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It's Nelly's World

Reading Dogs, Dog Reading

alec vanderboom

The past few nights have been given over to the cozy pleasures of James Herriot's Dog Stories. I can still remember the sensation of private thrill when, decades ago, I sank down in the couch in the den to watch the man I thought was me: a fictionalized rendering, very PBS, of a Yorkshire vet in the Good Old Days.

I had wanted, like every other little girl who didn't know what to do with her overspilling passion for animals, or rather, those animals that weren't involved in either telling me what to do or making me feel bad in ever more inventive ways, to be a vet. By high school I had grown up enough to realize that it probably wasn't the tragedy- and drudgery-free endeavor I had dreamed, and also that biology and chemistry were not my friends. But I'd loved to watch that show based on James Herriot's books, imagining myself as the person who was immediately needed by the bitch about to whelp, the poor deformed calf, the lame drayhorse.

His book of stories is just like that, and you get the picture from a compilation of reviews this bestseller received, lined up on the first pages of the mass market paperback: "touching" is, hands down, the prize winner in the adjectival sweepstakes. And they are indeed touching. Unforced, unshowy, possessed of a modest dramatic arc in each. Comfort food.

There are stories that remind you why, sometimes as your dog is just, say, sniffing around the bedroom floor, you are suddenly gripped with an emotion so powerful and ridiculous-sounding it should always be kept to oneself: Oh, how I love you! This is triggered, strangely, by the way her back feet sort of turn out, a detail you've studied absently for uncounted time, and it ought to embarrass you to realize it's very much like the same blood-red feeling that flattens you when you see your child walking down the sidewalk toward you, sun in his hair.

Well, we won't go on about that any more, shall we?

There is a stack of books in my bedroom so high that if one more were added it would fall over (for those prone to mathematics, that's exactly nineteen books and one pamphlet). I keep pulling books out of it and getting partway in, and then for some reason feeling reluctance to read all the way straight through. I am not a quitter, contrary to my father's continual assertions. I will finish them. It's just that they give me too much to think about, and there are so many waving arms to this octopus I am trying to wrestle with--dog training; behaviorism and its history, implications, and future; humans' often bizarre attitudes toward the other animals (as well as to themselves; hence, the existence of Republicans)--that I go a few chapters in, then pick up something apparently unrelated, and go a few chapters in there, too. In search.

One book I did just get to the end of is the revised edition of Jean Donaldson's The Culture Clash. I read a borrowed copy of the first edition many years ago, in Mercy's youth. One image got its sinewy fingers around my neck and squeezed. It was the part imagining a planet where humans are kept as pets by the more intellectually advanced creatures she named Gorns. Sometimes the Gorns do awful things, inexplicable to the humans: they suddenly punish them for peeing in the their water-filled porcelain bowls, or for eating pizza or trying to communicate with other humans. Some Gorns keep their humans chained outdoors and alone, so they become "socially starved" and even more unmanageable to the Gorns.

Donaldson's depiction, from the "companion animal" eye view, of what it's like to be kept by another species that doesn't understand the first thing about you (what you need for a fulfilled life; what you're trying to say so desperately) and that insists you live on their terms without ever having told you what those terms are, is heart-wrenching. The rest of the book is mainly sound science and common sense and dog training. It's also disorganized, and so blunt as to feel almost aggressive. (You can feel her boiled-over frustration with people's general stupidity about dogs, and if timing didn't permit her to actually write the revision as a direct rebuttal to Cesar Millan, then she was prophetic, because it reads in places as if she were in the ring with some of his insanities.) Finally, it's not about writing, even though some of her themes are worthy of Tolstoy. But I am in complete agreement with everything she says. It may well be the most important dog book ever written. And to think it was first published ten years ago: amazing on two opposing counts, one being that it makes the heart sink to realize that, although Skinner's operant conditioning has been known for at least fifty years, and Pavlovian conditioning for not less than a hundred--and discovered with dogs, for chrissakes!--Donaldson still has to remind people these are very useful tools. The other amazement is that ten years ago, she was in the very vanguard of a movement that since then has taken off and produced dozens of books. Not to mention conferences that twice yearly gather hundreds upon hundreds of people willing to pay, well, hundreds upon hundreds of dollars, to learn from trainers and researchers how to apply this science to their animals, and to the human animal too.

It's getting late, and I can't read when my eyes get this tired. Nelly has already decided to turn in. She lies at the foot of the bed, and I look over to see with bemused disbelief what she has chosen for a pillow: her dear head snoozes upon a copy of Murray Sidman's Coercion and Its Fallout. There will be more about books to come.