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.
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.
Celebrated veterinarian and author Nancy Kay, DVM, a winner of the Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award, is back with another excellent guide to help you f ind top-notch health care for your dog. Organized as a set of twelve reasonable things you can expect from your vet, Your Dog’s Best Health brings clarity to many murky issues for pet owners Should I expect 24-hour care for my dog when he’s hospitalized? Is it considered appropriate to ask for cost estimates up front or a second opinion? Written with Kay’s trademark humor and intelligence, this book provides all the reassuring answers to questions you were afraid to ask.
This is a truly lovely book, both in its writing and illustrations, about the love between a little girl and the “best hound dog in the world.” It is also a story about the death of a dog, written in a clear, non-sentimental way that makes it an appropriate choice for the introduction of this difficult topic to a young reader (actually, it’s suitable for a reader of any age). The illustrations beautifully express the joy that a dog’s friendship brings, and the poignancy of memories that will last forever. This is a rare achievement in a children’s book.
A second book from influential behaviorist and trainer Pamela Reid, Dog InSight brings together more than 40 essays on canine behavior, techniques to modify it and the principles behind both. Originally published as monthly columns in Dogs in Canada magazine, the chapters in this book cover key tricks of the trade, such as calming signals, social learning and operant conditioning. Typical problems are handily addressed — excessive barking, resource guarding and separation anxiety, for example. Readers will benefit from the technique explanations; understanding why a given cue works helps independent trainers go much further with their dogs. Particularly poignant (and rare for a training book) is the final chapter on easing the pain of loss, in which Reid suggests rites of passage for dogs in their last days, as well as tributes to those we have lost.
The bold strokes of today’s young-adult lit
Imagine star-crossed lovers of old would blush and faint before indulging in the kind of libidinal excess that courses through young-adult novels these days. But Paul Griffin knows better than all that. An award-winning novelist who also trains dogs and works with incarcerated young people, Griffin has penned a highly praised new book, Stay with Me, that celebrates the drama, heartbreak and fragile sensuality of today’s accelerated teenage life.
Stay with Me recounts the tragic fate of a sweet rescued fighting dog named Boo and her unlikely caretakers, two 15-year-old lovers hamstrung by burdensome disadvantages. Mack Morse, an abandoned, then abused high-school dropout, has a rap sheet and a special knack with dogs. He also struggles with violent thoughts that manifest as a hissing in his head, “like when you roll the radio to static and dial up the volume.”
The only remedy? You guessed it his coworker —bright, comely and selfdeprecating Céce Vaccuccia, who studies assiduously and parents her own mother, Carmella, whom she describes with characteristic teenage sarcasm as a “never-married, twice-knocked-up and ditched alcoholic with crippling bunions.”
While each of these facts may be true about Carmella, and the judgment behind them heartfelt, there’s no doubt that Céce loves her mother. This is much the same for all of Griffin’s characters. We are drawn into the oppressive grind of their lives; their words are sharp and their fates are grim, but their essential moral fiber withstands the wear and tear of their preventable, regrettable mistakes. These are, despite their deplorable decisions and even heinous acts, good people.
Mack compels Céce — scarred by a dog attack during childhood — to befriend his dog, Boo. “You’ve got to go a long way into evil to turn a Pit against people,” says Mack. “They forgive easy as rain falls.” And so, in turn, does Céce. The magic of love’s force transports the couple to a new and terribly temporary happiness. But when Boo suffers brutal violence yet again, Céce is nowhere to be found and Mack acts on an aggressive impulse, destroying any prospects for their future together.
While Mack’s character develops and deepens as a result of his poor choices, Céce’s prospects wither following his withdrawal. But her world is open now to the solace of a loyal dog, something she would never have had without learning to trust Boo, and the heedless abandon she experienced with Mack.
Transaction Publishers, 235 pp., 2008; $34.95
We Give Our Hearts to Dogs to Tear is not your typical, heartwarming dog story. Yes, there are heartwarming passages aplenty. But this book is also full of heart-stopping tragedy. That’s because the author and his human and animal family, including an assortment of Jack Russell Terriers, live in the wild mountains of Montana. Beautiful and rugged, the land is full of dangers ranging from hungry coyotes, bears and mountain lions to crabby 30-pound badgers, snares left by fur trappers, and poison set out by ranchers for coyotes. This is the sort of setting where any dog can get into serious trouble. And no dog can get into trouble like a Jack Russell Terrier.
These 15-pound dogs think they’re 10 feet tall, and immortal. They are fearless hunters. If you have or know a Jack Russell, you will have noticed that they consider what other dogs accept as commands to be mere suggestions. It’s because they think they know more than you do, and they may be right. Although all exhibit the breed’s typical intelligence, courage and energy, each is a uniquely complex, and often problematic, character. Chase’s Nobie was “a bundle of exasperating eccentricities,” whose “personality [had] more kinks than a corkscrew.” Ifrit “had a limitless capacity for love,” yet once, while playing, bit the author so hard he had to get a tetanus shot. Hobson was “sensitivity incarnate,” but prone to anxiety attacks that sent him diving under the bed covers.
The author buys his first Jack Russell as a birthday present for his wife, Diana—by mistake. He thinks he heard her say she wanted one; she remembers saying nothing of the kind. The couple already had plenty of animals: among them, 11 horses, two wildcats, a Mastiff and a coyote. Neither of them had any idea that Jack Russells were small dogs, and no clue that they had such huge personalities. But as it turns out, the breed was a perfect match for the big-hearted, life-loving, risk-taking couple. Transplants from Minnesota, they’re the sort of folks who, though perennially broke, fell in love with a dilapidated 3,000-acre Montana ranch that they knew was “too expensive, too primitive and too remote”—and promptly bought it.
Their Jack Russells are just as adventurous as they are. With a frenetic zest for life, these pint-sized dogs hunt ground squirrels, take out marmots and challenge badgers. They fall off rock ledges, collide with skunks, get quilled by porcupines and nearly drown in rushing rivers. Every day with the dogs, writes Chase, is “filled with love, play, empathy, anxiety, courage and near sudden death.”
Too often, death catches up with them. Their first Jack Russell, Phineas, dies in agony in less than a year, poisoned. Another is killed by a badger. One dies young of liver disease. Others live to old age—but you’ll cry when they die, too.
The deaths of these feisty dogs, as much as their lives, form the heart of the book. There are lots of great characters, moving descriptions of the land, discourses on the history of the Jack Russell and the dangers of breeding for appearance instead of performance. But these are incidental in the journey that is the book’s narrative core: Chase is looking for immortality for his dogs. Aren’t we all?
Because it’s impossible not to fall in love with characters like Phineas and Ifrit, Truffle and Tigger, Panda and Bungee—especially after you see the black and white pictures—some readers will be angry that Chase chose to bring these fearless, trouble-prone dogs into the dangerous western wilderness. Chase tackles this issue head-on, like one of his dogs might seize a ground squirrel. A former professor of philosophy, Chase takes on some Big Questions: Who are our dogs? What sort of lives do we owe them? How do we honor their spirits? What is the soul? Where lies immortality?
Bereft again and again, Chase tries to find another Phineas. (He gets two Jack Russells the next time, for emotional insurance.) He tries to replicate Ifrit. (This also fails.) He visits breeders, seeking to reincarnate the spirit of Bungee. Of course, it doesn’t work. But the vivid ghosts of Chase’s dogs demonstrate that what does happen is another kind of immortality.
Surely one of the cruelest conditions of life on Earth is that dogs don’t live as long as people. Yet, we “give our hearts to dogs to tear,” as Rudyard Kipling writes in the poem that gave Chase the book’s title. Yes, they tear our heart—but their indomitable, timeless spirits heal it again and again.
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