Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Born to Bark

Born to Bark by Stanley Coren

"For Christmas the woman who would become my wife bought me a dog -- a little terrier. The next year her Christmas present to me was a shotgun.  Most of the people in my family believe that those two gifts were not unrelated."

Stanley Coren is the author of a lot of books about dogs, including How Dogs Think, How to Speak Dog, Why We Love the Dogs We Do and The Intelligence of Dogs.  He is a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, and often appears on tv shows (Oprah, Dateline, Good Morning America to name a few).  He is known as an expert on dogs and their behaviors.  But what the public didn't really know, until now, is that Coren had a very special teacher.

The teacher's name was Flint.  And Flint was a Cairn Terrier.  Born to Bark is the story of Coren's friendship with Flint, and of all that he learned. 

"If you could read the genetic code of a terrier it would say, "bark-eat-bark-dig-bark-chase-bark-grab-bark-hunt-bark-kill it (if it is little furry and moves quickly)-bark-growl-bark-tug-bark-shred-bark-ignore sounds from two-footed creatures-bark-bark ...."

Coren takes us back to his earliest memories -- the dogs of his childhood and what he learned from them -- to show us how he was prepared for Flint.  But as those of us who are true dog lovers know, though you may have many dogs in your life, and though you love them all, there is usually one dog (if you are very fortunate, two) who stand apart -- soul mates is a silly phrase, but I don't know any other way to describe it.  And for Stanley Coren Flint was the dog.

But Born to Bark is also more than just a memoir.  It is also chock full of Stanley Coren's observations about dogs -- their behavior, their history, and their special value to humans.

"In a way, I had blundered inadvertently into what today is known as pet-assisted therapy.  In North America the number of pet assisted therapy programs was under twenty in 1980, but by the year 2000 more than one thousand such programs were in operation.  We probably owe the origin of using dogs as part of psychotherapy to Sigmund Freud (funny how often that name comes up when a psychologist is writing or talking), who often had one of his dogs with him during therapy sessions.  He first noticed that the presence of the dog seemed to be beneficial for patients ... He thought that this might be due to the fact that patients often worry about whether what they are saying might seem unacceptable ... However, nothing the patients ever say will shock the therapist's furry companion ...."

This is the common theme running through all the dog memoirs I've been reading lately.  The power of the human/canine bond to heal (and the healing can run both ways).  There is something about this story that never gets old.  I have my own version of it. Whether it is the simple love that animals provide, the discipline involved in training, or the requirements of focusing on another creature outside of yourself, this involvement often lifts people out of their selves in way that other relationships can't do.  (But its possible we have an unfair sample here -- the memoirs are almost universally about the times when this process works, because it's the successful "rescues" who go on to write books.)

The virtue of Coren's book, and the reason that it makes a good cap to the other dog memoirs I've reviewed, is that Coren is a trained psychologist, a specialist in canine behavior, and a professional communicator, so his self-consciousness about what is going on and how it works allows him to frame the story of his relationship with Flint in a broader context.

I would recommend Coren's earlier books to anyone interested in canine behavior and intelligence.  But I would recommend Born to Bark to anyone.


Readers interested in books about dogs might also like to check out my earlier reviews:  "Goodbye Alpha Dog", "Two Dogs in Search of a Master", "A Nose for Justice", "Whatever Happened to America's Dog?" and "Scent of the Missing".

You can also enjoy my recent article "Crazy Flickers" over at 10,000 Birds.  They have a great site, well worth checking out even if I wasn't included.  

Readers of Birds and Beasts might also enjoy our sister blog Birdland West, which covers birds and wildlife, mostly in the Seattle Area.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Brace of Dog Memoirs

Behind every so-called coincidence lies a series of connections, some small, some large, that if traced back far enough, lead inevitably to the great source of meaning and purpose in this otherwise senseless universe, namely, dogs."
-- Susan Conant   All Shots

I don't like memoirs very much.  As a rule.  I think the rise of the memoir form goes hand in hand with the narrowing and impoverishment of fiction in the twentieth century, and I'm sure I'll have more to say on that in the future.  But, for the moment, I can be as much of a hypocrite as the next guy, and I have to admit that there is one form of memoir that I avidly devour.

The dog memoir.

Not that there's anything special about them, in the literary sense.  They have all the faults of memoirs in general -- self-centeredness, over-sentimentality, and a kind of near-sightedness that distorts reality like a fish-eye lens.

But they have dogs in them.

And that makes all the difference.  At least to me. 

The science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon once promulgated the law that "Ninety percent of everything is crap."  He was probably being generous, but that does mean that even in the least literary of literary genres there must be something worth reading.  So I wanted to mention a couple of memoirs that I've read lately that stand out from the pack.

Until Tuesday: A Wounded Warrior and the Golden Retriever Who Saved HimUntil Tuesday by (Fmr. Captain) Luis Carlos Montalvan is -- in addition to being a dog memoir -- the story of an Iraq war veteran struggling to deal with the physical and mental scars of his service. And it is a story told with remarkable restraint, and almost no self-pity or sentimentality.   Montalvan suffered traumatic brain injury as a result of an explosion and suffers from post traumatic stress disorder.  He recounts how difficult it was for him to return to day to day life:

Before Tuesday, I caught glimpses of snipers on rooftops.  Before Tuesday, I spent more than an hour in my apartment working up the courage to walk half a block to the liquor store.  I took twenty medicines a day for everything from physical pain to severe agoraphobia, and even benign social encounters caused crippling migraines ... Before Tuesday I couldn't work.  I drank whole bottles of rum in one sitting to escape, but still lay in bed, unable to shut my eyes.  And every time I did, I saw terrible things ... After one grueling therapy session I went to a coffee shop, opened my laptop, and saw the face of a suicide bomber from Sinjar...

Tuesday, of course, is a dog.  A beautiful Golden Retriever who stares out of the cover of the book with intelligence and a hint of a smile, holding a set of dog tags in his mouth.

Bad Dog: A Love StoryBad Dog, by Martin Kihn, also has a dog on the cover -- but in this case in extreme close-up that makes it hard to identify the breed. (Bernese mountain dog).  Hola is a not just another breed -- she's a very different kind of dog than Tuesday.  She tackles people, chews up furniture, runs after busses and chases drug dealers.  (An activity which can be very dangerous for her owners.)  She has no training, no socialization and definitely no manners.

 Her owner is also a different breed.  Marty (Martin Kihn) is a high functioning alcoholic who has been a TV writer and a management consultant, but is rapidly on his way down, about to lose his job and his marriage.  Oh yeah, and he has to something about that dog too.

"Is it just me," I ask my ninety-pound copilot, framed in the rearview mirror like a hairy Andy Warhol Marilyn, "or is everyone losing their minds?"
I'm sorry to say, she seems to be sorry to say, it's just you
"Did we miss our turn?  I can't see the signs."
And I, she says, can't read....
There are few guarantees in life like the one I will make to you now:  you will get lost.  Very lost.  So far from your destination you'll be looking out the window as darkness descends, watching street signs change into another language....    

And that, really, is what these two books -- so very different on the surface -- have in common.  They are about getting lost.  And they are about relationships.  In both cases, about the unique relationship between a troubled man and a dog.

But two very different dogs.

Tuesday was born to be one of the most highly developed dogs in the world -- an assistance dog for the disabled -- and he began his training when he was three days old, long before his eyes opened...

Very different:

At a certain point, without announcing it even to ourselves, we gave up.  I gave up.  We'd had our idea of what a pet should be, and we'd been baited and switched.  We'd been had by the dogs of the gods or vice versa.  She was housebroken; she seemed happy; she didn't actually bite people, with a single exception ... What I know now is that settling for a dog who is housebroken and doesn't draw blood is like settling for a child who can talk.... And I might as well admit that the exception was my wife.

What Luis Montalvan finds in Tuesday is a companion and a best friend.  With Tuesday at his side he more and more braves the world, meets people, goes back to college, begins a new career.  As someone who has had a service dog I, I was deeply moved by the description of Tuesday.  Their friendship and partnership portrays the human-canine bond at its best.

Martin Kihn's story is funnier, more acerbic -- with many more rough edges. His humor is usually trained directly on himself (and sometimes, lovingly, on Hola) and if he's not always devoid of self-pity, at least he knows it, and makes it funny.   Hola is a wild dog, and a dog that many of us will recognize (hopefully in somewhat gentler terms).  When his wife leaves him, Kihn is forced to take drastic action.  That action is to enroll himself and Hola in training classes for the American Kennel Club's Canine Good Citizen program -- a way for dog's to attain certification in the basics of civilized behavior.  It seems impossible for Hola -- and for Kihn -- in the beginning.  And as any dog trainer will tell you, training the dog is easy; it's training the people that's hard.

Both of these books succeed -- on my terms -- by being books about a person and a dog in an equal relationship.  These aren't books of cute dog stories, or inspiring life lessons learned from furry teachers. These are real stories about life with real dogs.

As different as they seem on the surface, Until Tuesday and Bad Dog make good pack mates.  If you love memoirs (I know you're out there) or you love dogs -- as I do -- these are great books to curl up with.  Make sure to have some treats handy.

Readers interested in books about dogs might also like to check out my earlier reviews:  "Goodbye Alpha Dog", "Two Dogs in Search of a Master", "A Nose for Justice", "Whatever Happened to America's Dog?" and "Scent of the Missing".

You can also enjoy my recent article "Crazy Flickers" over at 10,000 Birds.  They have a great site, well worth checking out even if I wasn't included.  

Readers of Birds and Beasts might also enjoy our sister blog Birdland West, which covers birds and wildlife, mostly in the Seattle Area.