Many a smart writer who wants to get published will do one of two things in her or his career: write a dog book, or put a picture of one on the cover. Being a “dog person” (not to be mistaken for a “cat person”), I admit to having read an amazing number of the thousands of dog books published, given more than a passing glance to books with pictures of dogs on the cover, as well as worked on my own “dog book” for years. Being dog-less is difficult–we lost our last one a year ago–but I have many wonderful memories I can revisit through the following favorites.
Probably my all-time favorite to date is the story of a dog that writer and outdoorsman Kerasote encountered while on a camping trip to the San Juan River in Utah years ago. He named him Merle, of course took him home, letting the dog roam and explore on his own to a great degree in the small town of Kelly, Wyoming, near Jackson Hole. Freethinking is the important point here–for Kerasote his relationship with this dog was largely experimental and interactive. Having the wilderness and Tetons surrounding them, the boy and his dog were able to roam widely, hike fiercely and ski freely. It made me rethink much of my own interactions with dogs–to work on listening and observing more, and command and control less. But isn’t that a lesson for us all in any relationship? This has been a best-seller at Darvill’s for the past six years, and will continue to be so, with a sequel just as unique (see below).
What a small but poignant and beautiful body of writing Knapp left before her untimely death in 2002! I have read them all–but this book is a particular gift because she had lost both her parents and quit drinking before getting her dog Lucille, a rescue Shepherd mix from a local animal shelter. As she explores her bond with Lucille in her newly sober and parentless life, she also researches trends and examines the relationships of friends and acquaintances to their own dogs. She saw that, for many people, the relationship with their dog or dogs competed or substituted for other human relationships, but she is observant on this point, not judgmental. For a wonderful companion to this title, read Gail Caldwell’s Let’s Take the Long Way Home, chronicling her close relationship with Knapp, her own dog, and Knapp’s death. I love this author’s intellect, vulnerability and candor. I am so grateful for the body of work she left.
Here is what I usually look for in a dog book: science that tells me more about dogs, liberally illustrated with specific stories. Subtitled “What Dogs See, Smell, and Know”, Horowitz’s book added immensely to my canine understanding. I already knew dogs could hear much, much better than I, but how much better, and what sounds affected them? Her writing veers between the scientific professional she is, and the dog-lover she is also. The book is not a formal training guide, but I came away with more than one new idea about relating to my dog, such as understanding that her sight is not what I had thought it to be, for example. Those who tend to anthropomorphize dogs may not be happy about some of the things they find out here, but I was excited–I always want to know more about what dogs may perceive, and challenge my own made-up explanations with facts.
There is no way around it–this story is a heartbreaker, but the most beautifully written heartbreaker I have read in a long, long time. Bass is an elegant and spare nature writer, and this story of the life and loss of Colter, his hunting companion and “favorite” dog, shows his talent at its best. Set in Montana, this story of the “runt of the litter” Bass got as a pup envelops the reader with a setting that time seems to have left behind. Yet the emotion was so new and raw, I felt I was hiking along with them, feeling the tingly autumn cold at dusk, waiting for the dogs to flush the pheasant. Having been raised by a fisherman and bird- hunting Dad, I could even smell the musky scent of the hunt, feel the energy of dogs, and the warmth of coming home, dirty and late, but successful. This story is so heartfelt, so lovely, I was more than willing to endure the heartbreak too!
Years ago we adopted a large male Airedale that had been abandoned by its owner after eating part of a rug and almost dying. The local animal protection society paid for the dog to have life-saving surgery, and our vet convinced me that we would be able to properly care for it, because we had experience with the breed. He also gave us a copy of this book, in case we needed help managing this neurotic dog. We did, and it helped (see chapter 6). Forget the amiable and confident dog-whisperers of TV, and read the real-life tales and trials of numerous psychologically damaged dogs (and their people!). There is scarcely a condition that is not covered in this book, and even if your dog is absolutely “normal”, the stories are fascinating. I wouldn’t be surprised if most of these techniques worked on us humans, too!
Pukka’s Promise, by Ted Kerasote
This sequel, equally as powerful as Kerasote’s first book Merle, covers slightly different ground. Having been dog-less for five years after Merle’s death, Kerasote searches for a pup that will be very much like Merle in breed, but knowing he will also be different. Kerasote’s subtitle is enticing: The Quest for Longer-Lived Dogs, and he has done his homework. Along with the delightful story of bringing home his new puppy, he digs hard and deep into factors that determine how long our dogs live. He uncovers fascinating things about the pet-food industry and what we choose to feed our dogs, the latest on cancer in canines, and dog-breeding. While some of the discoveries surprised him (and myself), many confirmed my opinions, and some I had never thought about. You may not agree with everything he says, but the story of his new pup alone is worth the price of admission. I learned a lot, and enjoyed every minute (except maybe the tough chapter on cancer, of which our sweet Kali died almost a year ago).