OPEN ME . . . I'M...

Selma G. Lanes is the author of "The Art of Maurice Sendak" and "Down the Rabbit Hole: Adventures and Misadventures in the World of Children's Literature."

There are more than superficial links between children and dogs. Ask anyone who has ever undertaken the housebreaking and training of a new puppy about the time, energy and self-sacrifice the job entails. The experience is rather like the earnest, never-ending parental efforts expended during the first years of a baby's life. Both puppies and small children are without guile and enviably open to the wonders of the world around them. And how many of us talk to dogs in that special, affectionate (often singsong) tone of voice usually reserved for infants and toddlers? Perhaps the strongest link of all has been forged by those lucky adults who cherish for a lifetime fond memories of a family dog who meant more to them as they were growing up than the best of best friends.

No doubt aware of the appeal of dogs to most small children, the gifted adult cartoonist and New Yorker cover artist, Art Spiegelman, has chosen a small, magical dog as the subject of his first children's picture book, "Open Me . . . I'm a Dog!"

If the wacky title sounds more suited to a primer for future veterinarians than to a nursery entertainment, never mind. More surprises are in store: There are velvety, flocked endpapers to pat, a pop-up doggy tail that can be made to wag nicely and even a sturdy leash attached to the book's binding that allows any child so inclined to pull the shiny-covered work around like a you-know-what.

There is ingenuity galore but, alas, no substantive core. The book, which begins promisingly at a young child's level of understanding, quickly shifts gears into a dream-nightmare sequence of considerable sophistication. The dog hero is alternately turned into a German shepherd (human, not canine variety), a giant bullfrog and, finally, "this book." Youngest readers-listeners are likely to be confused, even frightened en route, while older readers may well grow impatient and feel had by the author's plot shenanigans and mildly condescending tone. Though the narrator points out the advantages of being a hybrid dog-book--"I don't have fleas and I never bite. If you forget to walk me, I promise not to make a mess on the carpet"--most listeners would surely opt for the real McCoy.

Gary Shiebler's "A Search for the Perfect Dog" is a short, genuinely sweet and decidedly helpful primer for anyone, adult or older child, who is contemplating bringing a dog into the home. Starting with the "very thin, baked-potato-brown" mongrel that just appeared at his family's front door when he was a small boy, Shiebler has had a lifelong attachment to a wide variety of mostly mutts. After working as both a fashion model and an actor, the author took a job as "humane educator" at the Helen Woodward Animal Center in San Diego. His job was "to teach visiting children about pet care, responsibility and the humane treatment of animals." Offhanded and anecdotal in approach, Shiebler's book soft-pedals didacticism or even formal words of advice. Instead, the author lets his brief profiles of some 20 dogs, mostly mixed breeds, deliver a variety of important messages about patience, sympathetic observation, right and wrong treatment and, finally, love.

While there is no doubting Shiebler's uncanny empathy with his four-legged charges, at times his stories seem just a bit too pat and glib. His habit of putting words into dogs' mouths can become tiresome, as can his frequent anthropomorphic asides. When he describes an inseparable pair of dogs, Chas and Sunshine, he urges us to "imagine Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn with fur."

Regardless, Shiebler's near palpable joy in "the first moments of meeting a new dog" is contagious. Not too surprisingly, the reader discovers that there is no perfect dog, any more than there are perfect dog owners. Instead, there is a mysterious chemistry at work, a kind of "magic connection" between a given dog and its master. In the end, the author sees dogs as "invaluable partners in helping us to discover or rediscover a place where we can love with all our hearts."

Certainly this is a sentiment Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson would endorse. His provocative "Dogs Never Lie About Love," with its disarming subtitle "Reflections on the Emotional World of Dogs," is a compelling collection of 16 essays about man's best friend. It follows an earlier work on wild animals' feelings Masson wrote in collaboration with Susan McCarthy, titled "When Elephants Weep."

The strengths that this Sanskrit scholar and former projects director of the Freud Archives brings to his subject are intelligence, originality and a refreshing willingness to go out on a good number of scientifically unsupported limbs in his enthusiasm for canines. "How often has yesterday's speculation become today's fact?" he challenges and then goes on to apply his "informed speculation" to a wide array of personal observations about dogs and their feelings.

Like Charles Darwin before him (the naturalist spoke of conscience in dogs 125 years ago in his book "The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals"), Masson is certain that dogs experience not only joy and disappointment but also gratitude, sadness, nostalgia, humiliation, depression and, yes, love. "Yet we can never claim that we know what a dog feels," Masson cautions. "The joys and sorrows of dogs are canine joys and sorrows and may differ from our feelings in ways too subtle to recognize or articulate."

Dogs have only one taste bud for every six in human beings, but their sense of smell is, at the least, 40 times better than ours. According to one canine authority, the olfactory sensitivity of the dog is 1 million to a 100 million times greater than that of human beings. Their hearing is more acute and, generally, their peripheral vision is better. All this colors their perception of the world and their emotions in ways we cannot fathom. Because Masson's book is a patchwork of essays written at different times, there are inevitable repetitions. On at least three occasions, we are told that a dog's putting its nose down another's throat is an instinctual ritual inherited from wolves. (Wolf puppies perform this act so that the mother will regurgitate food for them to eat after the hunt.)

Masson's reading on his subject is prodigious, as 22 pages of notes and 28 of bibliography will attest. He quotes from Leo Tolstoy, Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka, Miguel de Cervantes, Rene Descartes, William James and Ludwig Wittgenstein, among many others. His book is a veritable valentine to man's best friend. Though no credit is given for them, accomplished pencil drawings of dogs adorn each chapter.

Much the same factual information about dogs is contained in Mark Derr's "Dog's Best Friend," but the author's insistent emphasis on how man has exploited and betrayed his best friend for his own needs and vanity soon makes the reader realize that the book's title is not intended as an encomium but rather as bitter irony. For those who watch such television news features as "Primetime Live" or "20 / 20," it will come as no surprise that the American Kennel Club encourages the selective breeding of various popular species of thoroughbred dogs, or that it has sometimes issued papers attesting to a puppy's bona fide lineage when that lineage is far from certain.

Although such events like the annual Westminster Kennel Club dog show attract an enthusiastic nationwide audience, the selective breeding of thoroughbred dogs for display has resulted in the proliferation of such debilitating ailments as hip dysplasia, blindness, deafness and severe arthritis in several species. Over time, inbreeding also has a negative effect on dog intelligence and temperament.

Further, the author condemns, as have other dog lovers, the sport of greyhound dog racing, an activity that exploits the breed and often cruelly disposes of those dogs no longer able to race. Shub's book is clearly intended to rouse thoroughbred dog owners and animal rights advocates to work for needed reforms.

Certainly no other animal engages our interest and sympathy quite as much as the dog. For more than 10,000 years, the species has been a companion to man, and in the United States today, about 35% of households own dogs. Our canine population exceeds 52 million and consists of more than 400 breeds and thousands of mixed-breed combinations. The feline population is still higher, but cats rarely--if ever--become the intimate companions that dogs do. Samuel Coleridge proclaimed the dog to be "the one absolutely unselfish friend that man can have in this selfish world, the one that never deserts him, the one that never proves ungrateful or treacherous." Author Masson puts it even more succinctly: "We love dogs because they love us, unconditionally." For many children and adults, this wholehearted surrender is reciprocal.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
63°