Dogs' Appeal Is Simplicity



Just when you thought everything that could possibly be written about dogs had been written, along comes yet another new book on man's most trusty companion.

In this edition of Jim's Book Club, we review "Dog Is My Co-Pilot" (Crown, $25) by the editors of The Bark magazine (described in Publishers Weekly as a hip, literate dog quarterly). "Full of good will toward canines," the book is a collection of essays by some noted professional writers.

Inside, you'll find a nifty essay by Pam Houston about sleeping in her queen-size bed between her husband and an Irish wolfhound named Dante. You'll also find Ann Patchett's philosophical treatise in which she ponders an eternal question -- "I imagine there are people out there who got a dog when what they wanted was a baby, but I wonder if there aren't other people who had a baby when all they really needed was a dog."

In an essay by animal behaviorist Patricia B. McConnell, she writes: "There's something much bigger and better than neediness that drives our love of dogs." For her, it's the fact that her pooch, Cool Hand Luke, provides a non-verbal attentiveness that keeps her "firmly rooted in the here and now."

If that little piece of logic didn't lose you, let's proceed to a summary of "Dog Is My Co-Pilot." The editors of The Bark put it this way: "Dogs have been our muses, our mentors, and our playful and noble co-pilots. They've had a profound influence on us as healers and spiritual guides, and also as co-workers, helping to guide, hunt, herd, search and rescue. Our bond with dogs is deep and unbreakable."

Before we pass judgment on the ideas expressed in "Dog Is My Co-Pilot," allow me to introduce another recent piece on the evolving powers of dogs. In an article in the July 21 issue of Newsweek titled "Animal Emotions," Mary Carmichael says the old-school notion that when animals appear to express emotions they are "merely reacting to hormonal rushes triggered ... by ‘outside stimuli'" is changing. New research indicates that dogs, chimps and other creatures "experience surges of deep-seated fear, jealousy and grief -- and most important, love."

Carmichael goes on to point out that the animal that has so far shown the most "emotional complexity" is the dog. And she cites the fact that psychoactive drugs like Prozac are being used on dogs with good results as further evidence that dogs most certainly have multi-faceted feelings.

While "Dog Is My Co-Pilot" is great reading for the dogophiles in our midst, and while "Animal Emotions" details some interesting new research, I side with Jon Katz, author of "The New Work of Dogs" (Villard, $19.95), another recently-released book about the evolution of dogs. While Katz's premise is that a dog's role has changed from herding sheep or guarding property to attending to the emotional lives of Americans who are becoming increasingly disconnected from one another, he cautions against taking all this too far.

"When pet lovers like Karla Swatek joke that animals are ‘far more human than some humans I know,' Katz says he starts to get worried," Carmichael wrote.

Me too. While I will be the first to admit that my bond with my three dogs (all, incidentally, former inmates of the local humane society) is "deep and unbreakable," and while they, along with my horse, have absolutely brought me through a difficult period in my life, red flags were popping up all over the place as I wrote the above. Here are some:

  • RED FLAG 1

With all their newfound intelligence, is it possible that the editors of this "hip, literate dog quarterly" called The Bark are actually dogs? And if so, doesn't that bring their objectivity into question?

  • RED FLAG 2

While it's obvious that the book's title is a takeoff on the "God is my co-pilot" line, isn't that a role that you wouldn't want even the smartest dog in, let alone one with "surges of deep-seated fear, jealousy and grief."

  • RED FLAG 3

I really stumbled on the part where Cool Hand Luke's silence keeps his owner "firmly rooted in the here and now." While "nonverbal attentiveness" is a wonderful attribute, I would note that it's the only kind of attentiveness dogs can provide since, to my knowledge, none can talk.

  • RED FLAG 4

Is "emotional complexity" really what we're looking for in our canine companions? Or is the lack of same what many of us -- especially us guys who have had "emotional complexity" right up to here (imagine hand outstretched well above head) -- like most about the dogs in our lives?

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