For dog’s sake

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Marley & Me: Life and Love with the World’s Worst Dog
By John Grogan
Hodder & Stoughton £7.99, 384 pages
FT Bookshop price: £6.39

If Only They Could Speak: Understanding the Powerful Bond Between Dogs and Their Owners
By Nicholas H Dodman
WW Norton $15.95, 262 pages
FT Bookshop price: £7.99

One Dog at a Time: Saving the Strays of Helmand
By Pen Farthing
Ebury Press £12.99, 311 pages
FT Bookshop price: £10.39

Pet Food Politics: The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine
By Marion Nestle
University of California Press $18.95, 219 pages
FT Bookshop price £11.19

In 1933, novelist Virginia Woolf published her first attempt at biography. It sold extremely well: 19,000 copies in six months. Woolf, however, found this success embarrassing. The book, Flush, was a biography of a cocker spaniel, and the author was concerned it would give her a reputation as a “ladylike prattler”. The dog in question had an interesting pedigree – Flush belonged to Elizabeth Barrett, and witnessed her affair with fellow poet Robert Browning. But Woolf was still worried she had descended into an inferior rank of literature.

Those who write about dogs today take a similar risk. Like Woolf, however, they seem guaranteed a measure of success. There are now books on every aspect of dogs and dog rearing. These range from “textbooks” such as Cesar Millan’s Dog Whisperer and “self help” titles such as Diane Morgan’s Your Inner Dog: Discover What Your Favorite Breed Says about You, to dog biographies by the dozen, of which John Grogan’s Marley & Me is the current leader of the pack. Some people dismiss these volumes much as one would push away a slobbering dog – slightly absurd, lacking in self awareness and far too sentimental. “Prattling”, as Woolf saw it. But the size and range of the current litter of dog books shows that there are enough dog lovers out there to fuel the genre.

So what is it about dogs? What drives our curiosity about creatures whose own desires seem so straightforward? The partnership between man and dog, which offers companionship, loyalty, trust and friendship, is often idealised by dog owners but not always attained. And that difficulty can be part of the attraction – solving problems and forging emotional bonds is what helps to create the feeling of being in a relationship.

In fact, the narrative of many of these dog books is the story of a relationship like any other: tentative beginnings, obstacles overcome, and the eventual triumph (hopefully) of a lasting friendship.

Marley & Me is a bestselling memoir by journalist John Grogan, retold in a Hollywood film this year. From his first day in the Grogans’ home, Marley sets himself up as a lovable rogue, a constant troublemaker who chews, chases and dry-humps whatever he can find. For every anecdote in which Marley’s animal instincts help the humans around him, there are plenty in which his huge, goofy personality wreaks havoc on Grogan’s quiet Pennsylvanian home life. Marley is a nightmare to look after, but somehow the experience becomes a happy one. The longevity of the dog’s place in the Grogan household is its own reward.

The language of this book, like others of its ilk, also comes from the world of relationships. “The dog had a point,” Grogan writes after a brush with death amid an electrical storm. A rumble of thunder had sent the Labrador running for cover – seconds later, Grogan finds himself thrown to the floor by the force of a thunderbolt. He recovers, and “pulled Marley into my lap, all forty-four nervous kilos of him, and made him a promise right then and there: never again would I dismiss his fear of this deadly force of nature”.

It doesn’t matter that Grogan’s life – and prose – is fairly bland. Books about a dog enlivening and improving human existence have a powerful draw. The poet Mark Doty’s memoir, Dog Years, is a poignant example, a quiet love letter to the dogs who helped him nurse and comfort his dying partner. Harry Pearson’s Hound Dog Days: One Dog and His Man, is the opposite: an upbeat, Marley-esque tale of an individual embarking on a new life and finding an unruly dog doing most of the ice-breaking. And there are plenty more.

The message in all these books is not that dogs can save lives. The point is that they can help to mend them. When the relationship fails, it’s invariably unrealistic human expectation that is the problem. Nicholas Dodman, a vet at Tufts University in Massachusetts, tackles this issue in If Only They Could Speak: Understanding the Powerful Bond Between Dogs and Their Owners.

Dodman specialises in treating “difficult” cats and dogs. Predictably, he finds that it is the owners who are at fault: overbearing, absent, possessive, unobservant. One client, a vision of mid-life madness named Mrs Spinelli, brings in her black poodle and German shepherd for analysis. The dogs loathe each other with a passion at odds with Mrs Spinelli’s dainty home and lifestyle. Dodman advises her to pay more attention to the bigger dog – acknowledge him as the pack leader and make him less vicious towards the favoured lapdog. She ignores this advice, and the shepherd cracks – he kills the poodle in a savage attack.

The bond between dogs and humans extends beyond the home, however. And loving too much can be a dangerous thing. In One Dog at a Time: Saving the Strays of Helmand, Royal Marine commando Pen Farthing goes so far as to risk his life for dogs, reversing the usual dynamic of canine salvation. Farthing was sent to Afghanistan as part of the US-led force in September 2006, stationed in Now Zad, a remote, desert town defended by an army compound that is under intermittent sniper attack from Taliban fighters. There is little chance for the soldiers to leave the confines of the compound, which frustrates Farthing’s notion that western forces are in Afghanistan to win the “hearts and minds” of the people.

Instead, he engages in a rather different mission: to rescue a raggedy crew of stray dogs. The Taliban had banned dog-fighting as it was “un-Islamic”. After the Taliban were driven from power, dog-fighting is revived as back-street entertainment. Farthing is outraged by this practice, but his compassion for dogs becomes dangerously synonymous with western arrogance.

One of his first “saves” is a dog kept for fighting by the Afghan National Police, who share the Brits’ compound. Farthing marches forth to disentangle the animal from its wire leash. “I couldn’t create an incident between us and the ANP, who were supposedly on our side,” he writes. “But there was no way I was going to tolerate animal cruelty.” After much argument, the dog is freed, rehoused in the compound, and christened Nowzad (after the town). The dog becomes an emblem for rewriting a culture.

Farthing, in turn, becomes an emblem for western notions of decency towards animals – and consequently bears a huge burden. His rescued dogs become dependent on him for support, doubling his workload between shifts. Since his term of duty in Afghanistan is fixed, the book then follows his failed attempts to get his new charges to a shelter in the north of the country. In an ironic twist, it is the ANP who eventually resolve the situation by arranging a taxi to take the dogs to safety.

Though in some ways this is a work about Afghanistan – through the lens of a book about dogs – unlike more mundane dog memoirs, the cultural context highlights how far man’s bond with dogs can be tested.

The love of a dog has many guises, and takes on a very different form in another recent book, Marion Nestle’s Pet Food Politics: The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine, a serious investigative tome with a faintly ridiculous title. Nestle explores how a case of contaminated pet food from China in 2007 flagged up a wider problem of cheap exports that respond to western demand but ignore its safety standards. Once again, the book highlights how passionately aggrieved pet owners can become when they believe their furry friends are under attack.

The book focuses on a recall of pet food in North America prompted by complaints that animals had developed kidney problems after eating. Some pets never recovered, and 60m units were recalled by pet food manufacturer Menu Foods. A subsequent investigation found the culprit: melamine in Chinese-made wheat gluten.

As Nestle notes, the events exposed “catastrophic weaknesses in global safety systems” of food production and consumer products. What is interesting about this particular case, however, is the way in which the owners fought for their rights: “Dogs and cats may seem remote from fundamental questions about the functioning of democratic societies, but in this particular instance they were central.” Like other writers about dogs, Nestle highlights an undeniable truth: to their owners, these animals are as vulnerable and valuable as a member of the family.

And these pet owners are powerful, too: three months after the first customer called Menu Foods to complain, the Canadian company faced 75 class-action lawsuits. It eventually settled these, and other suits, for $24m.

Like Farthing and his tale of Helmand’s mongrels, Nestle’s story of “the pet food recall” is one of principle rather than scale. The recall was a big media story, but critics argued that the number of fatal poisonings was insignificant. US television host Rosie O’Donnell, for example, dismissed the problem: “It’s all over the news and people are like ‘The kitty! It’s so sad!’” she said. Yet the death toll of US soldiers since the recall – 29 people – was ignored, she said: “It’s not newsworthy. I don’t understand.”

Nestle’s response to this is as predictable: “Protection of the health and safety of society’s most vulnerable members is the cornerstone of American democracy. In this particular incident, the most vulnerable were cats and dogs.” The grave irony here is that in July 2007, China executed its former head of state food and drug administration, Zheng Xiaoyu, as punishment for the debacle.

These days the old Roman motto “cave canem” seems less pertinent than “beware the dog owner”. The depth of an owner’s love can be frightening but it is also valid – and real. In the poem “To Flush, My Dog”, Elizabeth Barrett lovingly praises her spaniel’s good character, grateful for his vigil at her sickbed, though “Other dogs of loyal cheer/Bounded at the whistle clear”. As she says: “This dog only, waited on,/Knowing that when light is gone/Love remains for shining.”

Natalie Whittle is the FT’s assistant books editor

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