Dogs With Jobs

by Merrily Weisbord and Kim Kachanoff

Published by McArthur & Company

250 pages, 2000

Kindred Spirits

by Allen M. Schoen

Published by Broadway Books

280 pages, 2001

Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home

by Rupert Sheldrake

Published by Three Rivers Press

2352 pages, 2000

The Social Lives of Dogs

by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

Published by Pocket Books

253 pages, 2000







Dog Days

Reviewed by Monica Stark


Of all the animals that humans interact with, dogs came first. Long before humans rode horses, used pack animals or even came close to domesticating a mouser, dogs were our faithful companions. In some cultures, dogs came to be the perfect fireside companion. After all, on a cold night, he could contribute his own body heat. He could, with a bit of innovation, be induced to carry a little pack or pull a small travois. He could be a babysitter in a pinch or company when things got too solitary. And, if the chips were really down, become a food source who could do its own foraging and transport itself.

This long-term relationship -- human and canine -- goes back to time out of mind: some experts estimate that dogs were first domesticated as early as 135,000 years ago. As a point of reference, cats have been sharing our hearth for only around 5000 years. The difference a few millennia make is vast, as anyone who has spent time around both species -- feline and canine -- will attest. Cats are independent: their own boss. I've heard of people who have taught their cats tricks but, to be real honest, I've yet to see a trick cat with my own eyes. Cats -- even super lovey-dovey ones -- give the impression of just tolerating their human supplicants: Yes, you may give me food now, followed by petting. Dogs are another kettle of fish entirely.

Dogs understand about supplication: most of them do it very well. Dogs are all about bonding. To a dog, any owner is a good owner, occasionally to the dog's detriment. The dog gives the impression of living to serve and love which is, at least in part, because they've been sharing our caves for such a long, long, long time.

In Dogs With Jobs: Working Dogs Around the World, authors Merrily Weisbord and Kim Kachanoff set their book up by breaking down what it is, trait by trait, that makes dogs good -- even really good -- at certain jobs. This section is very well handled: informative without being too academic, bright and cheerful without being sappy. Each canine sense is described, explained and applied in terms of what type of dog would rely on that sense for a particular job. This section concludes with a very satisfying segue into why we're really here:

Millions of pet owners bask daily in the comfort, pleasure, and joy dogs bring them as companions and friends. But few know the potential of their canine companions' senses and instincts, and the strength of their dogs' desire to please. The following real-life dog stories from around the world celebrate the amazing gifts of dogs with jobs.

And, truly, it is amazing. We take almost for granted -- though we shouldn't -- canines employed in obvious places. Police dogs, for instance. Guide dogs. Sheep and cow herders. And all of these canine occupations are included in Dogs With Jobs as well as some you probably never even thought of thinking of.

Mas, for instance, is a Newfoundland who has spent her career employed in water rescue in Italy. Her daring deeds including launching herself out of moving (and low hovering) helicopters into seas too rough or areas too remote for a boat to get there. Or Yanka and King, German shepherds currently employed sniffing out undetonated land mines in Bosnia. A.J. -- a bloodhound -- and Rachel -- a Weimaraner -- together with their handler Kat Albrecht, formed a pet detective agency after leaving police service. And it is, literally, pet detection they perform: the trio scour California neighborhoods looking for -- and finding -- lost pets. Snooper the Beagle performs a different type of search. Employed by the Fahey Pest Control company of Sarasota, Florida, Snooper finds termites more effectively -- by far -- than high tech termite snooping devices. A show dog, an animal actor, a sled dog, a nature preserving dog in Guam: in all 21 profiles of dogs doing their jobs.

Appropriately, this book that celebrates special teams was created by one. Merrily Weisbord is an award winning author and journalist. Co-author Kim Kachanoff is a veterinarian and Weisbord's daughter.

Kindred Spirits: How the Remarkable Bond Between Humans and Animals Can Change the Way We Live is another celebration of the teaming of humans and animals, but in a very different way. The quotes chosen to help promote the book and reproduced on the back cover offer a clue as to the nature of this book. Recommendations include those by Andrew Weil, Jane Goodall, the Lama Surya Das and Judith Orloff. Clearly, this is not your average animal tale.

Author Allen M. Schoen is a highly respected veterinarian and sought after lecturer. Kindred Spirits approaches our connections with animals -- not just dogs -- in a highly spiritual way. Imagine if Deepak Chopra were to meld his teachings and beliefs with that of James Herriot and you begin to get the picture. Like both of those writers, Schoen combines the conviction of his knowledge and beliefs with a highly effective pen. The resulting book has the potential to be life altering for certain readers. At the very least, you might never look at your dog in quite the same way again:

I believe that it is time for every one of us to acknowledge a deep, spiritual connection with all life, that it is time to act moment by moment, day by day, in a loving, compassionate manner with all beings with whom we share this planet.

Interestingly, one of the authors whom Schoen references in Kindred Spirits is Rupert Sheldrake, author of Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home: And Other Unexplained Powers of Animals. In some very nice ways, Sheldrake's book seems like part of the groundwork of Schoen's, or at least a companion piece. Sheldrake, who studied natural sciences at Cambridge, philosophy at Harvard and then took a Ph.D. in biochemistry at Cambridge is clearly a man of thought as well as science. Dogs That Know is charming, interesting, well-researched and almost sure to be largely ignored by academia. Here's why:

The taboo against taking pets seriously is only one reason why the phenomena I discuss in this book have been neglected by institutional science. Another is the taboo against taking psychic, or paranormal, phenomena seriously. These phenomena are not rare or exceptional; some are very common. They are called paranormal -- meaning "beyond the normal" -- because they cannot be explained in conventional scientific terms; they do not fit in with the mechanistic theory of nature.

While Sheldrake combs the animal kingdom for paranormal-style activity -- incredible journeys, premonitions, forebodings of disaster and so on -- a respectable chunk of the book is dedicated to delivering precisely what the title promises: that whole coming home phenomena, although he's included sections on cats, parrots, horses and "other animals" that know when their owners are coming home, not just dogs. It's pretty fascinating stuff. And though it might sound like the possible outline for a paranormal television series, Sheldrake, with a calm and scientific voice, makes it all sound not only possible, but entirely plausible and probable. Dogs That Know is a book well worth investigating if you have an interest in how the canine psyche -- and even the psychic version of their psyche -- ticks.

Understanding the inner workings of the canine mind is something Elizabeth Marshall Thomas is well known for. Her most recent book, The Social Lives of Dogs, is a sequel to the bestselling Hidden Life of Dogs. Even though the book that really pushed Marshall Thomas into the hot property category was about cats, her dog work has been just as noteworthy. The cat book was the seminal and memorable Tribe of Tiger, a book whose name was almost as enchanting and revealing as the text itself.

In The Social Life of Dogs, Marshall Thomas, an anthropologist, uses her own canine companions as a lens through which we view the behavior -- and sometimes misbehavior -- of our canine pals. Marshall Thomas' methods -- and sometimes her opinions -- are not usual and sometimes quite politically incorrect. But she is, after all, an anthropologist, not a dog trainer or veterinarian and the way she interacts with her animals confirms this:

I don't give my dogs much training because I want them to do their own thinking, to do what they want rather than wait to see what I want. If I train them, they learn from me. If I don't train them, I learn from them. So most of what they needed to know, they learned from other dogs, and they usually performed to perfection sooner or later.

While these methods wouldn't work for everyone or every lifestyle, it's certainly interesting to see how they've worked for her. At the same time, it's occasionally joyous and always interesting to experience this dog-loving anthropologist's keen eye observing man's best friend. | July 2001


Monica Stark is a freelance writer and editor.