Sunday, April 26, 2009

Taking the easy way out

A couple of weeks ago, an uncharacteristically insipid review by WaPo's Jonathan Yardley of Michael Schaffer's new book, One Nation Under Dog, prompted me to get my rant on. I was incensed at Yardley's using the book to get his rant on about what he considers to be excessive spending on companion animals by the pet-owning public--even though he acknowledged having willingly parted with substantial chunks of change to care for his own beloved dogs. Other reviews take a similar tone: that Schaffer's book is a long-overdue indictment of pet owners' misplaced priorities.

Much to my surprise, I received an email the following day from Mr. Schaffer. I'm honoring his request that I not publish that email, but I think it's fair to say his note prompted me to buy the book myself and make my own judgment. I did wince over the back-cover accolades, one of which called the book "a masterwork of comic sociology," while another proclaimed that the book holds "a mirror to our pet-obsessed culture." The author bio on the inside flap didn't help, either: after saying where Mr. Schaffer and his family live, the bio says that the author and his family "insist that their own pets ... are not freakishly pampered."


I'm not disputing that pet-keeping takes on some extreme forms. How could I: I've lost count of the number of newspaper and magazine articles, in addition to book reviews, that screech about such excesses. And for the record, I:

-- do not dress Allie in any clothing. I even take off the kerchief and occasional hair bows that her groomer bestows on her. If I didn't, she would try to.

-- do take Allie to that groomer every six weeks or so. Given that Allie weighs 70 muscular pounds, and that I weigh only about 30 not-s0-muscular pounds more than she does (especially since I've been recovering from this adventure), paying for a monthly doggie spa date seems to me to be a prudent investment. That said, I brush her several times a week, clean her ears weekly, and do all the other maintenance stuff that good canine stewardship requires.

-- get Allie's food from this company and pay a hefty price for doing so. But I'd rather pay that money to keep my golden girl healthy than to treat near-continuous ear infections brought on by her allergies to common dog food ingredients such as chicken, beef, wheat and corn (the latter can also be difficult for dogs to digest and may affect dogs' behavior, as this article by trainer Robin Bennett points out).

My foregoing disclaimers, not to mention the one that ends Mr. Schaffer's book-flap bio, probably seem a little defensive. And no wonder: all those cultural scolds who criticize animal-related financial outlays cause many of us to feel that we have to defend those outlays. But to laud or criticize One Nation Under Dog on the basis of those excesses is to miss the book's essential point. Unfortunately, that point doesn't begin to emerge till page 250, when the author reflects on why he finds himself returning to a pet bereavement group long after he'd completed his research on that group for the book:

"I'd started doing my research on the new pet world--way back when--feeling mainly bemused about how I'd been sucked into the universe of dog walkers and pet hotels and veterinary antidepressants. I thought of it as a chronicle of absurdities, albeit absurdities in which I was a participant ... My early expectations of the pet bereavement group, in particular, had involved crazy cat ladies rather than sophisticated grievers ... [But] I realized after a while that I was coming back again and again as a sort of communion ... talking about pet mourning turned out to provide rare moments of genuine, thoughtful sharing."

By the end of the book, the author concludes that "pets and how we treat them, are a public reflection of our deepest human values" -- in other words, something far more important than what drives all those rants and ravings about pet lovers' fiscal and other choices. But in choosing to use One Nation Under Dog as a springboard for such criticism, reviewers have done the book a disservice. In the end, to my surprise, the book's a far more thoughtful and balanced treatise than those reviewers indicate. Those reviewers took the easy way out: they went for surface instead of searching for what the author was really saying. The author may bear some responsibility for the path that those reviewers took, particularly if he was the person who crafted his back-flap bio. In any case, though, I wouldn't have bothered to read the book if the author hadn't found a way to almost guilt me into doing so. And that would have been a shame.

Medical update: I saw my neurosurgeon this past Friday, who said I'm doing great and told me to "go live your life" -- which I fully intend to do (starting with a long overdue date with my hairdresser. Yo, Maryam: call me back. Please.)

Friday, April 24, 2009

Dear Mrs. Obama:

I'm sorry that Bo, your new puppy, is keeping you and the POTUS awake at night with his nocturnal antics. Certainly hearing a bouncy Portuguese Water Dog playing with his ball just outside your bedroom door is not conducive to getting a good night's sleep. And I can totally relate to your husband's adamant declaration last week that the Bo would not be sleeping in his bed. My husband feels the same way.

But my husband also understands that a dog, especially a puppy, is a social animal, and needs to be with his pack, especially at night. That means that the best place for Bo to be at night is in your bedroom. That said, he need not be on your bed. Talk to your hubby. Suggest that you bring Bo and his crate (you have one, don't you?) into your bedroom at bedtime. Put Bo in his crate with a chew toy. If he whines, dangle your fingers in front of the crate so he can sniff them. In short, give him the opportunity to share some space with you. You'll all sleep better.


Susan McCullough

P.S. And if you and the POTUS feel a little frisky before bedtime or in the middle of the night, don't worry. Dogs are extremely discreet. Bo won't tell anyone what you guys were doing.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Amazing ... Retrievers

I'm a big fan of CBS's The Amazing Race, the 14-seasons-strong reality show in which 10 or 11 teams of two contestants each have to negotiate various challenges in a race around the world. The incentive: $1 million for the winning team.

Last night's installment found the teams in China. During one challenge there, teams had to go by raft to the middle of a small bay, where one person from each team had to throw fish into the water for trained birds to retrieve. Yes, you read that correctly: birds. As one contestant noted, "If someone put filet mignon in my mouth, I would eat it, not hand it back."

Here is the clip. I don't know how those birds were trained (maybe I don't want to know), but I thought the challenge was very cool.

P.S. I totally thought that Keisha and Jen were playing dirty with Luke. Way dirty -- and not in a good way.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Not just the presidential dog

A welcome dose of perspective from WaPo's Colbert King:

"If the Obamas haven't learned it yet, they soon will find out that friendship in this oh-so-political town tends to rise and fall with the polls. Bo, on the other hand, will remain by their side simply because there is nowhere else he would rather be.

"He's not going to tell the president when he screws up. Or remind the first family of their mistakes. He won't care whether Barack Obama's presidency is successful or a flop. The time may even come when the Obamas mean little to the country. But they will remain all the world to Bo. "

Here is the rest.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Reconsidering my silence

I've been reluctant to add my voice to those in print and the blogosphere that are reporting or just plain talking about the new First Puppy, Bo. But over the past couple of days, a few things have happened that have prompted me to reconsider my relative silence.

First, I've been conversing by email with two Portuguese Water Dog devotees, both of whom I know to be very reasonable, intelligent people. They have polar opposite views of the new attention being paid to their breed. One person views the Obamas' acquisition of a PWD as an opportunity to educate the public about responsible breeders. The other fears that publicly sharing their breed expertise will result in their being harassed by animal rights extremists like these folks.

Second, I received an email yesterday from a person who clearly has yet another point of view. This person decries the fact that the Obamas chose to acquire their re-homed dog from a responsible breeder, rather than from a shelter or rescue group. The email (which I am reproducing without the sender's permission, because she certainly didn't ask my permission before sending it to me and a whole bunch of other people) says, in part:

"Is anyone else as outraged as me? I mean you'd never know given the lack of coverage in the media today. Why isn't this headline news? We need to let it be known what their family has just done. Michele has not kept her word after stating that they would be adopting their pup from a rescue? ... They have just created hundreds of puppy mills. Puppy mills here and most assuredly, around the world ... Don't we have any more reputable, thorough, and unbiased reporters and activists any longer?"

We do. Which is why I respond thus:

1. Activists, by the very definition of the word, are not unbiased.
2. The Obamas' first priority, very rightly, was to find the right dog for their family. Hopefully, they have -- they've certainly done everything right so far. Not only did they take the time to research breeds; they also sent the dog to a trainer using these methods for his initial schooling.
3. Although the Obamas' acquisition of Bo may not have directly saved a life, they've done the next best thing: making a donation to the Washington Humane Society. That donation will certainly go a long way toward making other, less fortunate dogs' lives better.

Lest anyone think that I am completely biased in favor of responsible breeders, let me add another thought. I think that some in the fancy who fear that animal rights extremists want to eradicate not only purebred dogs but also dog ownership in general need to consider ways that they may have inadvertently fanned such extremism. When certain breeds have so many wrinkles on their noses that the hair and folds on those noses cause corneal ulcers (I had to write about that recently. Not fun) ... when another breed's top line is so slanted that the dog looks as though it's squatting when it's actually standing ... when the same sires keep getting used over and over again to the detriment of the breed ... things need to change.

I'm no expert on genetics, even though the subject fascinates me. But anyone who took high school biology with me knows that I had considerable difficulty understanding how Gregor Mendel figured out the genetics of beans; the genetics of dogs are beyond my comprehension for the most part. Fortunately, there are other people who are far more comfortable and conversant with the subject. The solutions that some of them propose -- sensible, careful outcrosses -- make sense to me.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Reviewer, review thyself

Generally, I look forward to seeing WaPo's Jonathan Yardley's book reviews and other writing about dogs. He clearly loves them, and his 2008 elegy to a departed canine companion made me cry. The fact that he proclaimed in print his admiration for one of my favorite authors gives him major points in my book, too.

But the book review in today's paper: yikes.

The book in question is Michael Schaffer's One Nation Under Dog (Henry Holt). Based on Yardley's review, the book appears to be a 288-page version of countless newspaper and magazine articles that cluck-cluck-cluck about the excesses -- fiscal and otherwise -- of some segments of of the dog-owning public. Yardley writes that readers "are referred to page after page of advertisements for pet-related products in Sky Mall, the magazine for bored (and generally affluent) airplane passengers. The sky, literally and figuratively, is the limit. People who see pets as extensions and reflections of themselves apparently have no hesitation about laying out significant sums to give those pets the best (i.e., the most expensive) food, accoutrements and veterinary care."

Yardley also notes in his review that the veterinary profession has become "almost unbelievably specialized and increasingly dominated by women (emphasis mine)." Domination of a profession by women is a problem? Specialization is to be criticized?

On and on the review goes, decrying the apparent metamorphosis of pet keeping from viewing animals "as an economic unit" to loving "animals for their own sakes ... and [being] increasingly willing to act on that love by ordering up previously unimaginable medical interventions." His tone is one of exasperation, even indignation. Yet, in that very eloquent elegy, Mr. Yardley acknowledges that he and his family apparently were willing to part with significant sums of money to care for their ailing dogs. Which is fine, I've done the same thing. But it seems a little inconsistent, to say the least, to decry spending a lot of money on veterinary care when one has done that oneself.

The rest of the review is here.

For my part, I'd much rather read about the positive aspects of the human-canine bond, particularly about how to grow that connection -- which is why I can't wait to read this book written by my very good friend, Victoria Schade (yes, Mr. Yardley, a female trainer! Deal with it.)

And, speaking of bonds, I sincerely and fervently hope that Bo Obama builds a deep and long-lasting bond with his new family.

Update: Kudos to Christie Keith of PetConnection for her dogged reporting of how Vicki Kennedy and a very responsible breeder brought Bo to his new family. The story is here.