Archive for Sunday, December 23, 2001

Readers see canine doggerel as fetching genre

December 23, 2001


Come. Sit. Stay. And bring the dog if you like. Who cares if Rover can't read? About 60 percent of pet owners say they consider their pets part of the family.

Meanwhile, all evidence seems to point to the fact that the anthropomorphizing of our canine companions is at an all-time high.

But dog owners will never be able truly to understand their dogs, at least not judging from the litter of canine books available for adoption. Hoping to cash in on our obsession with our canine companions, our fascination with Lassie's ability to rescue little Timmy from the well, the books portray themselves as possessing The Answer for dog owners who yearn to understand/interpret/communicate with their animals.

Don't get sucked in. Dogs are a mystery. They know it. We should accept it.

No book no matter how scientific or well-written or heartfelt will capture their essence and impart that to dog owners. Only a real canine can do that.

Cull the pack of dog books into four basic herds and here's what you'll find:

Dogs 101: how-to books

These books range from the practical to the ridiculous.

While the information might tell how, it doesn't illustrate why. And it's also largely derivative. Whether the advice on house-training methods is coming from "25 Stupid Mistakes Dog Owners Make" by Janine Adams (Roxbury Park, $16.95) or from "The Puppy Owner's Manual" by Diana Delmar (Storey Books, $12.95), it's basically the same: Buy some good carpet cleaner and a case of paper towels and start scrubbing.

Puppy picture books

Take some artsy photographs of dogs being dogs, slap on some quotes from a Zen master and "voila" a book about dogs that is both simple and deep. Or something like that.

These volumes pair images of dogs running, swimming, frolicking, sleeping and just dogging around with "observations from below your knee" that is, tired platitudes and are about as useful as a combined water dish and food bowl.

In "What Labs Love" by Ed Camelli and Mike Singer (Hungry Minds Inc., $16.99) the authors enlighten the reader with the ever-so-astute observations that Labrador retrievers love leading, following, wallowing and "the freshly fallen snow that signals Christmas Eve."

In "Erin Go Bark: Irish Dogs and Blessings" (Andrews McMeel, $9.95) authors Kim Levin and John O'Neill pair black-and-white photographs of collies, terriers and mutts with faux Irish sayings like "May you always understand what's being said to you."

And "Zen Dog" by Toni Tucker and Judith Adler (Clarkson Potter, $17) features the long-awaited marriage of the words "What is the sound of one hand clapping" to the image of a wagging tail.

Doggie memoirs

Sadly, I am not making this up. The genre of dog memoirs includes such titles as: "I, Toto: The Autobiography of Terry, the Dog Who Was Toto" by Willard Carroll (Stewart Tabori & Chang, $19.95) and "A Dog Called Perth: The True Story of a Beagle" by Peter Martin (Arcade, $21.95).

Dogs are important to people. They ingratiate themselves into a human's life and then, sooner or later, they depart, leaving an owner to contemplate his or her dog's achievements. Leave a computer lying around and sooner or later these people turn these musings into books, which is a bad idea.

Dogs can't write. Neither can most of their owners.

Canine science

Just as dogs have their own memoirs and manuals, they also have any number of pop psychology TV talk show expert type tomes that try to sell the reader on their frank yet revolutionary approach on improving human-to-dog communication by understanding the dog's "hidden language."

Stanley Coren, author of "How to Speak Dog: Mastering the Art of Dog-Human Communication" (Simon & Schuster, $13), illuminates the topic in his "doggish" glossary by letting us know that when a dog wags its tail, it is saying "I like you." Groundbreaking.

And even though Jan Fennell, author of "The Dog Listener" (HarperResource, $24), has an interesting, nonviolent, approach to getting problem dogs to behave, her New Age earnestness grows tiresome.

From this litter of runts comes "The Truth About Dogs" by Stephen Budiansky (Viking, $13). Budiansky, a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, contends in his book that, "Most if not all of the conventional explanations of where dogs come from, how they ended up in our homes, and why they do what they do just have to be wrong." He then goes on to back up his theory with new discoveries in the fields of behavioral science, archeology and neuroscience and to prove that dogs don't deserve all of their anthropomorphizing by us humans. They are the animals. And they have us trained.

On my way to the trash can to ahem recycle the rest of the dog books, I noticed "ABC," a children's book by William Wegman (Hyperion, $17.95) in my 4-year-old son's book basket. Wegman is a New York artist who, for more than 30 years, has been dressing up and photographing his crew of silky, silvery brown Weimaraners.

The images of these gangly, elegant beasts tarted up in gold lamloves and feather boas come unaccompanied by trite sayings or deep explanations of a man's love for his dog. Their ridiculousness and simplicity only serve to underscore the fact that the more Wegman dresses his dogs like people, the more they look like dogs.

Maria Blackburn is a reporter for The Sun and the former assistant to The Sun's book editor. She is the owner of a black lab mix.

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