Bark’s Best Books: The Who and Why of Dogs

By The Bark Editors, December 2020
best dog books

Here are our choices for dog-inspired reading that helps us better know our dogs and unravels the mysteries of what this unique bond is all about. From literature to science, these “best books” enhance our understanding of both ourselves and our relationships with dogs, probing just why they enthrall and fascinate us.

NON-FICTION   |   LITERATURE


NON-FICTION


Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz is a fascinating journey into the dog’s rich sensory world, providing valuable insights into what it’s like to be a dog. If you think you know your dog, think again. Horowitz peels away layers of preconceived notions and gets to the core of canine-ness to reveal that Canis familiaris is anything but familiar.


Man Meets Dog by Nobel Prize–winning scientist Konrad Lorenz was first published 50 years ago. A classic, it launched the debate about the extent to which dogs’ modern behavior is influenced by their wolf ancestors. A slim, witty volume that showcases Lorenz’s interdisciplinary approach to understanding dogs, it was the first to delve into the canine mind.


In Dog Sense, animal behaviorist John Bradshaw outlines what we can expect from our co-pilots as well as what they need to live harmoniously with us. Ultimately, this is what makes the book so appealing. He does more than simply lay out interesting theories; he uses science to advocate for a better life for companion dogs. 


Pack of Two by Carolyn Knapp is a seminal book about the human-canine bond, one that affirms that we aren’t alone in our dog-centricity. Knapp explores why dogs matter to us by talking to both experts and owners whose dogs—like her own Lucille—deeply affected their lives, concludes that we love them for themselves: for their very otherness. 


Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist who uses functional MRIs to measure activity in the human brain, had long been a dog-lover, so when his family adopted a dog, he naturally wondered what she might be thinking. In How Dogs Love Us, he recounts the methods his team used to make some groundbreaking studies. There’s much to learn in this engrossing, must-read book.


Mark Derr writes about the “culture of the dog” like no one else. In Dog’s Best Friend, he examines all aspects of what makes our friendship with dogs tick. Passionate about his subject and intent on sharing his zeal, Derr’s wit and flare come through in this quirky, informative and fitting tribute to our love affair with canines big and small.


The Other End of the Leash by Patricia McConnell, PhD, reveals a revolutionary new perspective on our relationship with dogs, sharing insights on how they might interpret our behavior as well as essential advice on how to interact with them in ways that bring out their best. No one does a better job of explaining this dynamic.


Somewhere along the path of evolution, two distinct animal species made the choice “to cooperate, not to compete.” In The Animal Attraction, Dr. Jonica Newby, an Australian veterinarian, poses the fascinating question: “If we didn’t link up with dogs, where would we be today?” Her answers about our co-evolution are both surprising and wildly entertaining. 


A well-researched, deeply crafted, wry and witty compendium on the importance of pets in our lives, The Animal’s Companion by Jacky Colliss Harvey is both erudite and accessible. She successfully melds examples from a variety of fields—art, literature, history, biology—with personal reflections. There’s plenty of dog in it, enough to satisfy the most canine-centric reader.


In her meticulously researched, unbiased book, The Doggie in the Window, Rory Kress exposes the two main problems with commercial dog-breeding in our country: the utter inadequacy of federal laws and regulations related to this activity and their equally inadequate enforcement. If Kress’s mission was to inform, educate and inspire us, she most definitely achieves her goal.


Donald McCaig’s Eminent Dogs, Dangerous Men considers the fascinating world of sheepherding and Border Collies, how the breed’s history is infused by the character of the people who admire and partner with them, and the trust and communication between them. This is a memoir, a travelogue and an investigation into one of the oldest alliances mankind has struck with canines.


In What the Dog Knows, Cat Warren explores the science and wonder of working dogs, guided by Solo, her German Shepherd. To harness his energies, she tried him at scent work—specifically, cadaver scenting. This book offers new ways to learn about the cognitive and emotional lives of one’s own dogs, and is highly recommended.


The Hidden Life of Dogs by anthropologist Elizabeth Marshall Thomas became famous in part for the number of miles the author clocked while tracking a Husky named Misha on his daily forays in her quest to answer the question, “What do dogs really want?” This account reveals the nature of pack dynamics and insights into dogs’ personalities and desires.


Have you ever wondered about the great migration of southern dogs to new homes in the north? Or who’s behind the long-distance transports, how they’re orchestrated or why they’re needed? Peter Zheutlin’s inspiring and riveting book, Rescue Road, has the answers. This is a must-read for anyone who wants to learn about the front lines of animal rescue.


In Amy Sutherland’s thoroughly researched and engaging Rescuing Penny Jane, she delves into what life is like for dogs and the people who care for and try to save them in shelters throughout the country. She does an excellent job covering myriad aspects of this topical and critical subject, guiding the reader on an unforgettable and inspiring trip.


Scent of the Missing by Susannah Charleson takes readers for a ride-along with her canine search-and-rescue partner-in-training, Puzzle, a rambunctious, delightful Golden Retriever, from the moment the pup enters her life through the dog’s long training. With wit, charm and a deep understanding of dogs, Charleson’s story of this fully collaborative partnership is unforgettable.


A Small Furry Prayer by Steven Kotler examines the “cult and culture” of dog rescue. He and his girlfriend run a sanctuary in New Mexico with few resources aside from an intense drive to save dogs. Among other things, the narrative explores the meaning of “dog” in our lives. It’s a mind-expanding trip.


The Underdogs by Melissa Fay Greene, a gifted storyteller, is an examination of the power of the bond between dogs and children with disabilities, but its purview extends much further. The main story revolves around a remarkable woman, Karen Shirk, and the service dog academy, 4 Paws for Ability, that she founded in 1998.


LITERATURE


My Dog Tulip by J.R. Ackerley is a lovely, unsentimental and very moving remembrance of a dog, a German Shepherd female named Tulip. Ackerley is charmed and fascinated—some might say obsessed—and his descriptions of her behavior and habits are among the more tender love stories ever. Be sure to read the edition with the introduction by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas.


In Dog Walks Man, art critic John Zeaman scours his New Jersey neighborhood to find ideal areas to walk with his Standard Poodles. From mundane, around-the-block trudges to expeditions into the urban jungle of the Meadowlands, the author seeks life’s wildness, and the dogs are perfect partners in discovering it. Zeaman’s slow-paced musings have a calming, meditative quality to them.


In Dog Years, poet Mark Doty recounts the ways dogs rescued and supported him during a time of deep grief, and how, with their poignantly shorter lives, they function as placeholders for our own reflections. A buoyant celebration of life and a heartbreaking meditation on mortality, it is a tender and insightful look at the bond we have with our animal companions.


Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell—a memorable memoir of her friendship with the late Caroline Knapp (Pack of Two)—is intensely moving, without a hint of sentimentality. Dogs brought these writers together, and as their “pack of four” explored the New England woods, they created a profound and lasting attachment that transcended grief and transformed lives.


Poet Stephen Kuusisto’s singular memoir, Planet of the Blind, is an account of his journey through the kaleidoscope-like geography of the partially sighted, where everyday encounters can be struggles or triumphs. When a devastating accident forces him to place his confidence in a guide dog, a yellow Labrador named Corky, he awakens to his own place in the world around him. 


Dog Is My Co-Pilot: Great Writers on the World’s Oldest Friendship, an anthology assembled by the editors of The Bark, includes essays, short stories and expert commentaries from some of the literary world’s most familiar names exploring every aspect of our life with dogs. The selections are humorous, poignant, truthful, sometimes surprising and frequently uplifting. For people who love great writing and, yes, great dogs.


Dog Songs by Pulitzer prize–winning poet Mary Oliver brings dogs to life with tender, touching imagery. Among their other delights, the poems and short prose collected in this book remind the reader of how much there is to love in this world, in particular, the relationship we have with our dogs and its meaning for our own lives.


The Dog Stars by Peter Heller—poetic, graceful, funny and, yes, very dark—is a tale of primal instincts and the survivalist spirit. It examines the threads that connect us to one another and that lead us to seek out new possibilities, even in the face of great loss. This is a book about discovering the resiliency of those threads.


The Friend by Sigrid Nunez is a poignant story of loss and grief as well as a meditation on the relationship between a woman and the Great Dane she inherits. A masterful celebration of our relationship with dogs, it is also a uniquely told story about that relationship’s redemptive and healing powers. An elegant, erudite and fully charming, life-affirming book.


The New Yorkers by Cathleen Schine is set in the microcosm of a New York neighborhood and its eccentric citizens, including the dogs who are the stars of this show. Schine creates indelible impressions, often in the space of a single sentence, and her concept of communities and what they do for their members gives heft to this comic novel.


Timbuktu by Paul Auster is brief but extraordinary story of a dog’s life. Mr. Bones, “a mutt of no particular worth or distinction,” narrates this unforgettable and poignant tale as the sidekick and confidant of Willy G. Christmas, a brilliant and troubled homeless man from Brooklyn. From his thoughts, Paul Auster spins a rich and compelling tale.


Rex and the City by Lee Harrington chronicles the lives of an NYC couple who adopt a “behaviorally challenged” rescue dog and find he may be more than they can handle. When it comes to what it takes for “newbies” to learn to co-exist with a canine (and with each other), this is one of the funniest accounts of the journey.