Thursday, February 28, 2013

Mr. and Mrs. Dog

Transparency: The author of Mr. and Mrs. Dog and I are personal friends.
I am quoted once, in the chapter "Behaviorism."

Literary career not going so well? Here's the plan:

Impulsively buy a pet dog. Better yet, "rescue" one.

Fail to train him.

Be befuddled by his dogness.

Fetishize ignorance and incompetence. See "sitcom Dad" for a template for your character.

Write a dull memoir about your mid-life crises framed in a narrative about your own indulgent shortcomings at dog ownership. (Dogs are the new Ferrari.)

Cap it, if possible, with the dog's death.*

Sentimentalize the animal.

"Learn" something about yourself.

Trowel on the glurge about how they love us unconditionally.

New-Age aspartame spirituality (optional.)

Finish with grand, sweeping conclusion about What Dogs Mean that is innocent of any mastery of simple information about what dogs are.

Rake it in.

These books sell well to audiences of distracted, sentimental pet owners because they do not challenge any of their prejudices, half-conscious assumptions, or life choices.

I missed the part about the job of stories being to make us feel more complacent.

One reason that dogs know so much more about us than we do about them is that they depend on us. If the person you are living with has total power over when and whether you get to eat or poop, can have your gonads removed, and is legally permitted to have you killed if you piss him off, you will become an excellent observer. See Hegel for more on this.

What most dogs know about most of us is that we are incoherent. They adjust accordingly. The human doesn't even know that he's suffering for and from his own incoherence, so deft is the dog. The human may misidentify the visible portion of the dog's efforts, and conclude that the animal is "difficult" or "troubled."

"We think she was abused ..."

There is another way to write about dogs.

One could put oneself in a position in life where a dog or dogs become necessary. Not "necessary" to shore up a weak psyche -- necessary to achieve some human goal, some important work in a world where there is more action than in, say, a typical New Yorker short story.  Passionately necessary.

That has the effect of improving one's observational skills immensely. Never to be as good as a dog's, but better than you were before. From this follows genuine absorption, self-discipline, knowledge, perspective and insight.

Which is what farmer, novelist, essayist and sheepdogger Donald McCaig shares in Mr. and Mrs. Dog.

This nonfiction account interweaves the narrative of sheepdogs June and Luke's, and handler McCaig's, travels and trialing in preparation for the World Sheepdog Trial in Wales with other travels: visits to four pet dog trainers and a veterinary behaviorist.

Why would a sheepdogger, immersed in work that provides dogs with more coherence than a suburban pet can dream as her feet twitch in pursuit of visions of rabbits, step out of his contained subculture?

A couple years ago, noticing that most top handlers wore shooting glasses, a novice asked Scott Glenn what colored lenses she should buy.

"Rose-colored," Scott deadpanned.

I needed to change my lenses, to learn how to see my dogs afresh. Maybe I could borrow the pet dog trainers' lenses.

To see my dogs better, I needed to learn to see your dog. Funny how things work out sometimes.

The world of sheep and outruns, whistles and angles and drives and fetches -- these all make sense to sheepdogs. The same men and women who created the work have created the dog.

Airplanes and elevators, TSA agents and literary agents, kindergarten classrooms, car wrecks, parades, exam tables, and beaches where No Dogs Allowed is the law of the land -- notsomuch. But all those things are as much a part of June and Luke's world as is a stroppy blackfaced ewe, whether or not they or McCaig would choose for it to be so.

McCaig offers an international buffet in Mr. and Mrs Dog. Interspersed between accounts of sheepdog training and trial runs both triumphant and disastrous, the reader can absorb the philosophical underpinnings of behaviorism, the origin of "obedience training," the bureaucratic derangement and logistical ordeal of bringing a live dog into Britain (a dead horse, in a suitable state of disassemblement, is apparently much easier), descriptions of pet dog-training classes, a media-celebrated dog expert who does not own a dog, and the reason that legends of betrayed dogs, from Gelert and Argos to Raymond Carver, resonate so hard across time.

I have always admired McCaig's facility with descriptions of action, a place where most writers fall down for me as a reader. Perhaps this talent derives from the discipline of the sheepdog trial, the necessity of processing so much action in such a compressed moment, the compulsion to unravel what happened in painstaking detail afterwards, analyze every ear-flick and brood on every error.  Whatever the origin, McCaig can describe a trial run or a training class with the same vivid clarity as he brings to a Civil War battle. The attentive reader will be rewarded. I devoured the nearly 200-page book at one sitting, chewing every bite completely. However, it is likely that a reader who has never seen a sheepdog work or attended a trial will have difficulty visualizing the course and how it is run. (I would refer such a reader to YouTube -- try searching USBCHA trial and ISDS trial. Avoid any videos with "AKC" in the description. Better yet -- find a sheepdog trial near you this year, and make a day of the outing.)

McCaig's even greater strength, whether he is creating a fictional dog or describing a dog he knows well, is in characterization. Most writers' characterizations of dogs are no more than cherry-picked projections. McCaig shows us the real dog, or the portion of the real dog that she chooses to reveal to us. When McCaig projects, it is self-consciously --
 "Are you Max's?" the vet tech smiled at me.

I shook my head no. I didn't think I belonged to any dog, but if I did, I'd probably be Luke's, presently in the car, or June's. She was beside me in the reception room of Tuft's University Foster Hospital for Small Animals.

June eyed the big and little pet dogs and their humans. June yawned. June didn't want Donald to be hers: she had enough on her plate. Besides, how would she feed him?
 -- or, in hindsight, self critically. Luke is a "blockhead." The reader learns what that label really signifies only much later, just as McCaig does.

What it signifies is human assumptions, and ignorance, and the ways that we fail our dogs as they do their level best not to fail us, no matter how unreasonable our expectations.

It doesn't require a dabbling literary dilettante to fail a dog, in large ways or small. Real dog men and women carry the scars of their failures like tribal tattoos. The question that haunts every handler of every working dog is, and will always be, "What would she have been if she'd had a better handler?"

In contrast, the accounts of pet dog trainers and their pet methods strike me as inhibited, overly polite. McCaig brings the courtesy of a guest rather than the scalpel of an investigator to his subjects -- Tony Ancheta, Behesha Doan, Wendy Volhard, Pat Miller. The reader must fill in too much; doable for a trainer or hobbyist who knows the landscape of that minefield, a challenge for the civilian who does not. Only McCaig's interview with pill-pushing veterinarian Nicholas Dodman presents a clear author's point of view about his subject.

McCaig set out to put on new lenses with which to see his dogs -- not to revolutionize his entire image of them, but to change the tint and see if any new textures or details stuck out.

Most dog owners don't depend on their dogs for necessities, and most dogs do not help out at lambing, apprehend bad guys, serve a disabled master, find lost children, flush pheasants, or even keep the premises rat-free. Nevertheless, dog owners ask a lot of their dogs, sometimes impossible things, without being aware that they are doing so.

Even the owner of a Chihuahua blinking and shivering in her pink sweater would do well to try out the lenses worn by those who consciously ask everything of their dogs, and are keenly attuned to the gravity of those demands.

Have the highest expectations, do the work, and your dog can walk at your side anywhere on earth. He'll become the dog you've empowered to change your life.

* Bonus points, apparently, if you are the one who actually kills the dog. Yes, that's you, Jon Katz.