It’s a Dog’s Life

They’re not just pets anymore—they’re teachers, preachers, shrinks, and philosophers

The heroic dog is a much-cherished image in our culture, but while we admire trained search-and-rescue dogs, we really crave stories about gifted amateurs—regular pets who run into burning buildings or jump into icy rivers to save the young or the injured. Recently, psychologists at the University of Western Ontario devised an experiment to test whether dogs actually do understand human emergencies. The first simulation involved an owner feigning a heart attack; the second replicated the classic master-trapped-under-a-fallen-bookcase scenario. The researchers found an increase in anxious doggy hovering but no actual rescue attempts. “There is a tendency to bond with our animals and to believe, or want to believe, that they are highly intelligent, that they understand when we’re talking to them or when we’re gesturing to them,” explained researcher Bill Roberts. “I think that’s probably the root of people believing animals are more intelligent than they actually are.”

We expect our dogs to rescue us. But Lassie barking when Timmy falls down the well is no longer enough. According to the litter of dog memoirs that have crowded bookstores and bestseller lists, dogs are now giving our plugged-in kids authentic childhoods, getting feckless twentysomethings to grow up, keeping marriages together, consoling the newly divorced and the terminally ill, even shepherding boomers out of middle-aged, middle-class ruts. Dogs can comfort a soldier stationed in Iraq (From Baghdad, With Love), offer a canine entree to other countries (Ella in Europe), or help their owners lose weight (The Dog Diet, A Memoir). Occasionally they give business advice (Short Tails and Treats from Three Dog Bakery). More and more, they are expected to provide the emotional and spiritual “life lessons” that used to come from teachers, preachers, shrinks, and philosophers. The phrase “unconditional love” pops up often in these books.

There are probably dry, statistical, socio-economic reasons for our current obsession with dogs. In an urban, accelerated, mobile culture, the affection of an animal is reassuringly physical and direct. Another reason — one we’re less willing to acknowledge — is that dogs are blank slates, tabulae rasae onto which we can write ourselves. Jon Katz, the author of several dog books as well as the Heavy Petting column for Slate, suggests that people find in dogs whatever they need. In The New Work of Dogs: Tending to Life, Love, and Family (Random House, 2004), Katz argues that people can “perceive in their dogs any trait or emotion they like, unencumbered by the dogs’ own voices.” Katz, a self-described “dog-love rationalist,” believes that loving a dog can be an “incalculably rewarding experience,” but he counsels us to be aware of what we’re asking of dogs and why we’re asking it.

One would think that writers would be especially conscious of this sensible stance, but a quick look at current dog books suggests that many are not. The rapidly expanding market for anything dog-related — along with the phenomenal success of John Grogan’s Marley & Me: Life and Love with the World’s Worst Dog (William Morrow, 2005 ) — means that publishers are rushing to grab any manuscript that can be sent out with a wagging tail on its cover. Some of these books function at the same harmless level as dog-park bragging, but unfortunately dogs’ best qualities are also those that make them magnets for lousy prose. To paraphrase the late British dog trainer Barbara Woodhouse: there are no bad dogs, just bad dog writers. Dogs’ sweet, snouty faces can easily lead people into sentimentality, and their decent, frank, four-square personalities make it tempting to fall into certainty — and sentimentality and certainty are rarely good for writers. It takes a real act of authorial will to turn away from those big puppy eyes, but the best dog writers manage, tackling the mysteries of the human-canine connection with contrariness, caution, and a careful delineation of where dog nature ends and human speculation begins.

One way to get around the warm-and-fuzzies is to take the usual conventions of the dog narrative and give them a good shake. Take Scottish writer Thomas Healy, who wouldn’t know a feel-good story if one smacked him in the face. His memoir, I Have Heard You Calling in the Night (Harcourt, 2006), is crafted with the stylized bluntness one might expect of a poetic man who hangs out at boxing clubs. Healy grew up in a tough corner of Glasgow in the 1950s, “when the Gorbals was the Gorbals.” A self-described hard man, he drinks and brawls. (At one point he gets a badly infected hand, only to find that someone else’s tooth is lodged in his knuckles.) In the 1980s, with his fortieth birthday approaching, he acquires a Doberman puppy that he names Martin — a dignified name for a dignified dog. Healy is not quite sure what makes him decide to buy Martin, and people who know him are taken aback. “They had not thought I was a doggy sort of man. Well, neither had I.” In the end, he sees it as a kind of providence.

The memoir’s title is taken from a hymn sung at a Catholic ordination service Healy attends one night, and there is a thin, tough line of spiritual grace running through the book. Healy believes that Martin saves him, not by being an angel in canine form but simply by being. Healy realizes that he can’t drink until he blacks out because there will be no one to feed Martin. He can’t pick fights and go to jail because there will be no one to walk Martin. Healy’s redemption is neither quick nor easy — he has many setbacks, including a spectacular lapse that sees him getting blind drunk on something called scrumpy. This may be a story about a dog rescuing a man, but it’s an unusually stark and unsentimental one, and all the better for it.

New York writer Abigail Thomas, author of A Three Dog Life (Harcourt, 2006), also subverts expectations. A phrase that comes up frequently in goopy dog books is “living in the moment” — the notion that a dog’s happy talent for focusing on whatever is in front of its nose can help humans stop fretting needlessly about the future and the past. Thomas has good reason to be wary about living in the moment: her husband, Rich, lives with a traumatic brain injury that has robbed him of his short- and long-term memory. As she explains in this plainspoken memoir, he “is lodged in a single moment and it never tips into the next.”

Seven years into Thomas’s marriage, Rich was walking their dog, Harry, when the leash broke and Harry bolted onto Riverside Drive. Rich ran after the dog and was hit by a car. The dog that inadvertently caused the accident helps Thomas deal with its terrible aftermath, but she refuses to turn it into a literary situation: “There is no room for irony here, no room for guilt or second-guessing. That would be a diversion, and indulgence.These are hard facts to be faced head-on.” Thomas’s three dogs all help with this task. Their warmth and simple routines comfort her and give structure to what might otherwise be shapeless days.

Healy and Thomas kick against the tendency to give dog stories aggressively uplifting messages, eschewing the jollier writers’ “if only dogs could talk” premise. If dogs really could talk, they might have something to say about the platitudes being put forward in their names. In 10 Secrets My Dog Taught Me (Rodale, 2005 ), Carlo De Vito offers some syntactically challenged life lessons (“Simplicity is the stripping away of the things that occupy us instead of what make us whole”) that he claims to have learned from Exley, his German shorthair pointer. The sentiments attributed to Exley would make any self-respecting dog pine for the days when its ancestors ran behind coaches in Dalmatia or chased wolves in the Pyrenees. That may have been hard work, but it was clean; a dog knew where it stood at the end of the day.

Increasingly, the image of dogs in contemporary North American culture is stranded somewhere between their sharp-toothed primal past and the luxe lure of Burberry canine couture. It wasn’t always like this. In The Dog and I (Penguin, 2006), veteran Canadian journalist Roy MacGregor measures out his life in the dogs he has walked — Buddy, Cindy, Bumps, Bandit, Cricket, and Willow. While this gentle memoir portrays dogs as stalwart creatures and wonderful companions, it makes no extravagant emotional demands on their good natures. MacGregor is old enough to remember when dogs were just dogs. They lived outside, “or, if they were lucky, in a shed,” and were fed random table scraps. As MacGregor grows older, his dogs are promoted to warmer, comfier berths, but they remain animals.

This separate status is no longer enough for many North American pet owners, who are increasingly turning dogs into people by ascribing to animals their own motives, feelings, beliefs, and neuroses. A related trend involves turning people into dogs. A populist misreading of scientific research into the social behaviours of dogs and their instincts as pack animals and predators has created a bizarre form of behaviourism in which human families are replicating wolfpack dynamics so that Rover can feel securely slotted into a canine hierarchy.

This top-dog approach accounts for the strange suburban spectacle of that nice guy down the street suddenly grabbing the family pet by the throat and flipping it on its back in order to establish dominance — a training moveknown as the “alpha roll.” This controversial technique was first advanced by the Monks of New Skete, an Eastern Orthodox order that describes the raising of German shepherds in upstate New York in their 1978 book, How To Be Your Dog’s Best Friend. (They have since recanted.) Cesar Millan, the celebrity “dog whisperer” on the National Geographic Channel, is the current dominance guru. Defenders say that he taps into canine instinct; critics suggest that his alpha-male act has little to do with wolf behaviour, nothing to do with domesticated-dog behaviour, and a lot to do with macho human posturing.

With all this confusing overlap going on, it’s a relief to come across dog memoirs that clearly delineate human roles and animal roles. These works understand that dogs are dogs and people are people; that the needs of dogs and humans are often different and conflicting. This matter-of-factness in no way discounts the relationship between humans and animals; if anything, the bonds between the two are all the more astonishing because they force us to reach across the species gap.

The goofball protagonist of John Grogan’s Marley & Me defines dogginess. Easy to love but hard to anthropomorphize, Marley is bouncy, messy, drooly, and humpy, prone to inscrutable but unstoppable canine instincts that drive him to swallow speaker components and dig through drywall. Marley isn’t actually the world’s worst dog; he’s just overly enthusiastic, a quality that carries both advantages and disadvantages as Marley helps his master and mistress, John and wife Jenny, form a family. John and Jenny start out as two independent professionals with time and money to spare. Their clothes are intact, their furniture clean, their garden free of trenches. They spend Sunday mornings drinking coffee and reading newspapers. Then, after five-week-old Marley moves in, their lives start careening toward the responsibilities of dog ownership, then parenthood, and finally the quotidian joys and sorrows of domestic life. All along, Marley is teaching the Grogans something important — mostly that a high tolerance for chaos, catastrophe, and expense is a good foundation for family happiness.

Of course, Marley “teaches” the Grogans about the meaning of life and family the same way he does almost everything — by accident. Some dog tales read like self-help books, making it seem as if dogs are on a mission to solve the problems of the North American middle class. Fortunately, good analytic writers find that dog ownership breeds more questions than answers. Susan Cheever, for instance, grew up in a, well, Cheeveresque home that favoured large sporting dogs bought from waspy breeders and named after eighteenth-century ancestors. As an adult, she finds herself in the piquant position of acquiring a miniature dachshund named Cutie. In an essay anthologized in Woman’s Best Friend: Women Writers on the Dogs in Their Lives (Seal Press, 2006), she muses on this unlikely event and on the ethics of the animal-human bond: “I have become increasingly haunted by our treatment of the animals in our lives . . . . What does it mean to own a living creature? What responsibilities does that entail? ” She also realizes, with a clear-eyed view of Cutie’s priorities, that he is not about to rescue her from this moral wrangling: “Cutie doesn’t seem concerned about the questions his presence poses for me. All he wants is to have his back scratched . . .”

Roger Grenier’s thoughts also run to doubts in The Difficulty of Being a Dog (University of Chicago Press, 2000), a collection of infinitely delicate observations on the condition of dogness. Originally published in Paris in 1998 as Les larmes d’Ulysse (The Tears of Ulysses), this small volume was a bestseller in France, partly because the French love their dogs — they bring them to cafés, remember — and partly because Grenier’s writing is intellectually stringent enough to be discussed at dinner parties. Grenier is a novelist and essayist who has worked for many years at the publishing house Éditions Gallimard. His musings on dogs are learned, literary, and existential. (Albert Camus once dog-sat for him.) If Grenier suggests that the experience of loving a dog is life-affirming, he means it in the very Gallic sense that life is lived more keenly in the knowledge of death. Dogs help with this, in short, because they generally predecease their owners: “Because dogs inflict the suffering of loss upon us, the French sometimes call them ’ beasts of sorrow,’ bêtes de chagrin,” Grenier points out, making it quite clear that this is not Chicken Soup for the Dog Lover’s Soul.

While Grenier derives great joy from strolling the Rue du Bac with his dog Ulysses, he often finds himself looking at the situation from the other end of the leash, wondering what dogs’ psychologically entangled relationships with humans might cost them. Being a man of letters, he summons literary sources, quoting Rainer Maria Rilke, who says of dogs, “Their determination to acknowledge us forces them to live at the very limits of their nature.” French writer Antoine de Rivarol puts it this way: “We have dragged [domestic animals] far from their own realm without transporting them into ours.” Grenier sees dogs as tragic exiles. For him, the bond between animals and humans is this slightly melancholic sense of loss and alienation.

In a very real, evolutionary sense, dogs were made by people. Once wide-ranging wolves, they have been domesticated into the warmer, softer creatures that lie next to our beds at night. We are still shaping dogs today, making them into what we want and need them to be and accepting precious little responsibility for doing so. The dog-book writers in North America — with note-worthy exceptions — set up dogs as soul-mates, spirit guides, and savants. If dogs could read these inflated images, they would probably look sad-eared and embarrassed, the way they do when their owners dress them up for Halloween. Fortunately, dogs remain unaware of their current celebrity status; they just carry on doing what they do. It’s the humans, as usual, making all the fuss.

Alison Gillmor