Friday, February 15, 2013

WHAT'S A DOG FOR? by John Homans

When I saw this book's title in a New York Times review last month, I thought it might be similar to Jon Katz's engaging 2003 book, The New Work of Dogs. Katz wrote about how dogs have gone from being diligent farm workers who help us take care of our physical needs to being companions and even substitute children who help us take care of our emotional needs.

What's a Dog For?, it turns out, is wider ranging than Katz's book. It never quite answers its own question; it might have been more accurately if less attractively titled Lots of Stuff about Canines that Dog Lovers Will No Doubt Find Fascinating. For example, Homans, who is executive editor of and a frequent writer for New York magazine, looks at
  • how dogs and wolves are similar and different
  • the history of dogs from Newfoundland
  • what kinds of emotions dogs (may) feel
  • how humans have created dog breeds, mostly recently, and often by fast and reckless selective breeding
  • how the animal rescue movement has both helped and hurt dogs
  • how big dogs adapt to life in New York City
  • how dogs think
  • how Freud and Darwin related to dogs
  • why it's dangerous to be a Pit Bull
--among other things.

I am a dog lover; I have lived at various times with Pepi the Toy Manchester Terrier, Willie the irrepressibly cheerful pound puppy, Baja Humbug the psychotic Chihuahua, Taco Bell the only mildly disturbed Chihuahua, Ladybug the sane but bossy Yorkie/Chihuahua, Maggie the docile but dumb Sheltie, Moose the TV-watching Maltese, and now Tiggy the perpetually distracted Mini Schnauzer mix and Muffin the Havanoodle princess. I enjoyed What's a Dog For?--a question that frequently crosses my mind--though the book may have more words than content. And I wish Homans hadn't focused quite so much on his dog Stella in particular, and on Labrador Retrievers and other big dogs in general.

Little dogs are people too, and mine would not be pleased to learn that Darwin considered them "sports of nature," i.e., spontaneous mutations. At least Homans showed some restraint: he did not descend to the level of a dear though Lab-owning friend who refers to our pups as "kick-its."

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