Sit Up and Beg

Why is writing about dogs as hard as housebreaking them?

The differences among “sentimental,” “emotional,” and “maudlin” are all too well illustrated by dog lit. Those tail-wagging, endearing companions — the trick in writing about them is evoking authentic emotion without getting soppy and raising justified accusations of codependence.

Bea: The Story of the Beagle Who Changed My Life only partly overcomes the obstacle. Bea’s story, along with author Kristin Von Kreisler’s role in it, is inspiring enough: A stray beagle, whose ear-tattoo serial number identifies her as an escaped laboratory subject, is found and adopted by a woman who nurtures the dog through post-trauma stress, including the three years it takes to housebreak her. The foundling survives, even thrives, to an estimated age of twenty years — during which time Von Kreisler gives up what had become, for her, hack writing, turning instead to animal-rights reportage and activism.

Von Kreisler’s prose is often elegant and literary. She does indulge in Raymond Chandleresque metaphors, although some of these work very well, such as the description of a dog trainer as a “chunky Rottweiler of a man.” Also conveyed with convincing tenderness is the euthanasia scene, which Bea punctuates with a final, joyful “Arrooo!”

Even so, Von Kreisler’s self-conscious cooing sometimes nearly obscures the dog itself. And while living until twenty after a stint in a laboratory proves almost without a doubt that this creature was well cared for, some of the author’s lapses in regard to training and feeding will raise readers’ hackles.

A professional dog trainer and adjunct professor of zoology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Patricia McConnell is a less chatty if also slightly less polished writer than Von Kreisler — then again, McConnell’s book is an informational manual. Yet The Other End of the Leash happily avoids dry, technical prose as McConnell transmits her expert knowledge via an occasionally ungainly hodgepodge of personal anecdote and textbook narrative. Adorable photos of the author’s border collies and Great Pyrenees sheepdogs accompany graphs depicting various human vocal calls and their varying degrees of effectiveness.

The subtitle “Why We Do What We Do Around Dogs” is slightly off the mark, though. McConnell writes just as much about why dogs do what they do around us — laying out the biological foundations for canine behaviors, and intertwining these with a refresher course on the comparable foundations of ours. In the process, the many opportunities for miscommunication between species emerge in astounding relief, making any level of human-canine bonding seem a miracle. It’s not just a question of dogs living on what McConnell calls “Planet Smell,” while we would rather use language to pass messages. There’s also that matter of the rest of our bodies and how we use them.

Apart from providing a sort of dog-language primer, McConnell rages eloquently about puppy mills (including a description appropriate to horror fiction), quaintly but persuasively suggests that dogs can be “polite,” and argues against aggression theories in a section called “The Truth About Dominance.”

McConnell identifies the romantic idealization that leads to the cloying dog story: “It’s become a cliché that we adore dogs because they give us what we see as ‘unconditional positive regard.’ Anyone who knows how to interpret the visual signals of dogs knows how naive this is.”

This insight has some bearing on Von Kreisler’s angelic depiction of Bea, and rather too often as well on the essays and short fiction in Dog Is My Co-Pilot: Great Writers on the World’s Oldest Friendship, a new anthology assembled by Claudia Kawczynska and Cameron Woo, who drew these pieces from their award-winning Berkeley-based literary dog magazine, The Bark. From Alice Walker’s subdued gushing in “Crimes Against Dog” (in which her conscience is way too subdued on the possible cruelties of pure-breeding, both to purebreds and to the nameless millions of shelter mutts) to “Sit. Stay. Heel: One Dog’s Response to 9/11” (which unfortunately begs the question: Why not a feature on the World Trade Center rescue dogs, who are now being studied for potential respiratory illnesses?), to Rick Bass’ “My Coulter,” the writing tends to wallow.

The quality, style, and focus of the selections in this collection all fluctuate wildly — though, truth be told, the excellent pieces here are almost worth the price of the book. Lynda Barry’s cartoon fable, “One Hundred Demons: Dogs!” is a standout. It must be read all the way through (experience with shelter dogs would also help) to appreciate how unclichéd Barry’s ending is: “Under the fear and defensiveness was a sweet and noble character. A good dog. A great dog. All she needed was to find the right home.”

One of the most writerly and humane pieces is “The Color of Joy,” by Caroline Knapp, who died last year at 42. It opens with an orgy of description: “Imagine a scaled-down, delicately boned German Shepherd” and goes on to contrast “mongrel” with “mixed breed.” Even Knapp, however, ends with the tired dog-cliché, “She changed my life.”

Other pluses in DIMC are an anecdotal piece from the aforementioned McConnell and “Dog Years,” an unsentimental crafted prose poem by Tom Junod.

But all these bylines bespeak a bit of overambition. Boasting of The Bark‘s accolades and touting the greatness of the assembled writers are tactics that verge on bad taste. Perhaps this is defensive overcompensation on the editors’ part for fear of not being taken seriously.

Ironically, Lucy North’s translation of Japanese Dogs: Akita, Shiba, and Other Breeds contains the most literary writing of the lot. Elegant and restrained, the text combines potted history and breeders’ guide in a coffee-table format. Thirty-two pages of stunning color photos complement the neatly organized facts and narrative. Most fascinating is the story of Japan’s dog-preservation society, Nippo, created in the 1920s. After World War II, this group helped to prevent the extinction of numerous native breeds — many members of which, along with their human counterparts, starved to death during the war years.

Thomas Mann wrote about dogs. Virginia Woolf did as well. The French writer Roger Grenier did too — his 2000 essay collection The Difficulty of Being a Dog references Rilke, Sartre, Tanizaki, Homer, Faulkner, Flaubert, Freud, and dozens more. Not too surprisingly, what links them all is the knowledge — whether intuitive or scientific — that mutual understanding makes loving, if not unconditional, at least more rewarding.

Bea: The Story of the Beagle Who Changed My Life

By Kristin Von Kreisler

Tarcher/Putnam, $19.95

The Other End of the Leash: Why We Do What We Do Around Dogs

By Patricia B. McConnell

Ballantine, $13.95

Dog Is My Co-Pilot: Great Writers on the World’s Oldest Friendship

Edited by Claudia Kawczynska and Cameron Woo

Crown, $25

Japanese Dogs: Akita, Shiba and Other Breeds

By Michiko Chiba, Yuichi Tanabe, Takashi Tojo, and Tsutomu Muraoka

Kodansha, 29.95

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