Thursday, November 15, 2012

REVIEW: What's a Dog For?

What's a Dog For?

The Surprising History, Science, Philosophy, and Politics of Man's Best Friend

by John Homans
Hardcover: 272 Pages
Publisher: The Penguin Press (November 12, 2012)


More than your typical memoir, What's a Dog For? is a well written history of the ever-evolving bond between humans and dogs. 

What's a Dog For? was inspired by the author's adopted lab mix, Stella.  Living in New York City where his neighbors dressed their pooches in expensive clothing, threw them lavish birthday parties and shelled out thousands of dollars for medical treatments, John Homans was determined to avoid the trend.  After all, he had fond memories of his very own childhood dog who ran around unleashed, enjoyed the backyard and slept outside.  She was a companion, but not a family member.   

After Homans adopted Stella from a local shelter for his son, things quickly changed.  He soon found himself not only treating her like a member of the family, but questioning her diet and exercise plan, and trying to analyze her emotions.  This sparked Homans' curiosity about the relationship between dogs and their owners... and What's a Dog For? was born.

The following is an excerpt from What's a Dog For?...


Stella’s world is in turmoil—not that you’d know it by looking at her. She’s on her spot on the rug, looking at me, waiting for the next thing, as usual. A couple milk bones that I gave her earlier are arrayed in front of her. She took them somewhat reluctantly, knowing I had steak in the refrigerator—sometimes she refuses such offerings altogether, turning her head away in what I imagine is disdain.

All seems placid, a dog on a rug, but beneath this tranquil scene, large forces are at work, and Stella, I’ve been learning, is at the center of them. The very definition of who she is, what goes on in her head, how she should be treated, and what rights she might deserve have been shifting rapidly. Today the dog world is in the throes of political and ideological convulsions of a kind not seen since Victorian times, when the dog as we know it was invented. Put simply, the dog is now in the process of being reimagined.

I wasn’t aware of any of this when she arrived in our home. Stella was, to begin with, just a dog—although in many quarters these days, “just a dog” are fighting words. She came into my life for the usual reasons. My wife, Angela, and I had an acute sense of time passing. Our son, Charlie, was about to turn ten, hurtling toward teenage-hood and then God knew where. We’d had a dog when he was born, a West Highland terrier named Scout, a proud ridiculous creature who’d tried not to let on just how upset he was when this squalling interloper and rival for our affections arrive. But Scout was old—thirteen at that point—and was dead before Charlie’s first birthday. If Charlie was ever to have a childhood dog, it was now or never.

The dog we planned to get was, like most things we wanted for him, as much for us. We wanted another family member, someone to fill out the cast, a supporting actress. And while our son would one day inevitably spin out of our little nucleus, we could count on the dog to stay. After dropping Charlie off at college, our dog would, in all likelihood, come back in the station wagon with us—a reassuring thought. It was all pretty simple.

Stella was going to be a New York City dog, and in this she would be joining a large and growing population. Our downtown street is a nonstop dog parade, part of the urban scenery along with New York University students and hipsters and men at the garage on the corner and the guy in the grungy gray coat and taped-up sneakers who shouts “Zirzu!” at the traffic passing on Bowery with an emphatic, not-unhappy certainty.

In the dog parade were dogs from all walks of life: a pair of glossy brown-and-gray Great Danes as big as ponies; a gorgeous orange chow, as cheerful a dog as you could find despite the fact that she had three legs, always accompanied by a little Maltese wingman; and a thirteen year-old German shepherd mix who made her circuit with impossibly dignified slowness, still sniffing at all her favorite spots. On the next street over, in front of the most glamorous building in the neighborhood, we sometimes ran into a pair of yellow Labs that spend weekends at their owners’ spread in Montana, then returned to the city for their work week—a dog’s life. Some dogs were walked with orange smocks that read “Adopt Me.” There were plenty of pits, some from a little dog rescue place on Fourth Street, others from Alphabet City to the east, where the pit could serve as the neighborhood emblem, much as the bulldog does for England. And there were a good number of dogs that looked a lot like Stella, Lab mixes, many whippier than Labs, with white blazes on their chests and white toes.

It was not my imagination that the parade was getting ever more crowded. Something has been happening with dogs in the last couple of decades. New York, along with just about every other city in the Western world, is overrun with them. There were some 77 million dogs in the United States in 2010, compared with about 53 million in 1996. Pet food and products were a $38 billion industry in 2010. At the Greenmarket one afternoon, I bought some lamb chops from a woman who told me wonderful stories about the intelligence of her border collies, their foresight and uncanny responsiveness. There were qualities I wanted to believe my own dog possessed, if only I’d take the time to develop them—but I couldn’t see how Stella would use such qualities in her mostly urban world, even if she had them, which I sometimes questioned.

But the numbers tell only part of the evolving story. Dogs have been moving into households in ever more intimate arrangements. Close to a hundred percent of dog owners talk to their dogs (and the few who say they don’t must be lying). Eighty-one percent view their dogs as family members, according to one study. And many of these family members, I began to notice, were sleeping right in the bed, a privilege Stella didn’t get and, at any rate, didn’t seem to want—she prefers a floor based lifestyle. But she gets plenty of human privileges, starting with her diet, which features leftovers—sometimes, I’m sorry to say, straight from the table. A shockingly high number of people say that in life-threatening situations they would save their pets before they would save a fellow human. I hope I know what I’d do if facing that choice, but I’m glad I’m not likely to be put to the test.

Because immediately, Stella was a family member. We couldn’t deny it. All of us spent a lot of time walking her, talking to her, analyzing and reanalyzing her quirks, her combustible mix of fear and excitement in the dog run, her dislike of the car, her abject terror of thunder, her varied and exuberant vocabulary. We worried about how she would spend the weekend if we weren’t with her. We imaged what her concerns might be and tried to accommodate them.

Excerpted from WHAT'S A DOG FOR? by John Homans. Reprinted by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) John Homans, 2012.

About the Author: John Homans has been the executive editor of New York magazine since 1994, and previously worked at Esquire, Details, Harper's, and the New York Observer.  He lives with his wife, son and dog Stella in Manhattan.  What's a Dog For? is his first book.

Disclaimer: The Penguin Press sent Lapdog Creations a complimentary copy of What's a Dog For? for review purposes. I was not compensated for this review. All opinions expressed in the review are my own.


Unknown said...

Great review. Have a terrific Thursday.
Best wishes Molly

Golden Woofs! SUGAR said...

Woof! Woof! My mom got lists to read ... making sure she'll add this. Lots of Golden Woofs, Sugar

Marjie said...

I like his statement that "just a dog" are fighting words in some quarters.

Flea said...

This sounds really interesting.

Kathy R said...

That sounds like a book I'd like to read!

Interesting dogs we saw on our walk this morning included a pit bull named Lucy and a giant schnauzer. (These weren't owned by the same person.) We also saw Apollo, the yellow lab down the road.

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