guess.
In this heartfelt tribute to the Pit Bull, best-selling author and animal activist Ken Foster takes a thorough and deeply affectionate look at an oft-misunderstood breed.
Accompanied by heartwarming photographs and individual stories of Pit Bulls and their people, Foster writes with warmth, humor (in one particularly charming passage, the looks of a Pit are compared to “the overly pancaked face of Judy Garland in decline”) and vast knowledge. Yet beyond the wealth of information and wisdom about dogs it imparts, at its heart, this book wonderfully captures the remarkable ways in which human beings can bond with dogs.
When it comes to the experience of loving an animal, Foster–who early on in I’m a Good Dog reveals his belief that the Corinne Bailey Rae song “Like a Star” was written for him and his beloved Pit Bull, Sula — fully gets it.
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