How Dogs Are Smarter Than You Think
The Genius of Dogs is written in a pleasant, conversational style that is enjoyable to read. Its strength lies in the sections on the history of canine-specific research, which are easy-to-read, informative summaries of the progression of particular lines of study.
Among the well-covered topics are Belyaev’s genetic studies on foxes; the vocal communication of dogs; and Rico and Chaser, the dogs famous for knowing the names of hundreds of objects. Other sections of the book are less successful. More than once, I found myself puzzled by conclusions that didn’t follow logically from the available data. This gave me the impression that the authors already had opinions about how dogs’ minds work and were trying to force the data into supporting those viewpoints.
A notable weakness comes in the discussion of Hare’s own research. Although the authors say they will include work that contradicts Hare’s results, they fail to mention any of the reputable studies disputing his major findings about dogs’ responsiveness to human gestures. Notably absent are the well-known research studies challenging Hare’s conclusion that dogs are better than wolves at following human gestures.
Hare has reason to be proud of both the volume of research into canine cognition his experiments have inspired as well as his trailblazing open-mindedness in using his own pet dog as a subject at a time when such use was discouraged. His innovative work has motivated a new generation of scientists to ask new questions about how dogs think and communicate. I’d love to see him embrace the full range of studies that expand on his original work with dogs, as these are part of his legacy.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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