Cameron Woo is The Bark's co-founder and publisher.
News: Guest Posts
Cameron Woo | July 27, 2011
How would you like a Lucian Freud painting on the cover of The Bark? Our foreign correspondent, Susie Green, posed us the question in the fall of 2002. With the passing of the artist Lucian Freud last week, I recalled our brief but lasting encounter with the legendary painter and the beautiful portraits of his dogs Eli and Pluto. They are among the most magnificent paintings made in recent history. A Lucian Freud painting on the cover of The Bark?—By all means, yes! We were in the midst of planning for our holiday issue, and Christmas had come early.
Freud was preparing for a historic retrospective at London’s Tate Gallery, organized by his friend and critic, William Feaver. It turned out that our reporter Susie and the painter frequented the same pub, and she thought he might be sympathetic to Bark’s take on dog art and culture. The connection led to Feaver, who found our publication to his liking, and graciously arranged permission to publish a new painting by Freud of his Whippet, Eli. We were astounded at our good fortune. It debuted in America on our cover, while hanging in the Tate, still wet from its recent creation.
Inside the issue we published a selection of Freud’s portraits—his earliest painting of a dog from 1951-52 entitled Girl with a White Dog (which we caught some heat from because of its partial nudity), and double and triple portraits featuring his beloved Whippets, Eli and Pluto with human companions. Plus, a photo of the real Eli, standing next to his painted portrait. “I’m really interested in people as animals,’ Freud told Feaver. ‘Part of my liking to work from them naked is for that reason. Because I can see more and it’s also very exciting to see the forms repeating through the body and often the head as well. I like people to look as natural and as physically at ease as animals, as Pluto my whippet.”
We were thus honored by Lucian Freud’s Eli gracing The Bark. Besides this lovely cover, his contribution to our magazine also opened the door to other artists, galleries and museums—what a calling card we now held—to say that Lucian Freud had appeared in The Bark. We will always be thankful for his generosity, and the privilege to share his paintings with our readers.
Culture: Stories & Lit
An interview with Byambasuren Davaa, director of "The Cave of the Yellow Dog"
Mongolian-born director Byambasuren Davaa’s films examine the lifeways of an older Mongolia, effortlessly blending natural and cultural themes. Travelling to Germany in 2000 to study at the Munich Academy of Television and Film, Davaa won international recognition when her student project, The Story of the Weeping Camel (2003), was nominated for an Oscar in 2005. Her new movie, The Cave of the Yellow Dog (which is part of her graduating thesis), has just been released in the U.S. This story focuses on a nomadic family and a stray dog who enters their lives.
You can read Edward Guthmann's review of The Cave of the Yellow Dog here.
Bark’s Cameron Woo recently had an opportunity to conduct a transoceanic conversation with Ms. Byambasuren.
Bark: Your film deals with cultural changes, traditional life versus modern life. Can you tell us about some of the changes that Mongolian people—particularly nomads—face?
Byambasuren Davaa: Like everyone else, they live in global times. There’s hardly a family who doesn’t own a television or other electronic device. As a result, instead of parents reading or telling their children stories during the long, lonely evenings, families are watching television or listening to CDs.
Bark: What is the meaning of the fable of the yellow dog?
Davaa: It’s about coming into the world and leaving it, essentially, about reincarnation.
Bark: Is there a spiritual relationship between dogs and humans in Mongolia?
Davaa: Mongolians believe in reincarnation, and that dogs are reborn as humans. That’s why there’s such a strong bond between people and dogs.
Bark: How much time did you spend with the Batchuluun family before you started shooting the film?
Davaa: I went to Mongolia in April 2004 and spent two weeks searching for a family for the film. When I found the Batchuluuns, we spent two days together, and it was clear to me that they were exactly the people I was looking for. Then I went back to Germany and returned with my crew in mid-June and spent another week with them prior to shooting.
Bark: Working from a script and filming a documentary seem to require two kinds of filmmaking techniques. In Cave of the Yellow Dog, what percentage of the scenes were scripted and what percentage were not?
Davaa: The ratio was about 50/50; we knew what sort of story we wanted to tell—basically, that of the dog and the children —but we didn’t know exactly how it would be executed. We started with an outline.
Bark: Did the family have to learn lines?
Davaa: No. The family is very traditional and it really wasn’t possible to tell them what to say.
Bark: Where did you find Zochor, the dog?
Davaa: She was a city dog, a mutt; we found her in Mongolia’s capital city, Ulaanbaatar. Dogs’ emotions show up in their eyes, so we needed a light-colored dog—dark fur on the face would make emotion harder to film. We also needed two identical dogs, in case something happened to one of them during filming. We found two three-month-old puppies who we were told had the same mother. One had a spot on its back, one didn’t. Worst-case scenario, we figured we could spray on a spot. As it turned out, one grew tall and the other grew long. Both dogs were given shots and cared for, but we used the same dog (the tall one) throughout the filming.
Bark: Did a professional trainer work with Zochor?
Davaa: No, no trainer. In the beginning, she was being fed by everyone; everyone was giving her little treats here and there. Then we realized that wasn’t such a good thing, and selected just one person to feed her and give her the daily attention she needed. She’s a very clever dog—it was sometimes a lot easier to work with her than with the kids.
Bark: Did the little girl, Nansal, have time to get to know Zochor? Was there time for them to develop a relationship before filming began?
Davaa: Nansal met Zochor for the first time when she found her in the cave as the movie was being filmed. We wanted to get the child’s natural reaction—would she like the puppy or would she be afraid of her? Actually, none of the family met Zochor until shooting was in progress.
Bark: Did Nansal and her family know that they were going to encounter a dog?
Davaa: Yes, they were told about it. But when Nansal went into the cave, I don’t believe she knew the dog was in there. Bark: What happened to Zochor when the film was completed?
Bark: What happened to Zochor when the film was completed?
Davaa: The family kept her; in fact, I spoke to them recently and learned that they are training Zochor to watch the sheep, which she’ll soon be doing on her own.
Wellness: Food & Nutrition
What's for dinner?
Having a dog you surely know the myriad of choices you have when it comes to selecting your dog’s food. It should not be news that dog food is a multi-billion dollar industry. What is surprising, is the segmentation that now dominates the marketing of dog food, and the variety of niche-sectors being pursued fervently by dog food manufacturers and their marketing agents. As Publisher of The Bark, one of my tasks is to stay abreast of industry trends. After attending the Global Pet Expo (the largest US pet tradeshow) this past spring, and culling through the pile of press releases received at The Bark’s office—I’ve noticed some fascinating developments in dog food marketing. Many are driven by popular crazes in human dietary, consumer and social habits. These parallels tell us as much about ourselves as they do about the nutritional evolution of our canine companions. Please note: These trends are not being singled out for their health or nutritional benefits but for their distinctive (and often creative) product positioning.
Premium ingredients. The catastrophic recall of 2007, the largest recall in the history of the pet food industry, quickened the pace towards natural and organic ingredients, and opened the doors for aggressive marketing and promotions. The consumer is faced with a glossary of terms from “natural” to “organic,” “human-grade” to “free-range” and “holistic” to “pure” with little guidance from the FDA and other governing bodies. Reading dog food labels today requires a working knowledge of semantics, marketing and science.
Local sourcing. Another outgrowth of the recall, and the outsourcing of manufacturing overseas, is the locavore movement adapted to pets. Like the trend in human food, expounded by journalist, Michael Pollan and others—the premise is to eat locally, and to know where your food comes from. A small but significant number of dog food makers are preparing their product with local ingredients, from farm-bred protein sources to regional grains, fruits and vegetables. Leading the way are practitioners of raw food diets that lend themselves to local sourcing.
Custom prepared and delivered. Catering to the very specific nutritional needs and taste preferences, some companies are offering customized recipes “designed” to your dog’s dietary requirements. Besides the breed, age, gender and size, other factors such as allergies can play a role in determining the best diet for your pet. Foods can be fortified with supplements to boost the immune system and revive joints—all delivered to your front door with your dog’s name on the package.
Weight-loss regimes. Obesity in dogs is a serious problem, with an estimate 44% of US dogs (34 million) considered overweight, and the percentages increasing each year. A number of new dog food products have been created to address the problem—from offering low-fat and reduced-carbohydrate diets to strict control of portions. Some offer pre-measured and custom-formulated dog food shipped direct to the consumer.
Variety. A handful of companies are advocating a rotating diet, as one claims to provide a “complete range of vitamins, minerals, fibers and all the other elements dogs need to thrive.” The concept appeals to the popular idea that variety is a good thing, but appears to counter that often heard warning from veterinarians that dogs can’t easily accommodate a sudden change in their diet. The plans claim careful calibration and balanced formulas to reduce digestive problems and “optimize nutrition,” while preventing oversaturation of any one ingredient (which can lead to allergies).
Raw food. The raw food diet has been around for some time now, and the legion of followers continues to grow. With the increasing popularity of raw food come more commercial options boasting USDA inspected and “chemical-free” meats along with “unprocessed whole foods”—available in handy frozen packages at your local pet specialty store. A growing number of small suppliers offer product delivered locally—from grass-fed bison to free-range emu, from chicken necks to lamb tripe.
Make-Your-Own. To augment the do-it-yourself movement in dog food preparation, companies are specializing in “minimally processed” mixes of dried or dehydrated ingredients. Some simply require water and are meant as stand-alone meals, while others combine with raw food or commercial canned products.
Special Needs. From wheat-free to gluten-free, from low-carb to high-fiber, from vegan to ultra-protein, more and more tailored ingredients are being marketed to address allergies, obesity, high-maintenance issues and a host of other special needs diets.
Selecting the best food for your dog is an important decision based on the individual needs of each pet. Your dog’s age, body condition, health history, along with your budget all factor into this choice. The challenge is navigating through the marketing come-ons and buzz words to discover the real ingredients and benefits offered by each product. It can seem like a daunting task, but one well worth the effort in supporting the health and well-being of your canine family member.
A rare match
IIt's the rare match of musical styles and inspiration that makes Nellie McKay's new release Normal As Blueberry Pie a tribute to her longtime heroine Doris Day so perfect. The two have been linked since the young singer burst upon the scene, as critics scrambled to note her musical kinship.
So it's only natural that McKay's new CD (on Verve) would showcase an array of Day standards-interpretations of such classics as "The Very Thought of You," "Send Me No Flowers" and "Sentimental Journey." "We were trying to connect with the many time periods in Doris's life," McKay explains. "From the big bands to the post-McCarthy era."
Music is just one of the elements that bind the two-McKay is a longtime admirer of Doris Day's animal advocacy. "Doris was out there way before it was fashionable, fighting for the well-being and humane treatment of all animals," McKay notes respectfully. An avid activist herself, McKay is a vegan, active in the fight against New York's horse-drawn carriages and a longtime animal rescuer. The two dogs lounging with the singer on her new album cover are Hank and Bessie, whom McKay has been fostering for several months. "These dogs light up my life. After a show, it's really relaxing to take them out for a walk-good for them and me, too."
Bark had the foresight to pair Nellie and Doris when we interviewed Ms. Day for these pages in 2006. Just what is it that makes Doris Day so special? "I was initially attracted to her optimism and her gaiety," McKay says. "Her approach to life is irresistible." Day possesses a trait that McKay is often cited for, a sunny but subversive smile. "The people most in need of Doris Day are the cynics," McKay observes. "She's such a breath of fresh air. People need that today."
Icon of contemporary art captures dogs’ “aggressive goodness”
Contemporary artist Robert Zakanitch first reached critical acclaim in the 1970s in New York City as one of the founders of the pattern and decorative movement. His paintings are now in the permanent collections of many major museums, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, and have been exhibited around the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art. As with his famous paintings of pattern and decoration, his dog paintings reveal that art can lift the human spirit. His illustrations will appear in Good Dog, published by Knopf Books for Young Readers in January 2005.
Bark: I’m an admirer of your earlier pattern painting, the large, beautifully painted canvases inspired by lace and fabric. Tell me about your new dog paintings.
Zakanitch: The philosopher Arthur Danto (art critic for The Nation) wrote in the catalog for the show that the dog paintings and the work I was doing before is all about pattern and decoration. It goes back to a real confrontation with minimalism—in reaction, I wanted to make things that were about beauty and sentimentality. More about caring and, basically, civility, getting back to the human being again.
If you remember the Sixties, art became so intellectual that you either had to be a scholar or an art student to understand what was being done. And it was completely escaping the audience, and I thought this is absurd, this isn’t what art’s about. Art’s about relating to the audience, not excluding them and telling them they’re stupid, which is what that part had become.
So the work that became the pattern-ornamentation movement was about gentility and sentimentality. And the dogs, for me, are precisely that, only it goes from civility one step further inward to compassion, which is what I think dogs have. I mean dogs live for love. It’s such a vital part of us as well … it’s going to make us evolve, it’s going to save the world—if everybody can deal with their own compassion.
Bark: When someone chooses dogs as subject matter, that subject matter brings with it all sorts of emotions and connections, but you seem to have treated the subject in a formal sense without regard to capturing the dog’s personality.
Zakanitch: Artists basically have these tools, which are line, form, color and scale. These paintings are five feet by seven—scale is a very important part of my work. This gave me an opportunity to use all of these elements at the same time. They remain about painting, the purity of painting; they are about all of those things that I’ve learned as a painter, from formalism to abstract expressionism. And also, emotionally, they were all right on target for me. I don’t find them that much separate from the other work.
Bark: Who are the subjects for the paintings?
Zakanitch: Oh, they’re made up. I looked at lots of photographs and I would start drawing. Every dog I’d look at I’d fall in love with. So I’d start drawing them from different angles—top, bottom, ground level and above—until I could draw that dog without looking at a photograph. Then I just kind of knew the dog backwards and forwards, and would start the painting. I had all these little studies and drawings and would just transfer them onto the other side of the canvas, letting you see all the mistakes—all the erasures and the painting over, because that’s all part of the process. I love process in painting—there’s something exciting about that.
Zakanitch: I love these words. “Aggressive Goodness” is exactly what a dog is … very aggressive and still all about goodness. And so it’s kind of like “in your face” sentimentality. My work has always been full of irony and contradiction, but irony can go just so far and then I’m not interested in irony anymore. It’s why I think the “Aggressive Goodness” series is different, because there’s no irony in this work. It is really what you see is what you see.
Bark: Some research turned up biblical references to “aggressive goodness” as well as sources in Eastern philosophy.
Zakanitch: You know, I don’t have a connection to any of that. It’s a philosophy that I’ve got about the societies we’re all living in. All societies are basically dealing with the whole patriarchal attitude, which is all about kind of a machismo and power. Anything else, somehow, isn’t taken seriously. Gentility and sweetness are always considered inferior; in men, those qualities are considered weaknesses. I just got so sick of that way of thinking, and I felt that these are really powerful things in us and you don’t walk away from gentility, you don’t walk away from compassion or sentimentality—they tell us who we are.
Something happened to me after 9/11 that was really interesting. After feeling terrible for days, I just had this incredible burst of creativity and I knew it was right. I just thought … I have to start mending this firmament that’s been absolutely torn to shreds and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let them do that. So I started writing to friends and saying, now’s the time to really start being creative because this is really important. This is vital and essential—a real confrontation and one way of dealing with it.
Zakanitch: My task as an artist is to plant seeds by my paintings (and children’s books) to create balance in this world by attempting to mend this constantly shredded firmament. I cannot think of anything of greater importance. For me, it is about evolution through the awareness of art, our humaneness and compassion.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Immortalizing your dog on canvas
Our founding dog, Nellie, looks down upon me, her toothy grin reminding me of the great times we shared. Her distinctive black and white markings contrast with a color field of yellow and green in a painting by Mark Ulriksen, famed for his many New Yorker covers. Some may recognize the painting from the cover of our book Dog Is My Co-Pilot—it hangs in our office now, a tribute to the little dog who inspired The Bark.
As a dog lover and an art aficionado, what better way to combine these two passions then to consign a portrait of my favorite four-legged companion? These days there is a great variety of talented artists plying their trade in pet portraiture. What a delight to take in the styles and mediums—traditional realism, folk art-inspired, pop à la Andy Warhol, narrative—in everything from paint to wood to collage.
And nowadays, most pet portraitists work from photographs, so location isn’t an issue, nor are good sitting skills! The internet has made it easy to view artists’ portfolios and shop for a style that suits your taste and budget. Portrait commissions can start as low as $150, then jump into the thousands with artists of renown. The artist will consult with you on selecting one or more photos on which to base the portrait. Some artists will incorporate special details into the composition that provide a personal touch—including a favorite toy or location. Depending on the artist’s schedule, a painting usually takes 2-4 weeks to complete. In the end, you’ll have a memento that will last a lifetime, not to mention a great conversation piece.
The very best portraits capture the dog’s likeness and spirit. After all, if you want an exact likeness of your dog, you might be better off consigning a photograph. Painted portraits capture the essence of its subject in a way that goes beyond a mere representation, and offers a glimpse of a dog’s unique personality. I guess that’s why they call it art!
Broadway’s premier animal advocate and trainer tells all
For Bill Berloni, every year is the year of the dog—and the rat and the lamb and the cat and the pig. Beginning in 1976 with the extraordinary musical, Annie, for which, as a young aspiring actor, he found and trained a shelter dog to play Sandy, Berloni has spent more than 30 years working with some of the best in the business. When it comes to show-stopping animal actors, he’s likely to have trained them. In his new book, Broadway Tails: Heartfelt Stories of Rescued Dogs Who Became Showbiz Superstars, he shares his passion for animals, especially those of the pup persuasion. He spoke to Bark recently after a rehearsal for the upcoming Legally Blonde road tour, for which he’s training four brand-new dogs to make their stage debuts.
Bark: You started your animal-training career by finding Sandy at a shelter. Are you still working with shelter dogs?
B: What catches your eye when you’re looking for a dog?
B: What happens to “show dogs” after the show’s over?
B: Tell us about an average day for one of your working dogs.
The routine’s a little different during rehearsals. This is the time during which we’re desensitizing them to the noise and activity of the theater, teaching them to go onstage for the first time. We’re usually there eight hours a day. In my experience, dogs in this situation have about a 20-minute learning window, so the rest of the time is desensitization. Somewhere in that eight-hour day, we go through the training.
B: Do animal actors carry union cards?
B: Film or live—which is more of a challenge?
B: Is it hard to train the actors?
B: Speaking of Sarah Jessica Parker—do you think she took what she learned as one of the early “Annies” working with Sandy to her later role as a dog in Sylvia?
B: We know you use positive reinforcement in your training. Is applause reinforcing for dogs?
B: Over the years, have you had any improv moments onstage?
Another bit of improv involved the Bulldog in Legally Blonde. When Legally Blonde opened in San Francisco a couple of years ago, there was one scene for her in the first act, and it got a tremendous audience response. So before we went to New York, the creators of the show decided to write another scene for her in the second act—she’d go onstage and play with a toy. It came time for our first preview in New York, our first audience, and she was in the wings waiting to get her toy. She was so excited, she was almost vibrating. When she was cued, she ran out onstage, got her toy, sat down and threw up. In Bull breeds, this is a sign of happiness, so I knew she was looking forward to doing the new scene. After that, she never threw up again.
B: Of all the productions you’ve taken part in, does one stand out as more challenging than the rest?
B: Do you prefer to work with female or male dogs?
B: When the dogs aren’t working, do they seem to miss the routine?
They go back to being regular dogs. I think that’s very important. When news crews come to my house, I think they’re expecting an agility course, or trainers making them do tricks. When the dogs aren’t working, they interact with one another and with us. We don’t train them on a daily basis until we have a job for them. We interact with them, make sure they follow the rules, but they go back to being dogs.
B: What’s new on the horizon?
What’s even better is that the publicity around each show gives us the opportunity to do outreach on behalf of shelter and rescue dogs. Selling shows can be a hard thing, but it’s easy to sell human-interest stories, and I do it because it promotes animal welfare. The shows sell my book, and 20 percent of the proceeds from the book go to the Sandy Fund at the Humane Society of New York. Even the programs mention the source of the animal performers and encourage people to adopt. There are great animals at local shelters who need homes—adopt from a shelter or rescue group and you may find your own star.
In celebration of Earth Day, I spoke to two innovators, people who think green 365 days a year. Dave Colella of Earthdog and Spencer Williams of West Paw Design share their thoughts on a green world, dogs and the future.
On the power of choice:
On the future:
On dogs and the green movement:
West Paw Design
On our symbiotic relationship:
On the definition of “green”:
On going green step by step:
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Highlights and trends from Global Pet Expo 2009
The Global Pet Expo, billed as the world’s largest annual pet products trade show, recently convened in sunny Orlando, Fla. The show, equal parts innovation and salesmanship, is a good barometer for those of us who track trends in the companion animal world. The show is sponsored by the American Pet Products Association, which claims that the nation’s spending on pets is holding steady at $43 billion—“robust and resilient despite recession and cuts in discretionary spending …” That should provide comfort to everyone seeking the next new fetch toy or savory treat.
After two days of walking the show floor, I have some observations. I can’t vouch for the effectiveness, safety or value of any of these products—they all look and sound great in the 3-minute demos. A more rigorous evaluation will have to wait until Bark testers receive their samples.
Pet Locators: Statistics show that one in three dogs will be lost during his or her lifetime, and for those of us traumatized by such an occurrence, there are a host of gadgets dedicated to helping us find them. From services that require registration and custom ID tags to GPS tracking devices, there’s an abundance of choice. A new entry is Contech’s PetCompass, a hand-held electronic locator that detects radio signals emitted by a beacon attached to your dog’s collar. It purports to work up to one-half mile, relying on the fact that most lost pets are found within that radius.
Grooming: Some of the best products fall under the “a-ha” category—simple inventions that make an annoying task a little simpler or combine two tools into one. Bissell’s new Pet Grooming Vacuum Attachment adds a standard shedding blade to an attachment and voilà! Unwanted dog hair is collected as you brush and before it hits the floor! Plus, it fits any standard vacuum, not just Bissell models. I was also introduced to something called a Drool Cleaner—an all-in-one cleaner/brush/squeegee made use with, well, drooly dogs.
Treats: The great selection of natural and organic treats continues to grow—free-range chicken strips, venison jerky from New Zealand, gluten-free snacks and wheat-grass-infused treats from California’s Bell Rock Growers, who have trademarked something called “The Power of Green Nutrition.” Bell Rock’s brochure is convincing, and since they’re the makers of the pet industry’s only complete wheat-grass treat products, I’m willing to give them a try. They also offer a handy grow-your own pouch.
Toys: So many toys, so little time … an earnest young entrepreneurial duo caught my attention, makers of a fetch toy named the Wigzi. This wiener-shaped red toy claims to be free of chemical smell and taste, non-toxic and earth-friendly. CEO Nathan Chefetz invented the Wigzi for his Pug, who desired an odorless chomp. Chefetz and his partner, a former co-worker from NASA, ran the aroma test on me, handing over a competitor’s popular fetch toy, which smelled like an aging tire, and their Wigzi, which had no smell whatsoever. Like many upstarts at the show, they identified a niche—a toy free of chemical odor and taste—and are striving to fill it.
Alternative Therapies: Pheromone-emitting devices are increasingly popular solutions to certain behavioral problems brought on by anxiety—among them, barking and urinating. These products mimic the naturally produced pheromone that canine mothers produce to calm their puppies. A number of products dispense the pheromones via electrical plug-in diffusers, but Sergeant’s has brought them closer with their SentryHC Good Behavior Pheromone Collar for Dogs, an over-the-counter product that purports to be a natural solution effective for up to 30 days. The embracing of alternative therapies by corporate America signals that interest in natural wellness is here to stay.
Automobiles: Cars remain a big-ticket purchase, and a handful of automakers are recognizing the needs and wants of people with dogs. Toyota introduced its new Venza, a sleek sport sedan tricked out in custom-designed dog accessories (among them, seat covers and restraints) from Kurgo. Subaru’s Forester offered similar canine accessories made by Bergan. The design and materials are upgrades over similar efforts made by other automakers in recent years. This is further evidence that the dog-owner demographic is affecting sales and, quite possibly, design.
And the big trend? Natural certification—the certification wars have begun! “USDA Organic,” “Certified Organic,” “Approved by Co-Op America,” “Oeko-Tex® Certified”—each stamp of approval carries a different validation and has a different meaning. As a green consumer, be prepared to research a glossary of terms and seals. Everyone wants a piece of the green pie, and the (educated) buyer wins.
New Yorker cartoons reflect our changing society
If art is a mirror that reflects our world, then the art of the cartoon is a funhouse mirror—a distorted and comic image of ourselves, taking the smallest seed of truth and twisting it into a hilarious meditation. Cartoons speak simply and directly about the ironies and foolishness of the human dilemma. The comic arts are a kind of pop psychology—delving into a collective id, the cultural funny-bone of society. It is this meshing of comedy and psychology that inspired Anne Alden, a San Francisco cartoonist, dog aficionado and aspiring psychologist, to consider how these three passions might intertwine as she was casting about for a PhD dissertation topic.
This idea of tracing human-dog relationships through cartoons began one day while Alden was thumbing through back issues of The New Yorker. She noticed a trend—dog cartoons appeared regularly and seemed to take particular delight in satirizing popular social mores. Intrigued, she visited her local library and spent the day reviewing The New Yorker magazines from the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, fascinated by the evolution of the genre. Fifties cartoons showed suburban hounds, those from the ’60s poked fun at counter-cultural canines, and upwardly mobile dogs appeared in the ’80s and ’90s. A light bulb went on in Alden’s head and she began her research project in earnest, parlaying it into a fascinating clinical-psychology thesis.
“I’ve had a ridiculous number of dissertation topics over the years, but this was the first one I really felt passionate about. It also happened to involve data that would be fun to collect and analyze,” Alden admits.
The combination of cartoons and The New Yorker has always been an interesting pairing—the most popular and democratic of art forms and one of America’s most culturally elite periodicals. “The New Yorker is ahead of the curve on social criticism and cultural trends,” says Alden. “And their cartoons and cover art have always been superb—more than a few have taken on a kind of cultural significance or iconic status. Just think of Steinberg’s infamous map of New York City from the ’70s to last year’s “New Yorkistan” map by Maira Kalman and Rick Meyerowitz or the popular cartoon of a dog surfing the ’net ... at their best, these cartoons come to represent a generation, a certain collective consciousness of our times.”
Alden has taken her show on the road: speaking engagements at academic symposiums, drawing big laughs and curtain calls. “It’s lots of fun to be sure, but in the end, I’m mining a very serious idea here. Animals, and dogs in particular, are an integral part of our society-as our society changes, so does our relationship with the animal world, best expressed through the way we live with our pets and in the study of animal behavior,” Alden insists. Her conclusion—that there may be a very thin line between animal and human cognition and consciousness—won’t surprise Bark readers.
The ’20s and ’30s
Alden found that cartoons of the ’30s continued to feature a society at leisure—regardless of the different reality being experienced by a Depression-era nation. People were also shown with many dogs—exuberant consumption perhaps exemplified by Presidents Coolidge and Hoover, each of whom owned packs of dogs. (Coolidge’s wife reportedly dressed one of their dogs in an Easter bonnet for parties.) One cartoon showed a man with 10 dogs on leashes, with the caption: “Well, she has her books and I have my dogs.”
Competitive dog shows and an interest in “pure” breeding were also themes in the ’30s. James Thurber especially was the master at poking fun at this trend.
The ’40s and ’50s
The ’50s found that a move to the suburbs and the post-war baby boom coincided with a dramatic increase in pet ownership. Animal rights groups began efforts to protect domestic animals, a concern that actually made its way into the magazine. Several cartoons showed the ASPCA rounding up stray dogs. Interestingly, Alden notes, many cartoons started to depict dogs exhibiting bad behavior: One pictured a dog charging at a postman. And jealousy brewed in Levittown: “Sure, why not, how about a third TV set for the damned dog!”
The ’60s and ’70s
Alden found that many cartoons, perhaps reflecting society’s inability to rein in its freedom-loving youth, portrayed dogs fighting back: “So, you’ve finally bitten a lawyer.” And mirroring the nascent women’s movement, a theme deconstructing “master” also emerged. One cartoon showed a woman speaking to her dog: “Guess what, Mr. Corbett is going to be our lord and master.”
The ’70s found a resurgent interest in dog cartoons. This was partly influenced by the popularity of the work of George Booth. Beginning in 1969, he started to bring his ineffable stamp to the magazine and has since become one of its most recognizable cartoonists. Booth cartoons often captured the essential character of dogs just acting like dogs. In addition to being known for his psychotic-looking dogs, Booth is also renowned for his portraits of chaotic households with eccentric people with many dogs. “He records their adventures in a very touching way,” says Alden, who once met the cartoonist, “with affection, never ridicule, and always with exacting detail.”
In a humorous parallel to civil rights legislation of the ‘70s, Alden notes, the cartoons showed a similar assertion of rights by dogs—a major change from previous decades. Dogs were most often portrayed talking and behaving like humans. A disgruntled dog painted his own sign: “Beware of Me.” Cartoons also showed dogs having meetings in boardrooms, playing chess with cats and, in one strip, thrusting out a paw and saying to a human: “Shake hands.”
The ’80s and ’90s
Alden notes that the concept of family changed significantly in the ’80s, a decade with high divorce rates and an increasing number of single-parent families. Pets began to be viewed as important members of the family, given equal or greater status than children. The indulgences of the time were also grist for the “new” family member-a dog nudges his water dish and asks: “This isn’t tap water, is it?” The lifestyle of dogs became a subject of satire itself: Dog walkers, dog runs and high-end dog products first began to appear—“Hey, I’ll let you know when I’m ready to switch to Cycle Four,” a dog holding a food bowl complains to his master.
Alden found that in the ’90s the number of dog cartoons increased significantly, as did many popular bestsellers about the intellectual and emotional lives of dogs. Cartoons showed dogs exhibiting subtleties of complex thinking—ever moving up on the evolutionary ladder. Dogs were frequently depicted having human-like angst. A two-panel cartoon pictured a drowning person yelling, “Lassie, get help!” with the second panel featuring Lassie on a psychiatrist’s couch. Another showed a dog walking alongside his owner, thinking: “It’s always good dog, never great dog.”
Four Legs and a Tail
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