Review: My Dog Tulip

My Dog Tulip.

At least in the Western world, the English are somewhat famous for their undying love of dogs. James Herriott is the father of all modern country dog legends. The stereotype of the “stiff upper lip” does not apply to the national English feeling toward canines. Indeed, as J.R. Ackerley himself says in the beginning of this book, My Dog Tulip: “Unable to love each other, the English turn to dogs.”

All that to say, I was excited to read his memoir, which I have often heard about. I love dog memoirs (great ones like Dog Years and Pack of Two come to mind) and this one was about a proper Englishman, J.R. Ackerley, and his love affair with his Alsatian (aka German shepherd), Tulip. (Tulip’s actual name was “Queenie,” but Ackerley’s publishers made him change her name in the book, because they were worried that the dog’s name might become a derogatory, if oblique, reference to Ackerley’s sexual orientation.)

Instead of a charming memoir, though, this little book is really just the record of one Englishman’s positive MANIA to pimp out his dog. The poor girl. Aside from one chapter about the social difficulties of your dog defecating on the sidewalk, the rest of the book is about Tulip’s heat cycles, her vulva, and her long parade of unsuccessful suitors, including the long and tiresome descriptions of her failure to copulate.

As a side note, I am not surprised that Elizabeth Marshall Thomas wrote the introduction to my edition and that she loved the book. (She would.) As you may recall, I have a rather low opinion of Thomas’s methods of dog rearing and it therefore was not surprising to me that she adored this book about one man’s unscrupulous treatment of his dog, her behavior, and her reproductive faculties.

Supposedly, this memoir was made into an animated film, but wow, that is not one film that I would ever want to see.

Review: In a Dog’s Heart

In a Dog's Heart.

Jennifer Arnold is the founder of Canine Assistants, a non-profit that trains and assigns therapy dogs for a variety of different uses. In a Dog’s Heart is her second book and was published in October 2011.

I hesitate to write a review here, because I found this book somewhat disappointing. Arnold is clearly a wonderful woman with a huge heart and lots of hands-on experience with dogs. She certainly knows a lot more than I do.

My reservation is that as a book, In a Dog’s Heart was not a successful project. It is essentially one woman’s collected ramblings about why she loves dogs. That is all well and good in itself, but it is not compelling or interesting. Perhaps it could have been reworked into something more memoir-like, resembling Caroline Knapp’s sweet book Pack of Two. Instead, Arnold’s book doesn’t seem to have any grounding frame of reference or context to give it much-needed structure.

I did appreciate Arnold’s thorough critique of Cesar Millan and the incredible damage he has done to dog training in America today. I enjoyed the heart-warming stories about the therapy dogs she’s trained, worked with, and assigned to people in need. However, I felt dismayed to read her hearty recommendation of dog food made by companies like Purina and Hill’s Science Diet, long known for creating chemically-laden refuse that is patently terrible for dogs. I also thought it was kind of silly that she believed so strongly in puppy temperament testing, something we’ve known for a while is not any reliable indicator of an adult dog’s temperament.

The book’s lack of organization–or a discernible point–is a crippling element. The chapters are haphazardly arranged and filled with all sorts of random thoughts. I almost felt like she just sat down with a legal pad and just wrote down all of the things she knew about dogs and then decided to structure her book that way. Essentially, I’m not sure what this book was trying to accomplish. Is it a behavioral guide? Is it a training manual? Is it a memoir? I don’t think it really knew either.

Arnold is very well-meaning and has done so much good for so many people and dogs. For that, she should be praised and applauded. But this book? Not a keeper.

The mystery of living with a dog

Click for source.

“The fact of the matter is, I like not knowing how Lucille experiences the world, I like the mystery of living with a dog. There is something deeply rewarding about the moment when she and I manage to transcend the language barrier, to reach across the boundaries of species and communicate with one another, understand what the other wants and feels. But there is something equally rewarding about honoring the moments when we can’t.”

Pack of Two, Caroline Knapp

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I’m off for a long weekend! Hope you all have pleasant ones and I’ll see you on Monday!

Review: The New Work of Dogs

The New Work of Dogs.

The New Work of Dogs was my first Jon Katz book, after he had been repeatedly recommended to me from other knowledgeable dog people. I admit that I stayed away from him for a while, because the snippets of Katz I had read before seemed very sappy.

This book, however, was not too sappy. Essentially, it’s a book about how we are relying on dogs in more intense, emotional ways in the 20th- and 21st-centuries. It’s very close to the late Caroline Knapp’s Pack of Two, except that he writes about both men and women’s relationships with dogs.

In this modern age, we ask our dogs to bear a lot of emotional burdens for us, and this trend is what initially sparked Katz’s research. Dogs don’t just live in the backyard on a chain anymore (at least, we hope not); they are members of the family, recipients of a multi-billion dollar pet supplies industry, and life companions in a way they have not been previously.

The stories in this book are taken primarily from his upper-middle class community in New Jersey. We meet a recently divorced woman who received her husband’s German shepherd but doesn’t really want the dog; an intense investment banker and his untrained and unruly labrador; a lonely single woman who makes her dachshund her surrogate baby; and a club of divorcees and their dogs who meet together on a regular basis.

I enjoyed reading the stories, but the book did make me feel a little depressed in the end. There didn’t seem to be an overarching message to the book, except for: “Look at the ways we emotionally abuse our dogs!” Every person in this book was projecting emotions onto their dogs, making their dogs a mirror of their own personalities and anxieties. I guess this is what we all do, in some ways, but I really wanted the people in these stories to take a good, hard look at themselves. It’s time to train your dogs, people. It’s time to start talking to them and thinking of them as furry humans. I’m sure Katz himself felt this way about some of his subjects, but since he was maintaining a journalist’s objective distance, he wasn’t trying to reform their relationships.

If anything, this book is a good warning of what can happen when we expect too much from our dogs. Dogs do provide immense emotional comfort and joy, but we can’t expect them to be our therapists, husbands, pastors, or children. They’re dogs. Let them be dogs.

Living with a dog

Source: Nelli Palomaki.

“Living with a dog–trying to understand a dog, to read his or her behavior and emotional state–is such a complex blend of reality and imagination, such a daily mix of hard truths and wild stabs in the dark.”

Pack of Two, Caroline Knapp

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Happy Friday, everyone! Stay warm! See you on Monday.

Review: Pack of Two

Pack of Two.

I read a selection from Pack of Two in the wonderful anthology, Dog Is My Co-Pilot several months ago. I liked the late Caroline Knapp’s gently humorous and honest style. In that excerpt, she talks about the prejudice that a single woman with a dog faces over a single man with a dog. I don’t have the quote in front of me, but the jist of her argument is: People watch a single man playing with his dog in the park and think, “That’s so sweet. Look at them having a great time together.” But people watch a single woman with her dog and think, “Poor lonely woman. She is projecting on that dog. She must really want a baby.” Kind of funny, but true! The injustice!

Anyway. I was happy to find a copy of Knapp’s full book, Pack of Two, which tells the story of her breakup with two significant relationships: Her long-time boyfriend and alcohol. Knapp decides to make a better life for herself as a single woman. On a whim, she adopts a sweet and wolfish-looking German shepherd mix, whom she calls Lucille.

Lucille quickly becomes the center of Knapp’s entire universe. The rest of the book is split into meditative chapters about the profound emotional roles that dogs play in our lives. This is primarily a book about a woman’s deep and ineffable bond with her dog. While Knapp does mention a few men, it is a book by, for, and about crazy dog ladies.

Knapp is a skillful writer and the book was enjoyable to me. I also identify as a Crazy Dog Lady and found myself nodding along with many of her points. My only reservation with the book is that a lot of it comes across as Knapp trying to make excuses for her undying attachment to her dog. She writes as if she needed to apologize or compensate for something. Clearly, she has faced judgment from a lot of people because of her unwavering devotion to her dog, and she writes about that, but she doesn’t seem to have been able to get over it quite yet. It’s kind of a small complaint, because I really did enjoy this book, but it just left me hoping that Knapp found a place of contentment with herself and with her love for Lucille.