Saturday, December 22, 2012

What's a Dog For? The Surprising History, Science, Philosophy, and Politics of Man's Best Friend, by John Homans

Penguin Press, ISBN 9781594205156, November 2012

There's a lot of interesting material here, and yet in the end I am deeply frustrated with this book.

Homans gathers together in highly readable form much of the most recent research on dogs, their ancestors, and their relationship with us. Teasing out the history of dogs, just barely genetically different from wolves, has been a tricky business, not least because early dogs and proto-dog wolves would not have been physically different from their wolf relatives in any way that shows up in the fossil record. It's a fascinating story, and almost as fascinating is the story of how hard it has been to get any real research on dogs. Dogs, you see, were until the last couple of decades too mundane and familiar for research on them to be "respectable." Homans has studied the research, interviewed the researchers, and attended the academic conferences, and has a lot of good information to impart.

So what's my complaint? Homans clearly feels he's way too smart and sophisticated to be one of us crazy dog lovers, even though yes, he has a dog whom he loves dearly. Dogs, we are told, are kitsch. Not just the subject of a lot of kitschy art, but kitsch themselves, because their emotions are simple and basic, compared to ours. Dogs' status in our lives is as "honorary humans." That's the only explanation for why we don't treat them like chickens. The possibility that we could connect with dogs as individuals and incorporate them into our lives because, especially for early humanity, they were useful partners and continue to have useful, practical roles to play in the modern world, as well as having been heavily selected over those thousands of years (at least ten thousand, possibly much longer) to fit in with and respond to humans--that we might mesh well socially with them while still recognizing them as dogs and not humans, seems to be unimaginable for Mr. Homans.

In addition, Mr. Homans seems to have swallowed whole a lot of PETA propaganda and not really looked at objective information. A few of the Vick dogs are permanently in sanctuary--but the overwhelming majority of them have been successfully placed in pet homes where they are happy and loved. Several are therapy dogs. One of them now has a career in law enforcement. There's nothing overly sentimental or silly about insisting that all dogs be individually evaluated, rather than declared excess solely on the basis of breed and possible bad prior experiences. There are also successful, effective, open admission No Kill shelters in every part of the country, for a total of well over fifty and still counting. Some dogs coming into shelter will always need to be euthanized for health or behavior reasons, but communities that commit themselves to it can save all the dogs who are at all suitable as pets. Dogs don't have to be killed merely because "there are too many dogs." And the transport rescues he agonizes over, and from on of whom his own dog, the Lab mix Stella, comes, are a part of the challenging puzzle of getting dogs from where they are to where the right homes for them are. Finally, Nathan Winograd, whom Mr. Homans clearly regards as a starry-eyed yet inflammatory fool, has actually turned a high-kill shelter into a no-kill shelter. He's really done the job, rather than just pontificating about how it's impossible.

Do I regret reading this book? No. It has some great information and is well-written. It is not, however, one of the great dog books of our time.

I bought this book.