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.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
New products for dogs and their humans.
Hold That Bag
Keeping It Clean
Rock Your Brew
On the Run
Greenwillow Books/Harper Collins
Homer: Ancient Greek author of literature’s greatest story about the longing for home and the journey to get there.
Homer: A baseball player’s ultimate goal — hit the ball far and quickly return home.
Homer: A wise dog who sits on the porch and watches the world go by, happy to be where he most truly belongs. Home.
In Elisha Cooper’s marvelous and inspiring new children’s book, the other dogs and their human folk are in a state of constant motion. They run on the beach, swim, visit the market, shuck corn. Homer, always invited, prefers to say put. “No, no,” he tells them. “I’m fine right here.” And there he sits, looking out at the ocean, sniffing the air.
The others return with glorious reports. “The waves were big and wild! We got so many good things to eat.” Dad steps out of the kitchen to ask if he needs anything. Homer, surrounded by friends, family and the deep blue sea, has a simple reply.
“No, I have everything I want.” Imagine that.
Two new books dig into important dog-world issues, but only one stands out
For years, the most under-reported story in the country has been about the veritable army of dedicated animal lovers who work tirelessly to rescue shelter dogs, and the fact that, despite their work, shelters are still putting down millions of dogs every year. Journalist Kim Kavin’s new book, Little Boy Blue: A Puppy’s Rescue from Death Row and His Owner’s Journey for Truth, takes on that story.
Kavin wrote about this subject after adopting her brindle hound-mix pup, Blue, who had been deemed “non-preferrable [sic] for adoption” by Person County Animal Shelter in North Carolina. Plucked from the shelter by a local rescue group just days before he was scheduled to die, Blue was one of the lucky ones. Like many other U.S. shelters, the Person County shelter kills dogs in gas chambers. After being saved, Blue was posted on Petfinder.com, fostered, transported north, and, shortly thereafter, he joined Kavin in New Jersey.
Her investigation kicked into high gear when she took Blue to her vet to find out what was behind his skin lesions. He didn’t come with much in the way of paperwork, and what little there was offered few clues as to what had really happened to him, both at the shelter and while he was being fostered. So Kavin, the intrepid reporter, went to North Carolina to find out for herself. As part of her quest, she interviewed shelter managers, rescuers and fosterers as well as the vet who neutered the pup. She learned how dogs (and cats) are treated in these rural areas, where it can seem that the shelters are busier killing animals than trying to get them adopted.
Her investigations expanded, and she includes uplifting interviews with those who manage successful shelter operations and spay/neuter programs, and a vast network of independent animal activists. But she also examines the underlying reasons why there still are gas chambers — here’s a hint: powerful factory-farm lobbyists play a role — and why seemingly pro-animal groups still oppose spay-and-neuter laws. This book is not a polemic, but it is definitely messagedriven; its main points focus on the need for people to become aware of the plight of shelter animals, and how grassroots support can fix this societal problem. She’s convinced that everyone can help by adopting dogs from shelters, fostering dogs and putting pressure on policymakers to improve shelter conditions and practices.
Kavin masterfully weaves her life with Blue into the storyline, and does a great job presenting all of this information in an engrossing and inspirational narrative that reads like a page-turner police procedural. This is a compelling, important book that should be read by everyone who loves dogs. Personally, I’m thrilled that someone with Kavin’s passion and skill took on this tough assignment.
In his first book, What’s a Dog For? magazine editor John Homans follows a slightly similar track, covering some of the same ground as Kavin. Stella, his southern rescue dog, is the springboard for his investigation. The book is subtitled The Surprising History, Science, Philosophy, and Politics of Man’s Best Friend, which is a lot of worthy ground to cover. However, there will be few surprises for Bark readers. While on the whole this book is well written, it seems to have been haphazardly researched and fact-checked. Homans invested a lot of time traveling to the sources of much of what is happening in the field of canine research, but there are also serious, and telling, omissions.
The book was inspired by a 2010 article he wrote for New York magazine, where he is the editorial director; perhaps that’s why it seems dated. It doesn’t reference the more current findings in some fields, which could’ve easily been identified by a review of books and articles written by researchers and experts such as John Bradshaw, Pat Shipman and Mark Derr, to whom he gives short shrift.
Homans a l so procla ims Ray Coppinger’s hypothesis — that dogs self-domesticated by scavenging from early human garbage heaps — to be the “most widely accepted ‘first dog’ theory.” And that, despite evidence to the contrary, wolves follow the human “point” as well as dogs when they are allowed to do it unfettered by fence bars. Then he gets into the important subject of no-kill shelters, and the origination of this movement in San Francisco. However, he doesn’t mention that SF/ SPCA was able to make the shift to a no-kill facility because neighboring SF/ Animal Care & Control handled euthanization duty for the city. Sadly, this transition didn’t mean that “healthy animals that were euthanized in San Francisco dropped to zero,” as he notes.
And I really wish he had done a more thorough job investigating Rick Berman’s crusade against the HSUS. Berman is not just a simple “PR guy,” who runs HumaneWatch, but rather, a lobbyist for the Center for Consumer Freedom, which is financed by big ag and the restaurant industry. He got his start with money from Philip Morris, which he used to fight smoking bans in restaurants. The HSUS has been a vocal opponent of cruel factory-farming processes, and Berman has gone after them for it. His lies and half-truths have had a negative impact on that organization as well as on other humane groups.
There is also much to commend in this rather ambitious and entertaining book, and someone new to the dog world may benefit from its roadmap to becoming a well-versed caninelogist. But unlike Kavin’s book, which is more concentrated and focused, Homans’ tries to cover too much ground. Consequently, some important landmarks that deserved a more thorough treatment didn’t get it.
I’m glad the publishing world and writers are excited about the subject of dogs and our relationships with them. Because we’re still learning how much we don’t know about our best friends, the question “What’s a dog for?” remains a worthy subject for future investigation.
In this mini-manual, author and trainer Anne Lill Kvam outlines her personal method of training fun nosework exercises in a precise, step-by-step process.
Amongst her list of scent-work activities for dogs, readers will find confidence- building exercises and downright festive dog fun with games such as Hide and Seek, Naming Your Dog’s Toys, Finding Lost Objects and Kvam’s version of scent discrimination. The lessons progress from simple to more complex in a clearly chronicled succession.
Kvam begins with a description of canine scenting ability in relation to our own, which helps the reader recognize and conceptualize the fantastic capacity of the canine olfactory sense. As the book progresses, you’ll find positive- reinforcement training basics and a detailed description of how to personalize your dog’s reward options, all of which build a useful foundation for the detailed training exercise plans that follow. The emphasis on stress management and calm concentration on the part of both dog and handler are reiterated throughout the book, as is the essential need to recognize each dog’s individual set of motivators.
The information delivered is clear enough to allow nosework newcomers and novices to jump right into training with minimal equipment and preparation, and even more-seasoned dog handlers may find some useful suggestions for their existing nosework training plans. Readers planning on branching out into specific sports or other formalized activities should review those rules and exercises to be sure Kvam’s style of training complements their particular program. Overall, an excellent and accessible starter for anyone interested in beginning-level and fun nosework activities with their companion dog.
Alfred A. Knopf, 2012
Humans aren’t the only ones to suffer from eating disorders, heart disease, addictions and many other ailments. In Zoobiquity, cardiologist Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and journalist Kathryn Bowers examine the range of diseases and conditions that commonly afflict both people and other animals, including dogs.
Horowitz’s revelation that species-spanning commonalities exist was sparked when she was called to the LA Zoo to help a female Emperor tamarin (an adorable South American monkey) who was experiencing heart failure. She thought that making eye contact and cooing to her tiny patient was the best way to comfort her. Then a vet stepped in and warned her against doing that, telling her she might inadvertently kill the small primate by inducing “capture myopathy.”
Horowitz wasn’t familiar with the term, but quickly learned that this fatal condition can develop when an animal is caught by a predator and experiences a sudden surge of a stress hormone. Unfortunately, this reaction can also be triggered when an animal is held, stared and cooed at by a heart specialist! The eureka moment came when she recognized a connection between capture myopathy and a human cardiac condition, Takotsubo cardiomyopathy (broken-heart syndrome), which can be brought on by a variety of “intense, painful emotions … [that] set off life-threatening physical changes in the heart.” She was surprised to realize that a phenomenon veterinarians had known about for decades hadn’t been identified in humans until 2000. So she set out to see if other human diseases had counterparts in the animal kingdom. She began her inquiry by posing the simple question: “Do animals get [fill in the disease]?”
In each chapter, a human disease or disorder is described and then the animal counterpart is presented. They start by looking at fainting, something that one-third of adults have done at least once in their lives. By questioning vets, they found that dogs also experience “vasovagal syncope”—i.e., faint—in response to everyday activities “like barking and jumping … some canines faint when they’re aroused to sudden activity after being at rest.” And like us, some dogs faint when faced with a needle. In both cases, the reason has to do with a “fight or flight” response in which blood pressure rapidly decreases. In turn, the brain “shuts the system down by fainting.”
In the chapter “Grooming Gone Wild,” they look at human self-injurers (including Princess Diana and Colin Farrell) and compare them with dogs who obsessively lick and gnaw at their bodies in almost in trancelike state. It has been found that some compulsive behaviors in dogs, like this one, are genetically based. Whether OCD in humans and the canine equivalent (CCD) are the same disorder is something that has yet to be determined, but Horowitz puts forth a compelling case for a connection.
This book also gave me many insights, including why dogs thrive on reward-based training. It all has to do with neurocircuitry, which, we learn, is similar in most species, including our own. Basically, this system rewards fitness-promoting behaviors, such as foraging, hunting, “interacting with kin and peers,” mating, escape—behaviors that increase species survival. The authors characterize the rewards as a “chemical-dispensing apparatus stocked with tiny capsules of natural narcotics” such as opioids, cannabinoids, dopamine, oxytocin, and many others. As the authors note, accessing these chemicals is one of the most “potent motivators in animals, including us.” Even slugs have a dopaminergic system that controls the search and consumption of food. As animal expert Gary Wilson explains, “External treats in the form of food and congratulatory sounds are, in effect, bridges to the animal’s brain.” Simply put, good dog training is “driven by pleasure circuits.” Positive, reward-based learning is more effective than dominance- or coercive-based methods because it’s in tune with the way we and our dogs are wired.
This is a truly fascinating look at the similarities between us and other animals. We are not alone in our experience of a spectrum of physical and emotional disorders—among them, chlamydia, depression, bullying and risk-taking among adolescents. The list is long, and exploring it makes for engrossing and enlightening reading.
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Jennifer Arnold believes in dogs, and that the opportunity to engage in relationships with them is a gift. In order to realize the full potential of that gift, she asks a crucial question: “What do dogs want and need … and why does it behoove us to give it to them?” She then proceeds to answer it with chapters on canine health, safety, training and bonding, among other topics. Like her first book, Through a Dog’s Eyes, this one is something of a grab bag of information, but one well worth reading for its gentle, good-natured guidance and insights garnered from two decades spent raising and training service dogs for Canine Assistants.
Rex, a small German Shepherd at the heart of Mike Dowling’s new memoir, Sergeant Rex, ranks as the longestserving military working dog (MWD) in the Marine Corps. In this thoughtful account of their shared tour of duty in Iraq in 2004, Dowling shows Rex to be impressively brave, competent, even funny in the way only a dog can be. But canine courage is an old saw. Dowling is neither the first soldier to write well about dogs in the Middle East — pick up Royal Marine Pen Farthing’s moving bestseller, One Dog at a Time, which covers his rescue efforts for the strays of Afghanistan — nor the first to venerate the canines of combat. (William Putney’s Always Faithful and Lisa Rogak’s The Dogs of War are the standard- bearers in this department.)
What’s confounding and original about Mike Dowling’s narrative is how genuinely he writes about protecting Rex, all the while embroiling him in situations of brute violence and deadly risk. Deployed as one of the first 12 Marine dog teams embedded with infantry units since the Vietnam War, Rex and Dowling were successful in their assignment to sniff out IEDs (improvised explosive devices, or bombs). Rex alone unearthed hundreds of caches.
This track record no doubt contributed to a Pentagon task force’s conclusion that MWDs are better bomb detectors than any military technology, by far. The armed forces have taken note MWDs on active duty rose from 1,800 in 2001 to 2,700 in 2011, with about 500 dogs being trained each year. With their unparalleled sense of smell, dogs are functionally suited to the task. Physically and mentally, however, they experience some of the same maladies as their human counterparts. Though the military does not make statistics readily available, dogs are also suffering from a canine form of PTSD and traumatic injury, as well as dying in considerable numbers. So when Dowling “speaks” for Rex through italicized interjections of die-hard zeal and ooh-rah patriotism on missions in the most dangerous areas in and around Fallujah and Baghdad, it’s difficult to believe his assertions that he has the dog’s best interest in mind. After all, every dog in the military is drafted without consent.
Dowling, a voluntary soldier, writes about the U.S. military cause with pure enthusiasm. A capable dog handler, he nurtures Rex’s skills. He loves this dog, and cares for him with unassailable constancy. That much is apparent. But Dowling conflates Rex’s interest in doing the job before him (for the reward of a game of ball) with a conceptual allegiance to the American values these soldiers are defending. In one harrowing scene, Dowling brings Rex, who is already injured, along on a mission anyway. “A barrage of blasts” rattles their vehicle and “Rex goes jittery as hell. He keeps glancing at me with a look of real pain on his features.” In another scene, Rex fixes his protector with “a lonely, frightened gaze, like he’s convinced he’s been abandoned.” In yet another, Rex urinates out of fear. No matter how faithfully allied Dowling is with his dog in combat, these scenes are nevertheless excruciating for an animal lover to read.
Early in the book, Dowling reflects on setting out for their first mission. “Rex trusted me 100 percent, in that unique bond between man and dog. Yet he had no choice in my taking us to war, and he had no idea of the dangers we were flying into.” Everything Rex accomplishes, everything he survives — Dowling is right: Rex does deserve a Purple Heart for his courage. And Dowling deserves the acknowledgment he has earned too. But a medal for military service would mean nothing to a dog. He would not understand why he was receiving it.
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