I have read a lot of books about dogs. I read about 60 books about dog behavior, training, and psychology before we adopted our first dog, Pyrrha, and I still love to read dog books today.
I get asked from time to time by new dog owners about what they should read. Following are the top 10 books I’d recommend to people with dogs, covering everything from training to behavior to history. I link to the reviews I’ve written of these books, and if not available, I provide a link to the book’s Goodreads page.
(As you can see, my general opinions is that if you read anyone on dogs, start with Patricia McConnell. I think she’s the gold standard for modern writing on dogs. Her blog, The Other End of the Leash, is predictably fantastic as well.)
“Another human being will never bring us to the same unqualified, unconditional regard that a dog does. Our full immersion in language brings with it qualification and condition; once we enter the world of signs, we can never again be so single-minded.”
Happy weekend, everyone! Hope it is restful. I may be arranging a small play-date between Bo and Zoe while their owners are out of town. Should be fun! Let’s just up the Bo-ster isn’t too rambunctious for Zoe, the dignified older woman…
“Try to say what you love about your partner, or what it is about someone that produces in you an intense state of erotic excitement or longing, or even how it feels, precisely, to have a fever–soon it’s obvious that we, too, are only partial citizens of the world of language. Something is always escaping; dogs are a kind of figure, an extreme example of that difficulty, and it makes them all the more cherishable.”
Merry Christmas and happy holidays, everyone! I will be back at the blog in January. Looking forward to a much-needed vacation with family and friends down south. Hope you all enjoy very peaceful, happy, and dog-friendly holidays!
My husband is a poet in the process of earning his MFA. I read a lot–mostly literary novels, classics, and dog books, as you know–but I like to keep up with his side of the world, too. He always speaks very highly of the poet Mark Doty. Last year, at his urging, I read Doty’s beautiful collection My Alexandria. I loved it and have been interested in him and his work ever since.
You can imagine how thrilled I was when I found out that Doty had written a memoir about dogs. How perfect! The book is about dogs, yes, but it is primarily about grief, love, loss, and the hiddenness of the human soul. Dog Years covers the time during which Doty’s partner, Wally, died of AIDS and during which he had two dogs in his life, Arden and Beau, who shepherded him through this devastating loss.
While Wally is dying, Arden and Beau themselves are steadily aging. A large part of the book also deals with Doty processing Beau’s somewhat premature death from kidney failure. He adopted Beau from the local shelter when Beau was a young adult, perhaps one or two years old. Beau, a golden retriever, was so severely underweight at the time that the shelter had called him a “saluki mix” due to his sunken chest and visible ribs. Over time, however, Beau becomes a healthy, vibrant, funny dog who brings the standard amount of light and joy into Doty’s life.
These real stories from Doty’s life with his loves–Wally and his dogs–are so breathlessly beautiful and sad. They are never sappy. They are never excessively overwrought with emotion. Rather, this memoir of grief is so palpable and authentic that it is difficult to read without one’s eyes welling up.
I’ve already posted this passage from Dog Years before, but I want to quote it again, because to me, it captures why I care about dogs so much:
Being human is most likely a much lonelier endeavor than being a dog. Of course, many dogs spend a great deal of their time in solitude, waiting for someone to come home, for the world to begin again–but they live in a state of connectedness, it seems, that we have lost, if indeed we ever possessed it. Is that why we turn to them, they who are always ready to receive, to join in wholeheartedly, as we so often cannot? To be human is to be a watcher; sometimes even at our moments of great joy or great grief there is a part of us conscious of our being, observing that being. I do not think dogs have such a part; they are all right here, involved in whatever it is, and therefore they are a sort of cure for our great, abiding loneliness. A temporary cure, but a real one.
Doty recognizes this beautiful quality of the canine soul, the dog’s ability to enter into that “state of connectedness” that so often eludes us humans. And yet he is consistently a watcher himself. He dutifully records his emotions, his doubts, his rages. But he trusts Beau and Arden to guide him through the deeper, more difficult moments.
Quite simply, Dog Years is one of the most beautiful memoirs I’ve ever read, and I think I’ve read quite a few excellent ones. I would recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone, especially with those who have loved and lost.
“Being human is most likely a much lonelier endeavor than being a dog. Of course, many dogs spend a great deal of their time in solitude, waiting for someone to come home, for the world to begin again–but they live in a state of connectedness, it seems, that we have lost, if indeed we ever possessed it. Is that why we turn to them, they who are always ready to receive, to join in wholeheartedly, as we so often cannot? To be human is to be a watcher; sometimes even at our moments of great joy or great grief there is a part of us conscious of our being, observing that being. I do not think dogs have such a part; they are all right here, involved in whatever it is, and therefore they are a sort of cure for our great, abiding loneliness. A temporary cure, but a real one.”
— Mark Doty, Dog Years
(One of my favorite passages from the wonderful memoir.) Happy Friday, everyone!
As I’ve said before, I’m not one who likes to read sappy stories about dogs. This is why I don’t watch dog movies. The dogs are always exceedingly and supernaturally noble and then they always get killed in the end. So over that.
I like stories about real life–which is why this collection of essays about living with dogs was perfect for me. Dog Is My Co-Pilot is a curated series of memoir-like writings by respected authors, pulled together by the editors of The Bark magazine.
Many of the stories were very funny. Many of the stories were very sad. Almost all of them (with a few exceptions, namely Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’ story and Jon Katz’s and the super-dramatic New Age guy) were great. The essays successfully avoided the sappiness that so often permeates dog-human narratives.
Some of my favorites: I loved the essays by the wonderful poets Maxine Kumin and Mark Doty. My husband is a poet and has always encouraged me to read more poetry. You can imagine my delight when I learned that such well-respected poets like Kumin and Doty were also avid dog lovers. Kumin’s essay “Mutts” is a sweet and reflective essay on the dogs that have passed in and out of her life, particularly on her New England farm. “Accident,” by Doty, is a heartbreaking story about loss and grief, connected to both his dog and his partner.
Another essay that was very moving to me was “Sit. Stay. Heal.” by Lee Forgotson, written in the aftermath of 9/11. Forgotson was living in New York at the time, just a few blocks from the World Trade Center, and wrote this essay describing her fear and depression in the months following the terrorist attacks. She was holed up alone in her apartment with her dog, waiting for her husband, a broadcast news anchor, to come home. The essay ends with this heart-rending moment: Forgotson, her husband, and their dog go out to eat. The dog is tied to a table and wanders off slightly to sniff a young man at a nearby table. When Forgotson looks back in a moment, the man is on his knees with his arms around her dog, weeping. It’s a touching and beautiful story of that gift animals can give us that no people can.
Regardless of your thoughts on over-emotionality, this is a collection of essays that is sure to make you feel the whole range of emotions that we feel with dogs: Joy, elation, frustration, rage, sympathy, grace, and redemption. Just to name a few. I recommend this collection very highly and I’m thankful I was able to find a copy myself.