I’ve read three books about dogs in a very short period of time and none of them by design. They are: EB White on Dogs, edited by Martha White his grand-daughter, Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz and What the Dog Knows by Cat Warren.
I was at an airport looking for something to read and Inside of a Dog and What the Dog Knows were on a two-for-one special, then back home my colleague Simon Pamphilon accosted me in the passage at work to say that he’d discovered that White of Strunk and White was the same dog man in that book. (Strunk and White being those very famous pedants all journalism teachers keep on using to get a degree of language precision onto the radar of students).
So first of all, why am I reading about dogs and particularly about what they know, how their minds work, what kind of consciousness they have? I’ve lived with a dog for just about every moment of my life and it’s taken me this long to start paying attention to this other kind of sentient being and to start being curious about it. The dogs I have in my life right now (American staffie brothers called Maurice Minnefield and Joel Fleishman) constantly fascinate me and deeply impress me with just how they are nothing like humans and yet they seem to really like living with us and find us interesting.
A while ago National Geographic did one of the little upfront pieces in the magazine about the length of time various animals have been domesticated. The dog comes first with NGM estimated that domestication took place about 14 000 years ago. Also as Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods say: “we didn’t domesticate the dog, it domesticated us”. Scientists now think that because of this long association, the dog has become an expert in reading human beings — their facial expressions, their intentions, their body language, while we often remain quite hopelessly ignorant of what goes in in their minds, and worse, we treat them like babies, dolls or lesser human beings. At the time Brian and I got these two puppies from a litter of five boys we were part of a puppy socialisation class and one of the participants with a Doberman would often say to her rambunctious young dog: “Casey you know the rules, you can’t do that!” We would crack up laughing at the thought that the gangly puppy with more leg than sense would “know the rules”.
I took to watching Cesar Milan on TV quite obsessively at the time (trying to train a staffie with its massive energy and strength will send you to any expert to get help even vicariously) and what I found was a man who absolutely didn’t see a dog as a kind of furry sub-human with a tail. I still think (regardless of all the critics) that this person has got inside a dog’s mind in a way no one else has (if you haven’t you should read Malcolm Gladwell’s piece for The New Yorker on Milan “What the dog saw”, it gives a powerful sense of his dog-sense.)
I suppose Milan with his pack speaks to the child in me who wanted a dog like George had in the Famous Five series by Enid Blyton. Timmy was a clever, independent, amazing dog who would (by its attachment to me, its owner, could I find a clone), give me a panache and status I just didn’t have at the time. The dog was so amazing it was ONE of the five, not a plus-one. (I’ve also written about my childhood attachment to George the tomboy.) I never found that super clever dog and so many of the dogs of my childhood were a complete disappointment and I moved onto cats for a while until I realised that actually no cat would hang its head out of a car window and let its tongue and ears flap in the wind the way a dog would do, and that I missed that joie de vivre terribly. So back to dogs.
EB White on Dogs is really about EB White and his writing life mostly for the New Yorker and his escape from the city to live on the land with not just dogs but pigs and ducks, etc. This book of letters, commentary, some stories, is really funny and includes the very famous “Death of a pig”. White loved dogs but didn’t pay any attention to getting inside their minds but somehow you know that he knows that this is the case especially when he tells you that Fred (a somewhat obnoxious Dachshund) would stop in the doorway to light a cigarette whenever he got up to let him in the house! I usually find that books written by journalists who lived half a century ago are so far removed from my life that they are quaint and a bit weird, but this one is lovely and fun and a little crazy.
Then there’s Inside of a Dog. The author Alexandra Horowitz teaches psychology, canine cognition, and creative nonfiction writing at Barnard College at Columbia University. She studied the cognition of humans, rhinoceroses, bonobos, and dogs to get a PhD in cognitive science. I was seriously looking forward to this book because I really really do wanna know what goes on the brains of Joel and Maurice, particulary Maurice who is what my daughter would call “a devious f*****”. I found this book a little off-putting, it had a quite dry, somewhat academic tone and Horowitz chose to explicate her knowledge through her relationship with one dog called Pumpernickel (or Pump). Although Pump is described as a “wonderful mixed breed” and recent photographs of Horowitz show her with a big dog (something Doberman-looking), I have a really strong prejudice against lapdoggy-type furry things and I couldn’t shake the impression all the way through that I really didn’t like Pumpernickel at all. So the combination of personal relationship with Pump and quite dry science just didn’t grab me at all. And I’m still sorry about it. (I am to try Horowitz’s next book On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes because that’s a subject I’m really interested in too, so she gets a second chance with me, as an author.
And so to Cat Warren’s What the Dog Knows which is a brilliant piece of creative nonfiction. Warren teaches science journalism and creative nonfiction at North Carolina State University and lives in Durham. It’s about Solo, a singleton Malinois who wasn’t all that well socialised as a puppy because there was just one of him. Warren struggled her way through dog trainers trying to channel his energy and was eventually told by an old trainer friend to give him a job and by the way, what about cadaver searching as that job? So Warren put his nose, his energy and his “jackass-ness” to work and the documented result is absolutely, rivettingly interesting. Warren herself learns to negotiate working alongside police K9 units and begins to understand just what a dog is capable of. The delightful little turn in the book comes when Solo is getting too old to keep on doing such dangerous work and Warren decides to acquire another puppy. Both Warren and her husband are anxious about how Solo will take to Coda but Solo treats her instantly as a gift to be loved. Which gives me a good place to end: don’t presume to know a dog’s mind and what it will do and think! They’re are their own beings and we know them only just a little.