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It's Nelly's World

Reading Dogs, Dog Reading, Part 2

alec vanderboom

There is more to be said on the subject of books. And don't worry, I'm not going to say it all.

I just feel that if Jean Donaldson is in need of some sandpaper for her rough surface, her opposite number, Patricia McConnell, could borrow a few splinters from the author of The Culture Clash. In both The Other End of the Leash and For the Love of a Dog, you can practically hear McConnell going back and forth, back and forth with the finest-gauge polisher. There are the preambles meant to catch the reader's interest by using Personal Illustrations; the hyperorganization; the sense that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. Heck, here's the whole bowl.

Not that her books aren't still valuable and interesting for the general audience. I read 'em. I learned stuff.

But the book I pulled out of the pile today is the real thing: alive, full of teeth, inviting me down on the floor for a sweaty wrestle. As well as inviting me to feel relief and kinship: Holy shit, this person has walked much the same path I have been on.

I am aware of how that sounds. --"I am thinking the same exact thoughts as this celebrated, famously smart author!" But I can't help that. Because we essentially are, me and Vicki Hearne. Much as I also hate to think it.

If I had read Adam's Task before I wrote my second book, I wouldn't have been able to comment on how people who called the horse known as Clever Hans a fraud had missed the whole point: the abilities of the horse were truly astounding, even though they were the not the ones that people had been hoping for--the ones that people themselves have. No, the horse did not know mathematics, but his powers of perception were so much more subtle than our own we appear not even to be able to appreciate them. Hearne says exactly this in her first chapter, so I couldn't have said it myself ten years later without appearing to have stolen it from her. Had I known.

The reason I never read this book (published in 1982; my own in 2000) was that I was afraid of it. Afraid it would make me mad, and being mad is often, though not always, an unpleasant sensation.

My fear was based on hearsay: Domesticated animals, I was told Hearne believed, are happiest when they have a job to do--a job we can give them. This struck me as bunkum. Hurtful bunkum. Animals' "jobs" are exactly what ours are: to live. Domestication has occurred too late in the evolutionary continuum to make real functional difference. Contrary to the wishful thinkers, dogs don't do things to "please us"--they do things to serve their own ends, even if it sometimes appears they do our bidding willingly. Yeah, if doing it gets them something they need/want; or, alas, to avoid something they don't. Trust me on this (or trust Jean Donaldson).

I was moved to write about Hearne--and to jump up and down about Hearne--on the basis of the first fourteen pages. Her task is to widen out the discussion of animals, and to understand why the discussion has heretofore been kept artificially narrow. That's the question I find most interesting in all the world, and to hear her say it, in her clear and lovely prose, is like eating a meal after a fast.

But when I saw the dedication of this book, I almost couldn't make myself go farther. "For Dick Koehler, who taught me how to say 'Fetch!'" Dick Koehler, son and flag-bearer for William Koehler, originator of the Koehler Method, a system for abusing dogs in the name of training.

I am here reporting on Koehler on hearsay, too, because I don't know what it's going to take to make my stomach strong enough to read him first-hand. I have my reports on good authority, though, from a gifted trainer and brilliant friend, Jolanta Benal, who has educated herself in what not to do by direct encounter with this old-fashioned brutality, unfortunately still used today. You can dismiss everything he says, even if you don't know what he says, on the sole basis of his advocating "hanging" dogs--lifting them off the ground by the neck until they nearly lose consciousness (a miscalculation there, and they'll lose more than that). This is sadism, pure and simple, not dog training.

I've now gone a few pages into the second chapter of Hearne, and again I have to pause and let go: She's completely, strangely wrong that dogs "respect" our language. Huh? She says a police dog "understands many forms of human culture and has his being within them." This is not possibly true. There is nothing in a dog's development or biological capacities that would have caused this to come into being. We may want it to be so (in which case, Hearne is as guilty of anthropocentrism as those she often complains so eloquently about) and it may sometimes look like it is so (because dogs are such subtle sign-readers that they, like Clever Hans, appear to be "understanding our culture" when in fact they're trying to manipulate the human into giving them something good and tasty), but neither make it true.

Such misreadings, through the prism of our own desires, are worse than mistaken. They are dangerous. To the dogs we profess to love.