Monday, November 18, 2013

On "Amazing Dogs" by Jan Bondeson ***

This was not quite the book I was expecting. I'd read about when it first came out, but for whatever reason, the thing that stuck in my head was Nazi dogs: the relationship between the Nazis and dogs and how the Nazis used dogs for particular ends. Very little of that is in the book. The book is more about famous dogs in general. As such, it has some interesting tidbits that would likely interest a canine lover. Not a dog person myself, I found myself shrugging my shoulders at much of the material, other than when I learned something historical I hadn't known about. In that sense, studying something like the dog in history can be fascinating, as it enlightens one to various aspects of our culture that existed just a century or two ago. Also selling this book: the magnificent illustration program. The book is, in itself, gorgeous.

Bondeson splits her material up by topic, as one might expect. There were several chapters on dog intelligence and communication. Much of this I was familiar with from the psycholinguists reading list I'd plowed through a few years ago. There were tales of dogs who could count (or not--as the Clever Hans effect is often at play) and of dogs who could supposedly communicate in various ways. Most interesting were those that managed, somehow, to say a few words of human vocabulary. This would be very unusual and difficult, as dogs vocal cords don't really allow for such.

Another chapter discussed dog actors. Apparently, in Victorian times, there was a liking for dog plays for a short while. Many times, the real fun of the play, however, was seeing how the dog would mess the play up, as dogs do tend to do as they want at times.

Another chapter focused on dogs that traveled by themselves. This is not something we see much of today: dogs on public transport just because they want to be. While reading this chapter, I was reminded of my friend Al's dog Max and how that dog sometimes would manage to get out and wander around the neighborhood for an afternoon. Al denoted how interesting it could be when Max got back, as sometimes Max would have ornaments from his travels, be it pizza crust or whatever.

Dogs have had various uses in days gone by that we don't see much of anymore. They've been used, for example, to collect money for the poor. (People were more inclined to give money to a collecting dog than a human. But not unlike some less-than-trustful humans, some dogs had a way of spending their earnings rather than bringing them back to the charity where they belonged.) Other dogs were used to turn roasts on a fire (turnspit dogs, they were called, a breed all but gone now). This job sounded incredibly horrid and the dogs terribly maltreated. Still other dogs were used to churn butter.

Bondeson then turned her attention to a few specific breeds, one bred to swim well and the other to rescue folks. This latter we know as the Saint Bernard, but the famed cask around its neck is mostly legend.

Of particular interest was a chapter on rat pits. A great sport was made for a while in the 1800s of dogs killing rats. Competitions in which a trained dog was put into a pit to attempt to kill one hundred rats faster than its counterpart dog became popular. Quite a gruesome spectacle--and one that fell out of vogue as people's sympathy with animals has grown.

And that in turn leads to Bondeson's account of a riot caused over a statue in a park dedicated to a dog who was killed in medical research. Medical students, incensed by this statue, rioted to pull this statue down. Defenders of experiments on dogs faced off against animal rights activists. This kind of love for the creatures we keep as pets, in turn, has led to a few pet cemeteries over the years, which is where Bondeson brings her book to a fitting end.

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