It's a Dog's Life
New York Times Sunday Book Review, August 10, 1997

see also


Annals of the Dog-Human Relationship.

by Mark Derr.
380 pp. New York:
Henry Holt & Company. $25.


by Marion Schwartz.
Selected drawings by Susan Hochgraf.
233 pp. New Haven:
Yale University Press. $27.50.

THE DOG IS MAN'S BEST FRIEND all right: matchless in service, loyalty and willingness of the heart. But that man is dog's best friend, as the title of Mark Derr's new book suggests, is a more troubling proposition, unless you admit that with man for a friend you don't need an enemy.

As nearly every dog book, including these two, points out, for 15,000 years man has fed and bred dogs out of the original wolf stock to do whatever man wants. The range and variety of this collaboration are startling. It is, moreover -- and this is a major thrust of Derr's broad-gauge book -- still evolving in all sorts of remarkable ways. Nevertheless, though the number of deaths has been rapidly declining lately, each year in this country some three million dogs are put down in shelters after being variously abused: fecklessly bred in puppy mills, sold (and bought) without care, abandoned, starved, tossed out of car windows, shot at ''for target practice,'' left with their collars on till the flesh grows around the collar and festers.

It is easy to see this mainly as the result of man's rush to the cities. For centuries dogs were bred to outdoor work; now most of them have no work except as pets locked up in apartments much of the day. But as Marion Schwartz's curious volume, ''A History of Dogs in the Early Americas,'' makes clear, dogs have always been subjected to bewilderingly different treatment at human hands. Schwartz is a physical anthropologist who describes herself as ''not a dog person.'' Somehow she got interested in studying the thousands of different images and myths and rituals involving dogs in the pre-Columbian Americas. How could one species, she wondered, and ''one nonhuman species at that . . . be so many things to so many people''?

The result is a fascinating, scholarly mishmash, with extraordinary drawings by Susan Hochgraf, about the way tribes, nations and peoples dealt with and portrayed man's best friend up to and just after the arrival of the Spanish in the early 1500s, with their huge man-killing war dogs. In some places dogs were revered and propitiated as deities, in others regarded as promiscuous and unclean. Some groups buried them with honor alongside their masters; others tossed dead dogs into the woods as carrion. In some groups puppies seem to have been suckled by village women; in others they were eaten raw or cooked up for dinner.

There is little explanation for these differences. The Mayas and Aztecs, Schwartz points out, were big dog eaters; the Incas found the practice abhorrent, though they tied their dogs up and beat them to make them howl, in the belief the howls would bring rain. Among the Nazca people of ancient Peru, hunting dogs slept on special raised platforms, to protect their feet from infestation by chiggers. She includes a Sioux poem describing a ceremony that involved hanging up a pair of live dogs, splitting them from nose to tail and then eating the entrails raw.

Mark Derr is a writer who regularly reports on the world of dogs. In The Atlantic Monthly in 1990, he earned the gratitude of thousands of people who care about the general condition of dogs in the United States by assaulting the American Kennel Club in chapter and verse for, among other things, its failure to do anything about the appalling practices of the puppy mills, dog brokers and pet stores that help provide the A.K.C.'s registration income.

This time out, in ''Dog's Best Friend,'' he takes another shot at the A.K.C. (it is a big target) and deals in passing with a considerable assortment of ancillary topics of more or less concern to dog people. Among them: How (and how not) to get a puppy. (Put at least as much thought and effort into it as you do buying a car.) The pros and cons of shock collars for serious training. (''I have not met a man who would voluntarily put one around his own neck.'') And the touchy subject of whether or not -- in order to cut down on dog bites -- it makes sense to outlaw specific breeds like pit bulls. He used to be against it, because the fault lies not with the breed but with the individual dogs and, especially, dog owners, who should be punished. But since the number of dog bites is increasing as more and more people buy a few ''vicious'' breeds and leave them untrained or deliberately make them savage, he thinks outlawing breeds may sometimes be necessary.

That's the bad (old) news. Derr's good news is the result of far-flung reporting on high-performance working dogs, the ways they are best trained and the people who are best at training them. Some of his subjects are unexpected, involving the skill of curs and feists (small mixed-breed dogs) at everything from treeing squirrels to cornering wild boars to controlling rambunctious cows. In New Mexico he looks in on the lives of Navajo herding dogs, which appear to be descended from some of the canines that figure in Marion Schwartz's book.

Other subjects, like Frisbee contests and the Iditarod -- the 1,100-mile, dog- and (occasionally) man-killing mush from Anchorage to Nome -- have already had considerable coverage by reporters, sometimes by Derr himself. He follows the Florida training of canine candidates for the famous, jaunty green-vested Beagle Brigade, who, if they graduate -- 40 percent or more don't -- sniff their way through baggage at busy airports alerting authorities to smuggled food. He explores the world of scents, noting that dogs of various breeds now seem to be able to scent the existence of some forms of cancer, as well as the smell of fear in suspects stealthily retreating from the scene of a crime. As aids in training them, commercial companies now chemically manufacture this scent, called ''pseudo-distressed body'' (joining ''pseudo-cocaine,'' ''pseudo-drowned victim'' and ''pseudo-explosive'').

Through it all, Derr keeps pressing on us practical evidence of a few basic points. He is a fan of the family mutt and against the present emphasis on purebred dogs, because the smaller the gene pool the greater the risk of genetic faults. Differences in talent and trainability, he says, often vary more between individual dogs within a single breed than between one breed and another. Their achievement depends more on being part of a human family as puppies and the way they are fed and trained than on genes, which he thinks, with regard to a dog's performance, are now wrongly viewed as the equivalent of divine predestination.

A hopeful corollary point is that especially at the very highest levels of achievement -- in crime and disease detection, for instance, and leading the blind -- dogs must be able to use their own intelligence. They cannot do their best, or indeed qualify, if crushed by the kind of discipline often applied to make them mere puppets of their masters' wills. It turns out, moreover, that somewhat milder training is producing winners in more standardized competitions like bird-dog field trials, sheepherding contests and even that frozen, 1,100-mile Alaskan mush.

Mark Derr is no dog-in-the-window sentimentalist. The world of working dogs, like the world itself, is harsh, and he knows it. He notes that reforms of training abuse got some help from the late arrival of women in these fields. After the women began to win, men began switching to slightly gentler ways. It is rare good news when doing the right thing pays off.