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.


  1. This review is amazing! Thanks so much!:)

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