Sunday, June 23, 2013

John Homans: What's a Dog For?

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Back story: I like to get books from the library (if you've ever read this blog, you're probably wondering why I always tell the same backstory). One of the awesomest things about the library is being able to put books on hold and have them miraculously show up at your branch. You get a notification by email that your book is at your branch and then you have two weeks to go pick them up. My branch is two blocks away, but quite small- none of the books I want are there. So periodically I request a bunch of books on my list. Usually they're some combination of very esoteric and new, popular-ish nonfiction. They trickle in and then come All At The Same Time. Last week 3 showed up at once. They included Garry Wills' new book "Why Priests," Shereen el Feki's "Sex and the Citadel" and John Homans' "What's a Dog For" which is also quite new. As I was checking the books out, the librarian told me that two had holds and couldn't be renewed. I realized I would have to read the books in overdrive if I had any hope of finishing all them in 3 weeks. I took a guess and started "What's a Dog For" first figuring that dogs are the most popular thing in the Bay Area. After I finished I thought to check the status of the books. This was the only book WITHOUT a hold on it. Classic move on my part. Anyway.

What IS a dog for? How has that changed over time? Why? These are fascinating, career-driving questions for people like me. John Homans' book is an attempt to answer these questions by someone who is, by all accounts, a casual pet owner. He does things like call his lab mix (a mix by his own description) a lab and attribute pure bred qualities to her over and over. He puts a rubber blanket on him when he euthanized his dog, prepping for the fluids that would flow- a practical thing to do but something those of us who Do Dogs cold-heartedly scoff at: What's a little post-humous release? He asks great questions and admits to anthropormorphasizing his dog. The last third of the book is devoted to a discussion that, brief and necessarily simplified discussion of animal welfare. (Complaint: doesn't clearly distinguish between animal welfare and animal rights. Man I hate a discussion of Ingrid Newkirk that doesn't say "animal rights is NOT animal welfare in big bold letters at least 17 times.) He does some serious research and generally presents it in a readable way.

As a dog person, I can't really tell you if this book would satisfy a lay person. For a dog person, it's a wash. The history and the science is kind of presented in a haphazard manner: back and forward through time and through perspectives. There is a LOT of ground to cover and the book covers it very quickly. Homans talks to all the right people, though he presents them all in a name-dropping type way: Temple Grandin, Turid Rugaas, William Koehler, Karen Pryor, the Baileys, BF Skinner, etc. I'd rather there was a little more time spent on each facet of the human/dog relationship which would mean giving up some of the accessibility of the book and gaining some depth.

There is an in-depth conversation of the human-dog relationship in terms of communication: it's clear that Homans really values the relationship between dogs and people. Dogs, you may have heard, are the only animals that we know of that can/do follow when humans point. I point at a toy and Rollie (well he's mostly blind) looks at it. I pointed at the treat on the ground that I dropped and Mac most definitely did look at it and gobble it up. Other animals don't do this, even apes. He talks about the important relationship of dogs to important people in animal science: Darwin and Goodall were both extremely influenced by their dogs. And he meets with the scientists who are now studying what it means to be a dog. The in-depth history, though, is pretty much that: historical.

I was hoping for much more about what happened in the last 100 and maybe even 50 years: How we got to the dogs in dresses stage. Why so many people are getting bit by dogs now, how we lost the understanding that, no matter how well we communicate with dogs, they are still dogs. But I think that an overview by a non-dog person necessarily can't have that info: this is not a book by someone who truly understands dogs but a book by someone who wants to understand the human/dog relationship. That's not a bad thing, it's just a different thing (not accurately represented in the title). It's a philosophical thing. Homans is asking questions about what it means to be human, as well. He talks about politics and class and how they are reflected in our breeding and treatment of dogs. This is wonderful and we notice it but don't usually say it.


Boo Dog said...

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