Review: Dog Is My Co-Pilot

Dog Is My Co-Pilot.

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.

A dog’s bill of rights

A majestic collie. Source: Flickr, user KerrieT

Anthrozoologist John Bradshaw, author of the new book Dog Sense, recently posted a thought-provoking “Bill of Rights for Dogs” on The Bark blog. I quite enjoyed reading it this afternoon.

Bradshaw joins the likes of Patricia McConnell, Temple Grandin, and Alexandra Horowitz, who are actively promoting their important research on the relatively new science of canine behavior and psychology.

Much of what we are learning about dogs is that they are far more intelligent and attuned to the human world than we previously thought. Many widely perpetuated myths about dogs are also being broken down, like the repeated assertion by people like Elizabeth Marshall Thomas that we should think of and treat our dogs as wolves.

Bradshaw has this to say on the topic:

Wolves, which have generally been portrayed as vicious animals, constantly striving for dominance over every other member of their own kind, have been held up as the only credible model for understanding the behavior of dogs. This supposition leads inevitably to the misconception that every dog is constantly trying to control its owner—unless its owner is relentless in keeping it in check. The conflation of dog and wolf behavior is still widely promoted in books and on television programs, but recent research on both dogs and wolves has shown not only that it is simply unfounded but also that dogs who do come into conflict with their owners are usually motivated by anxiety, not a surfeit of ambition. Since this fundamental misunderstanding has crept into almost every theory of dog behavior, it will be the first to be addressed in this book.

Like this debunking of the wolf construct, I presume that these canine Bill of Rights emphasize some of these key points from Bradshaw’s book. I found them interesting and encouraging. Here are a few of the points that I particularly liked:

2.          We assert the right to have our perceptions of the world taken into account, especially where our senses are superior to yours.

I think this is a fascinating assertion, especially for its wording. I often forget how much keener a dog’s sense of smell and sound are than mine. As an example of this, I was once walking Bo and we were working on heeling on the downtown mall. I had left a small liver treat in my closed left hand and had forgotten it was there. Bo, however, clearly had not. A few minutes later, he startled me by biting at my fingers. I recoiled and was about to reprimand him when I remembered that he was simply wondering what I was doing, constantly waving that camouflaged treat in front of his highly sensitive nose. “Is this for me?” I can only imagine him thinking. “You keep waving it in front of me while you walk. I assume it’s for me. That’s usually where the food comes from.”

This assertion helps me remember one of the primary things I’ve learned about dogs this year: If a dog does something “wrong,” it’s MY fault for not properly training or guiding him. Which leads me into the next point…

6.          Our language is rich and sophisticated. We assert the right to be comprehended, in the same way that we attempt to comprehend you.

The best books I’ve read about dogs have been ones that emphasize new research on canine communication and behavior. I enjoyed every minute of the books by McConnell, Grandin, and Horowitz, and I look forward to reading more from these three eloquent and respected scientists. I learned so much about the basic ways that dogs communicate with each other and with humans and I feel like this new knowledge has dramatically improved the way that I interact with dogs.

Having acquired this knowledge only makes me wish more dog owners had read these books. I cringe when I see people shouting at dogs for something the dog did an hour ago. I heard a shaken shelter volunteer complain about a shepherd mix named Shakespeare who had attacked another dog that she was walking past him. Half an hour later, she walked by the run where Shakespeare was kept and stood there and yelled at him for what he did. “Bad dog! You’re a very BAD dog, Shakespeare!” The poor dog cowered, totally confused as to why this human was verbally attacking him out of the blue. I feel sorry for the dogs whose people get frustrated because the dog can’t understand their babbling, confusing commands (“Here boy, hey, Max, come here, Max, no, over here, Max, sit. Max! Stay. Why aren’t you paying attention to me? Max, bad dog…”) My heart sinks when I hear people talking about jerking their dogs around or wrestling them to the floor to “show them who’s boss” and establish “pack leader dominance.” It makes me want to carry around copies of The Other End of the Leash and Inside of a Dog to give to every dog owner I meet on the street.

9.          We are individuals, each dog with its own personality. We therefore assert the right to be judged on our own merits, and not according to the reputation of breed or type.

The distinct personalities of dogs are one of the features that make them so deeply appealing to me. Like people, no two dogs are exactly alike. Yet we forget this from time to time. I even admit that I’m prone to stereotyping dogs based on their breeds. Volunteering at the SPCA has taught me a lot about this particular point. For example, I’ve worked with some extremely gentle pit bulls and some fearful, snappish hounds. I’ve met beagles who are unusually attentive to people (instead of SMELLS, smells, OMG, smells!). Every dog is different. They all have their quirks.

Understanding this helps wean me off my specific breed biases. I loved our Aussie Emma, but that doesn’t mean that I will love all Australian shepherds. I’ve met some Aussies that are nightmarish. The reason my husband wants a German shepherd is because he fell in love with a wonderful one in Ireland named Reuben. Reuben was an exceptional dog, but that doesn’t mean that all GSDs are going to be exactly like him. They may share some fundamental GSD traits, but their personalities will be very different.

I like to think that there’s a dog out there for me, whether a puppy who hasn’t been born yet or a young dog who is being regrettably shuffled from place to place. I hope I will do him or her justice, respecting these rights of dogkind. Clearly, I can’t wait.