(Definitely) The Best Dogs Of All Time by Jadan Carroll, illustrations by Molly Dyson.
- Scribe, 2018
- ISBN (13):9781925713510
- RRP $24.99 (hb)
Be The Person Your Dog Thinks You Are by C J Frick, illustrations by Liza Donnelly
- Nero Books, 2018
- ISBN: 9781760641023
- RRP $19.99 (hb)
Jonathan Unleashed by Meg Rosoff
- Bloomsbury, 2018
- ISBN 1101980907
- ISBN13: 9781101980903
- RRP $27.99 (pb)
Reviewed by Shelley Gare
If you’re only going to read one book in your lifetime, make sure it’s a goodie. The Bible, the Koran, possibly Shakespeare’s collected plays or, of course and famously, White Fang.
As Nancy Mitford wrote in The Pursuit of Love, Uncle Matthew – who we know was based on Mitford’s father, Lord Redesdale – was always content to declare: “I have only ever read one book in my life, and that is White Fang. It’s so frightfully good I’ve never bothered to read another.”
Jack London’s story of White Fang, part dog, part wolf, and his harrowing adventures, was published in 1906. It has torn at millions of hearts, not just Lord Redesdale’s, ever since. But White Fang outraged then American president Theodore Roosevelt. He accused it of anthropomorphism, that is, the bestowing of human emotions, motives and behaviours on animals. Roosevelt, joining in what was then a relatively new debate in literary and scientific circles, fumed that animals could not have such characteristics as reason and choice. London was labelled a “nature faker”.
The debate on anthropomorphism has run hot ever since. On one side, there are the detached, the unsentimental; on the other side are animal lovers, pet owners and New Yorker cartoonists. The second side is pretty much triumphing – in numbers at least – over the first. (I’m told that even fish tank owners believe their pets have personalities and are communicating with them.)
It is hard in these days of pampered pets and much loved companion animals not to ascribe certain human qualities and emotions to them, especially when your own vet matter-of-factly addresses you as Mum – or Dad – something that always makes me wince. Nor has this debate stopped the citizens of various American towns – Cormorant in Minnesota, Rabbit Hash in Kentucky and Idyllwild, California – from giving up on the supposed rationality of humans and voting in a series of dogs as city mayors instead.
In moves that would have sent Teddy Roosevelt into paroxysms, Duke, a Great Pyrenees guardian dog, stood for office in Cormorant in 2014, won, and has won every year since, the last in a landslide.
As Jadan Carroll writes in his captivating, and often moving, new book, (Definitely) The Best Dogs of All Time of the election process, “It’s also entirely legal, as nowhere in local regulations does it specify that candidates need to be human.”
Carroll also introduces us to pit-bull mayor Brynneth Pawltro of Rabbit Hash, who succeeded Lucy Lou, a Border Collie who, he writes, had “held office for MORE THAN EIGHT YEARS.” There is a photo of Mayor Max, a golden retriever, from Idyllwild. Around the world, he adds, cats, dogs, mules and goats have all been legitimately elected. In 1958, the people of Sao Paulo voted in a rhinoceros “in protest at government corruption”.
But back to dogs. And dog literature.
Carroll’s gently humorous book, with stylishly lush illustrations by Molly Dyson, starts with the story of Cerberus – “the much misunderstood, multi-headed hound of Hades”, trots on to Sirius, the dog star, and then has a lot of fun – much like what happens when you take a dog to a dog park – rushing in and out of anecdotes about Rin Tin Tin; Laika the Soviet space dog; Buddy, the first seeing eye dog; President Kennedy’s dog Charlie (who JFK had sit in his lap during the height of the Cold War for the Welsh Terrier’s calming effect); Hachiko, whose loyalty to his dead master inspired a film, a monument and a national event in Japan; the skateboarding and surfing English bulldog Tillman; on and on, scamper, scamper … all up, there are 42 stories of wonderfully clever, iconic and/or inventive dogs.
Read them in one go and the effect is about the same as drinking two glasses of champagne with your best friends.
At least once a week, I walk down to Rushcutters Park in Sydney’s inner east and out along the harbour to the flat Darling Point end. The park is full of dogs, having a whale of a time. Often there are dog walkers. One morning I watched two women walking twelve dogs, all of them off their leads. The smaller dogs were rushing around, teasing and flicking each other; the bigger ones padded along, intent on their exercise, the grass and the fresh air. The behaviour of all was impeccable.
Sometimes, if I’m lucky, a dog will attach itself to me, accompanying me for a few metres, before its owner calls it back.
It is impossible to finish this walk without a huge smile on your face. The same is true of reading Carroll.
In the 2016 novel Jonathan Unleashed, by Meg Rosoff, a New York vet, Dr Clare, reassures the hero, Jonathan, who is concerned his two new canine charges aren’t happy, on a dog’s basic nature. “The good thing about dogs is that they tend not to be unhappy without cause,” she says.
I read Jonathan Unleashed because it was impossible not to after reading its first sentence: “Jonathan came home from work one day to find the dogs talking about him.”
Rosoff usually writes young adult fiction and this title was her first – and successful – attempt at adult fiction. The book’s premise is fantastical – although quite acceptable if you happen to think Roosevelt was wrong. It is this: that Jonathan’s two dogs, Sissy and Dante – which he’s looking after for his brother who has been posted to Dubai for six months – can predict human behaviour and have his best interests at heart. And so, they get involved as he pursues his new career in advertising in New York and his difficult romance with an obsessively organised, “perfect” girlfriend who keeps files on everything in her life, including Jonathan.
As Jonathan gets used to the dogs, he muses: “James … never once mentioned the Byzantine quality of his dogs’ inner lives, the practical and spiritual difficulties of caring for other sentient beings, the intense and constant scrutiny to which Jonathan was now subject.”
It struck me, reading Rosoff, that as we humans find ourselves living more and more complex and technology-dependent lives, usually in big cities and surrounded by millions of strangers, that maybe we are becoming even more inclined to anthropomorphism, with its comforting reminders of a benign Nature and beings that know how to function rationally: that is, eat, drink, fight for territory, love, sleep.
Surely entire branches of cartooning and film-making would fizzle if this weren’t true. And how wrong are we to be susceptible?
Any cat owner can correctly interpret a cat stare. Depending on the time of day and your activity, it can mean either “where’s my dinner?”, “I don’t like this food” or “are you really leaving me again?”
I am sure dog owners – I don’t have a dog, I just enjoy them – can do the same.
Whether we are channelling thoughts or instinctual behaviour, it still adds up to the same thing: we are being respectful of the fact we have chosen to share our lives with an animal and, if we are doing it properly, they are neither ornaments nor chattels.
Back at the turn of the twentieth century, Jack London defended himself against Roosevelt and his allies on scientific grounds. London was, himself, critical of writers who were “humanising” animals. In a 1908 essay, “The Other Animals”, he argued “these dog-heroes of mine were not directed by abstract reasoning, but by instinct, sensation, and emotion, and by simple [not abstract] reasoning”. That is, as he stressed throughout White Fang and its predecessor Call of the Wild, his animals “did not think these things” but merely did them.
“I endeavoured to make my stories in line with the facts of evolution,” he insisted. “I hewed them to the mark set by scientific research.” But he refuses to accept Roosevelt’s belief that only humans can reason: “This is a view that makes the twentieth-century scientist smile.”
He relates how his pet dog, Rollo, and he learned to outwit each other in plays of pretence. “He [also] learned that he mustn’t chase the cat, kill chickens, nor bite little girls’ dresses.”
This is how London describes White Fang as a cub in the novel:
He began to get an accurate measurement of his strength and his weakness, and to know when to be bold and when to be cautious. He found it expedient to be cautious all the time, except for the rare moments, when, assured of his own intrepidity, he abandoned himself to petty rages and lusts. He was always a little demon of fury when he chanced upon a stray ptarmigan.
Sheila Burnford took this same stance in her 1960 classic, The Incredible Journey, about two dogs and a Siamese cat who travel almost 500 kilometres miles across the thickly wooded, and sometimes frosty, Canadian wilds to find their owners. I remembered it as a sentimental read but, when I revisited it for this review, I found her as determined as London to describe the behaviours in her furry characters in a way that sets them apart from humans while still giving them certain powers:
The car turned around the bend at the end of the long tree-lined drive and the animals heard the sound of the engine receding in the distance. The cat transferred his attention to a hind leg; the old dog stopped panting and lay down; the young dog remained stretched out, only his eyes moving and an occasional twitch of his nose.
Twenty minutes passed by and no move was made; then suddenly the young dog rose …”
He heads off down the drive and the other two soon follow him. There is no explanation of why at this stage; they just act. The cat still paused by the gate, one paw lifted delicately in the air – undecided, questioning, hesitant; until suddenly, some inner decision reached, he followed the dogs.
A few pages later, we learn instinct has kicked in.
It’s we, the humans, who so quickly ascribe all the human emotions, thoughts and motives to such behaviour. Of course, something is driving them – but until the day scientists use advanced brain scans and technological breakthroughs to get an animal to “talk” – we cannot really know what it is, and the wisest authors go along with that while still recognising something profound.
Even James Thurber, the twentieth century American humourist, turns out to know these boundaries. When I re-read his 1933 story, The Dog That Bit People, the other day, I laughed so much I had tears in my eyes. He describes Muggs the Airedale terrier:
A big, burly choleric dog, he always acted as if he thought I wasn’t one of the family. There was a slight advantage in being one of the family, for he didn’t bite the family as often as he bit strangers. Still, in the years that we had him he bit everybody but mother and he made a pass at her once but missed. That was during the month when we had mice and Muggs refused to do anything about them.
Thurber depicts a dog going about its business as any dog would with his reasoning remaining unfathomable to humans. For instance, Muggs never bit anyone more than once at a time. He also ate his dinner at a kitchen table, with his hind legs on a bench and his front paws either side of the plate. This was because if anyone tried to put the Muggs’s plate on the floor, that is, “if you reached toward the floor he would bite you”.
Thurber’s mother, anthropomorphising away, insisted Muggs always felt sorry. Thurber wouldn’t have a bar of it: “We could not understand how she figured this out. He didn’t act sorry.”
One thing we seem to accept: animals nearly always have a civilising, calming and cheering effect on humans. Knowing that someone has a pet animal reassures us they know how to care for another being that takes time, trouble and thought. I am always extra-impressed by people who, in these busy, hectic and expensive days, have children and animals even though that was once the norm.
American editor C.J. Frick has hit on something then with Be The Person Your Dog Thinks You Are. Again packed with illustrations, these ones by New Yorker cartoonist Liza Donnelly, it is, like (Definitely) The Best, aimed at what booksellers call the “humour and gift” market. And again, like Carroll’s 112-page book, it has a value far beyond that.
Its central theme is that dogs, always so good-hearted, so generous, so enthusiastic, only see the best in their owners – and its message is that we should be encouraged by that to actually be those super humans. You don’t have to have a dog to benefit by the way; the format is page after page of one-line commands with cartoons to match.
“Be the best part of someone’s day,” C.J. Frick cheers us on. There’s a drawing of a man on his knees, front door open, grocery shopping sprawled on the floor, contents spewing, being embraced by a madly happy small dog.
An illustration of a man beside a bathtub and a wet dog carries the line: “Appreciate the sacrifices of others.” The man is holding out a dog bone.
A woman at a table helps a seated dog to a forkful from her plate: “Be generous.”
And one of my favourites: “Be encouraging.” A woman swimming in the sea holds up her beckoning arms to a nervous dog on a jetty.
None of this advice is new; we know them all. But packaged up with doggy love, imagination and humour – and yes, any dog lover knows dogs can laugh as can cats – they are irresistible. And inspirational. As dogs (and cats and possibly even fish) so very often are.