Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Nobody Knows Better... Review of WHAT IT'S LIKE TO BE A DOG

Gregory Berns
$28 (hardcover) Our Price: $22.40

We humans are arrogant creatures. We think because we have written language, etc., that we are the smartest creatures on earth. But, to paraphrase Moonstruck, what we don't know about animals is a lot.

Greg Berns, a psychologist and neuroscientist, has taken upon himself the task of finding out just what is going on inside of our fellow creatures, primarily dogs. His first book, How Dogs Love Us, detailed his experiments with his dog Callie and others by using an MRI to gauge their brain responses to their owners' smells and voices. Since then, he has pursued further investigation of brain activity in dogs, trying to decipher the difference between receiving a treat, for example, to seeing the dog's owner.

The experiments are slow-going and complex, due to the intricacies of the training, but fascinating in their chronicle. As Dr. Berns continued to work with dogs, he also explored the brains of dolphins and sea lions. (Who knew sea lions have a sense of rhythm?) His work opened up more questions about communication between humans and dogs or other animals. He references Chaser, the border collie famous for knowing over one thousand names of objects. Chaser was also able to understand simple syntax and directions, as in retrieving a toy and placing it on top of another toy. But was Chaser unusual? Berns suggests that certain breeds may be more adept at learning language, and he questions whether or not dogs actually know their names or if, instead, they've learned that when certain sounds are made, something (probably good) is about to happen. When I call my dog Katrina, she looks up, expectant. Is she looking up because the sound I made might mean we're going somewhere, or that she's getting a bone? Perhaps the only way to know what she is thinking, hearing, feeling, or expecting, is to study what's happening inside of her brain, and seeing what parts "light up" and when. But is knowing what my dog is thinking important? Can't we just mosey along as we are, ignorant of what thoughts or dreams she is experiencing? After all, I'm the human, and therefore the important one, right?

Stepping into another's shoes (or paws), feeling empathy, is a trait humans have capacity for and yet we seem to use it as little as possible. The current political climate is certainly an indication of that. And as we outgrow our world, the tribalism we're experiencing is bound to expand to the point of an inability to communicate entirely. So understanding what it's like to be a dog, or a horse, or even, yes, a cat, goes a long way to understanding each other. Although dogs may not understand or care what's going on inside of us, they do care about us, and seem to want, for some reason, to be with us. They don't see color or ethnicity, and certainly do not understand what political party we vote for (although that may have long-term effects on their well-being, but that's another story). I read books such as Dr. Berns' because I want to know why: why does the horse I am riding want to do well? Just for the praise? And why does my dog follow me from room to room, just to be near me? Am I really that great?

All of this is a long way of saying that exploring the intricacies of a dog's brain is not an academic pursuit, or knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Understanding animals leads to better understanding of ourselves. Being obtuse, or lacking in any self-reflection, is a dangerous form of ignorance that may yet lead us to catastrophe. Books such as this may serve as a bigger wake-up call than even he intended.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Horse Sense: review of RELAXED & FORWARD

Relationship Advice from Your Horse
Anna Blake
$14.95 (our price $11.96)

This essay collection is from the author's blog of the same name and is perfect for riders who are struggling to progress in their horsemanship, but I daresay it might be entertaining for non-horsepeople, too. Anna Blake writes with wit and unabashed passion about horses and their people. Common sense being quite uncommon, the obvious sometimes has to be worded in just the right way to drill into the human brain; Blake has a gift for bringing a somewhat hazy concept into sharp focus.

As with many books about animals, the subject of this one could be expanded to include all sorts of relationships: your spouse, your children, your dog. But horses hold unique places in our lives partly because as riders, we must trust that they will not injure us (unintentionally, of course), and that as caretakers, we must honor their trust in us that we will not cause them harm—emotionally or physically. This makes for a complicated and profound experience. And anyone who has never sat atop a horse and asked him or her to move forward at a pace and rhythm of their choice would do well to give it a shot just once. (And I don't mean by sitting on a trail horse at a local stable. Those horses just do their duty with boredom and probably a little disdain, getting through their day.)

It would be inaccurate to call this delightful, funny, insightful book instructional, although it has plenty of expert riding tips. It is also a memoir, and a finger wagger at those of us who at one time or another claim to know more about our horse than we do (or than they know of us):
If humans are the more evolved species (and the jury is out on that, but going with that assumption) then it is up to us to move beyond our more limited senses and evolve our language to meet the horse. More importantly, if we want to progress farther with our horses, we have to communicate even more eloquently, just getting louder doesn't work. 
Communication with your horse involves the ability to stop, listen, and actually hear what your horse is telling you, and then being able to convey your plan and direction concisely, gently, and confidently. It also requires a hunk of honest self-reflection and a large dose of humor. If you can't laugh at yourself, stay away from horses—and every other animal.

Anna Blake lives in Colorado on her Infinity Farm where she and her husband raise llamas, goats, dogs, cats, horses, and Edgar Rice Burro. Her other books are STABLE RELATION and BARN DANCE.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Wild Women: review of TAMED AND UNTAMED

Sy Montgomery and Elizabeth Marshall Thomas
Paperback $17.95 (our price $14.36)

Each piece in this brilliant collection is short, sweet, and to the point. Some are funny, some poignant, but each offers some fine bit of history or factoid that may make you sit up and say, "Wow, really?" And each conveys the sad truth that humans, being the controlling animal, have made a mess of things.

Sy Montgomery and Elizabeth Marshall Thomas are both New York Times bestselling authors of books about animals and nature, and in Thomas's case, novels about pre-history, as well as a memoir of her time living in Africa. Although their subject matter is similar, their styles are distinct and yet complementary. Both focus on the beauty and brilliance of some of the most misunderstood (or under-understood) creatures in our midst. And they adhere to an ethical sense of duty to species as well as to individuals. Whether discussing water bears, chickens, or lions, they treat their subjects with respect, wonder, and reverence.

Take sharks, for example. Montgomery writes of accompanying a Massachusetts biologist in his study of the return of great white sharks to Cape Cod. Despite movies, books, and poor press, great whites, she learns, are anything but menacing. They're not interested in eating people, or even interacting with them. They like seal meat and they go where the seals go. The biologist called them "laid back," "calm," "beautiful," and Montgomery agreed when she finally got to see one up close off the coast of Mexico. "No wonder, then, that when the great white approached me in the shark cage, instead of fear, a great sense of calm swept over me. With him in charge, the ocean would be in good hands." Of course, that's the problem: we are in charge, not him.

In Thomas's book The Hidden Life of Deer, she attracted criticism for her practice of feeding the deer who visit her Peterborough, NH, homestead. Here she writes more about the controversial practice of feeding deer, why it can be harmful (even deadly), and how she manages to time her feedings just right so as not to interfere with their winter digestion, or attract deer to hunters. But overall her argument is simple, clear and so terribly logical:
Which brings us to the question of why help wildlife anyway? I do it because we're so happy to damage them. We destroy their ecosystems to build houses, we hunt them just for pleasure, and we kill them with our cars when they try to cross the roads. If during a harsh winter I can help a little in a responsible manner, whereby the same deer who came in the fall are there in the spring to hide their fawns in the grass on my field, I feel I've done some good.
This collection isn't just intended to finger point and blame humans for harm to nature and animals. We don't really need any more books to tell us what we've done; thoughtful humans understand this already. Rather, Montgomery and Thomas give us glimpses into their lifelong studies of animals in the hopes that by sharing their discoveries, we may be inspired look a bit deeper at our own world, and not be quite so quick to condemn or dismiss the creatures around us. There is more in the animal world that joins us than separates us, and that is the message of this wonderful book.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Stage Fright: review of DOG DISH OF DOOM

Dog Dish of Doom

A Mystery
E. J. Copperman
$24.99 hardcover (our price: $19.99)

Kay Powell is the owner of Agent to the Paws, a one-woman entertainment firm in New Jersey representing animals and, by default, their people. Kay's newest client, Bruno, is truly exceptional. Bruno is an unusual looking dog, "a hairy ottoman," highly intelligent, and a natural actor. His audition for the part of Sandy in a revival of Annie goes swimmingly, and a contract is offered by a world-renown director. But the director tells Kay that part of the contract includes keeping Bruno's humans away from the theatre during rehearsals and performances.

Kay is surprised by the animosity between the director and Bruno's "parents," Trent and Louise, but also agrees that both are more than a little annoying. She is ambitious, however, and a bit hungry for clients, so she does her best to move the relationship forward and get Bruno into the part. Trent, however, is livid, and berates the director, vowing never to allow Bruno to be part of the production.

The tension is strange, Kay agrees, but she is determined to find a way. Until Trent is found dead, a knife in his back, and his head face down in Bruno's water bowl. Then things get just a little bit dicey...

This is a fun, fast read, full of red herrings, and with a suitably surprising outcome. There's also a bit of romantic tension that obviously will be continue to build as the series gains momentum. These days, a bit of comic relief is, well, a relief, so don't pass up an opportunity to smile. Any fans of David Rosenfelt, Spencer Quinn, or even Janet Evanovitch will get a kick out of this new series.

Monday, September 25, 2017

In Extremis: review of ARTHUR

The Dog Who Crossed the Jungle to Find a Home
Hardcover, $24.95
Mikael Lindnord

Adventure Racing is the kind of sport that most of us mere mortals find inexplicable. Why would anyone want to run, bike, paddle, ski, hike, etc., for several days or weeks, through unmapped terrain, risking one’s health and life, like some sort of weird global masochistic exercise? As Mikael Lindnord writes, “I think suffering is a skill I have.” And he shares that skill with a surprising number of other athletes who choose to torture themselves in these competitions.

During the Ecuador Championship, Mikael and his team found themselves facing a different challenge. After five grueling days, the team rested at a transition stop, preparing for what the organizers had warned would be the most difficult stretch: a trek through nearly impenetrable jungle, full of “biting creatures,” and muddy bog holes that would slow the racers to a crawl, and then finally a rigorous stretch of kayaking to the finish line. As they settled uncomfortably at the transition area, hoping for a couple of hours of sleep, Mikael decided they all needed an extra dose of protein and carbohydrates. He warmed up two packs of meatballs with pasta, what he considered a “five-star dinner in the world of adventure racing.” The meal provided needed calories to help them face the torture to come.

Amidst the chaos of the transition area, however, Mikael spotted a dirty, yellow dog who quietly watched him. He was filthy and had a wound on his back, and yet was calm and thoughtful, staring into Mikael’s eyes from across the room. Having no experience with dogs, or any desire to approach a disease-ridden stray, Mikael nevertheless was drawn to this creature. He spooned out a couple of precious meatballs and walked over to the dog, placing the food before him. The dog wolfed it down in an instant.

Mikael returned to his resting teammates, and began preparing them mentally and physically for the test to come. He thought no more about the dog, except to hope he would be OK. He knew the fate of strays in this part of the world, and he wondered how this quiet, pensive fellow would survive.
Later that night, as the team struggled through the first stretch of snake-invested bog, they were surprised to find a new member joining them: the yellow dog had followed them into the thickest, muddiest, most dangerous part of the jungle, and would not leave Mikael’s side. His perseverance became an inspiration to the team. They could not abandon him, even if he gave them a chance to, which of course, he did not.

The race continued, with Mikael’s team dropping further behind, but their mission had changed from coming in at the top third to helping their newest, four-legged teammate. By the time they crossed the finish line, the dog had a name, Arthur, after the legendary king, and a growing presence on social media. He and his team were greeted by cameras and fans, much to the dismay of the winning team. The publicity turned Arthur into an overnight celebrity. But even such a celebrity status couldn’t guarantee a safe passage out of the country to Mikael’s home in Sweden. Bureaucrats and swindlers smelling potential money to be made threw obstacles in the path of Arthur’s emigration, as if this previously undesirable, neglected, and abused soul was now somehow of vital national importance. Mikael, true to his nature, did not give up. Nor did Arthur. It took a great deal of finagling and money to finally get Arthur to Sweden where, unfortunately, he then faced quarantine. Still, he was safe, and is now living happily with his family.

Arthur is now the namesake of a foundation set up to help other Arthurs in the world by promoting immediate rescue and adoption, and long-term changes, such as laws making it criminal to mistreat animals. To donate and read more about this foundation, go to And to watch a video about Mikael and Arthur, go to

He is only one dog, but Arthur has proven what it means to survive and not ever give up. He is the elite athlete of this story, and deserves every possible accolade.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

New Review: THE RIGHT SIDE by Spencer Quinn

Spencer Quinn is the beloved author of the Chet and Bernie mystery series, starring a brilliant, if at times distracted, white-eared dog, who relays the confusing and annoying antics of the humans around him with openness and unintentional humor. Quinn’s gift for mind-melding with a dog in a way that is both believable and entertaining is not restricted just to animals, but to people as well, as this new novel proves.

The long, apparently never-ending struggle our troops are fighting in Afghanistan has created many heroes, and many broken minds and bodies. The Right Side presents us with a hero, in every sense of the word, and her struggle to fight the derailing of her mind after being nearly blown up during an operation in Afghanistan.

LeAnne Hogan awakes in Walter Reed Hospital with a blinding pain in her head and a blackness on her right side. Her right eye is gone, and there is shrapnel in her brain, but that last bit of info continually eludes her. The loss of her eye, however, is ever present and unforgettable. She had been an accomplished athlete (pole vaulting), before joining the military, where her strength, intelligence, and courage were leading her on a trajectory of success. Her personal life was blossoming with her new love. Life was complicated and intense, but LeAnne thrived. But now she looked upon her ruined face and diminishing strength with bitterness and despair. Here Quinn’s ability to become his protagonist, whether a dog or a woman, is startling and brilliant, but only as an afterthought. Reading, we become entangled in LeAnne’s shattered thoughts and are passengers on her journey, embedded like a civilians in a war zone.

LeAnne’s roommate at Walter Reed is a recalcitrant amputee named Marci. Their friendship is hardly warm and fuzzy, but becomes fiercely intense. With their battle-scarred minds, they manage to make each other laugh, and tiptoe into the depths of despair the injuries and traumas have sent them. Marci tells LeAnne of her first marriage to a kind-hearted man she should have stayed with, and her second to an abusive mistake, with whom she had a daughter. The eight-year-old Mia was living in Washington state with Marci’s mom. What will become of her daughter if something happens to her? she asks LeAnne. Something already has, LeAnne answers. They both laugh.

LeAnne clings to Marci, needing her friendship like a salve for her ravaged face. So when Marci unexpectedly dies, LeAnne’s weak grip on sanity loosens even more. She sneaks out of the hospital and begins a cross-country trip to Washington in search of Marci’s past life and her child, or maybe in search of her own past. Her memory is short-circuited, and her days drift by in mostly drunken oblivion.

It’s not until about three-quarters into the novel that the dog appears. She’s a stray, large and dark-eyed, mysterious and not particularly friendly, but she attaches herself to LeAnne and will not let go. LeAnne tries to find a home for her, but the dog, whom she eventually names Goody, will not release her hold. Strangely, Goody seems to know to walk on LeAnne’s right side to help guide and protect her. When LeAnne finds out that Marci’s daughter has gone missing, Goody becomes all the more important in the search for the little girl. 

LeAnne finds herself on a mission. She becomes obsessed with finding the little girl and with belatedly rectifying Marci's messy life, and perhaps figuring out her own future. 

Our concepts of right and wrong blend at times, with ethical and moral choices becoming less clear, especially in war: thus the ambiguous title of this fine novel. But as LeAnne finds her path, Goody knows which side to walk on.