As we approach the winter equinox—the long nights stretching ever longer, the cold snap threatening ever colder, the specter of drones dancing in my head—I find myself craving comfort and, dare I say it?, even joy. Lucky for me, I have the solace of man’s best, and most-grounded friend, waiting for me when I return home at the end of the day. This is no small grace, as I was painfully made aware after the passing of our beloved Polly, a German Shorthaired Pointer mix, more than a year ago. We endured a year of mourning, and when we finally could be dog-less no more, we made a trip to the Humane Society. My husband had spotted online a three-year-old female German Shorthair named Reese. While I wavered about both our commitment and our ability to channel her prodigious energy, my husband announced he would not leave the shelter without a dog.
So, once again, our family benefits from the singular pleasure of being greeted at the door by a wet nose and full body wag. Reese does us the added honor of announcing each arrival home with a small bark. (Although we have had doubts about the suitability of her name, Reese responds to it, which is the most critical issue for a dog who can leap like a gazelle and run seemingly forever.)
On the darkest, coldest winter mornings, Reese faithfully reports for duty as a running partner. And just when my resolve starts to weaken at the front door, she begins to tremble with excitement. Turning back is no longer an option. With four legs and a low center of gravity, she navigates ice like a champion. German Shorthairs are sometimes trained as sled dogs, which can be tricky for the biped running with her, but great when facing a hill. Once home again, Reese finds the warmest, sunniest spots in the house and focuses on recovery like a professional athlete.
Dogs and books are great companions on dark cold nights and even better if the two are combined—reading with a dog, reading to a dog, or reading about dogs. For example, on the first night home with our family, Reese understood when it was time for our young daughter’s story time, and so found a spare blanket and panda pillow on which to rest. She visibly relaxed for the first time—curling up and going to sleep, as she has so many nights since.
Reading books about dogs has been one of our family’s shared joys. Most readers will agree that once you start reading books in one genre, it can be hard to stop, which explains our shelf of dog literature (good books about dogs). From dog adoption and training we ventured to fiction, then to remembrances of particularly beloved dogs, animal science research about dogs, and, most recently, to children’s books about dogs. The genre of canine literature is growing exponentially and there’s no chance of keeping up. Nonetheless, at a time of year when dogs shine as an especially brilliant creation, this idiosyncratic list of our family’s favorite canine books is my ode to the animals who help us be more human and more joyful.
Dog Adoption and Training
Successful Dog Adoption by Sue Sternberg
Provides very helpful advice about what to expect from various breeds and specific tips on what to focus attention on when visiting a shelter for a possible adoption.
No Bad Dogs: The Woodhouse Way by Barbara Woodhouse
As the back cover indicates, “There are no bad dogs, Barbara Woodhouse believes—only inexperienced owners. . . . Woodhouse passes on to the reader the simple, effective techniques as well as the infectious, positive attitude that have enabled her to make the most unruly or nervous dog happily obedient.” My husband learned many training tips from this enjoyable book.
Nonfiction about Beloved Dogs
Colter: The True Story of the Best Dog I Ever Had by Rick Bass
“‘How we fall into grace. You can’t work or earn your way into it. You just fall. It lies below, it lies beyond. It comes to you, unbidden,’ writes novelist and essayist Rick Bass of the arrival of his ‘goofy little knot-headed’ genius of a pointing dog. As they roam the remote western Montana valley where Bass lives and hunt the golden autumn plains in the eastern part of the state, Colter the dog unfailingly ushers Bass the man into ‘an unexplored land’ where the two become ‘as alive as we have ever been: our senses so sharp and whittled alive that we could barely stand it.’ . . . [Bass’s prose] result[s] in luminously transcendent passages on the education and sorrowful loss of a brilliant and mischievous chocolate brown pointer that will transfix anyone who has ever loved a dog.”—Publishers Weekly
The Difficulty of Being a Dog by Roger Grenier, translated by Alice Kaplan
From the cover copy: “Forty-three poetic, lovingly crafted vignettes between these covers explore both history and literature, digging elegantly to the center of a long, mysterious, and often intense relationship between human beings and dogs.
This “50-something ‘suburban rookie’ buys a farm in upstate New York, stocking it with three border collies and a small herd of sheep. . . . This leaves plenty of latitude for adventures—lost sheep, horrible weather, the dramas of dog training, and lamb birthing. Soon the introspective author realizes that his interactions with dogs are about ‘trying to become a better human.’ After all, his dogs have unfailingly high expectations of him. . . . These stories offer readers a potent stew of triumphs and failures, all tied together by the constancy of complicated, joyful, lovable dogs.”—Publishers Weekly
A Life With Dogs by Roger Welsch
From the cover copy: “They can make a grown man coo baby talk in public and a strong woman weep like a little schoolgirl. They seldom perform any practical function in our modern, mechanized society, yet people are willing to spend more on vet bills than on their kids’ college tuition. They pee on our carpets, shred our living room furniture, and poop on our sidewalks, yet we love these critters more than we love life itself. Why do little beasts have such control over us simple human beings? That is the question dog nut Roger Welsch explores.”
Fiction about Dogs
Ordinary Wolves is the story of a boy growing up in rural Alaska. From the jacket: “Seth Kantner captures America’s struggle for its soul in this original debut novel. . . . [the protagonist] finds his way, navigating between sled dogs and ‘snowgos,’ between ancient ways of the wolf pack and the ever-approaching drone of the world beyond.” My husband highly recommends this book.
A Dog’s Purpose: A Novel for Humans by W. Bruce Cameron
I bought this book because of its cover blurb from Alice Walker. From the jacket copy: “This is the remarkable story of one endearing dog’s search for his purpose over the course of several lives. More than just another charming dog story, A Dog’s Purpose touches on the universal quest for an answer to life’s most basic question: Why are we here?”
Dog: A Short Novel by Michelle Herman
“Rosen, who prefers to be called J.T., is a poet and a college professor living in a small midwestern town. . . . After an early and disappointing love life, she has more or less sworn off men—or have they sworn off her? She lives an orderly and careful life that revolves around her work, her teaching, and her little house. Then, on a whim, she adopts a nine-week-old rescue puppy. Phillip, aka Phil, is a dog who is as careful with his emotions as she is, which appeals to Jill. Soon he has her out walking, meeting her neighbors, changing her routine, and examining her life. What develops is a very real connection between two creatures and the mutual healing it brings. Told with humor, insight, and intelligence, this novel is as thought-provoking as it is charming.”—Booklist
“Beautiful in its use of language and unsettling in its observations, this story was the worthy recipient of the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Book Prize. Recommended not only for dog lovers interested in learning more about the training and accomplishments of a therapy dog but also for nurses, social workers, gerontologists, and anyone facing the prospect of long-term care for aging parents.”—Library Journal
Dog/Animal Psychology and Research
The Other End of the Leash: Why We Do What We Do Around Dogs by Patricia B. McConnell
“It matters greatly that people who love dogs understand enough about them to provide a good environment,” writes McConnell in her thoughtful exposition on improving human-canine communication. An animal behaviorist and adjunct professor of zoology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, McConnell offers sound advice for dog owners: Pay attention to your own behavior. Believe me, your dog is. Drawing on anecdotes from her professional practice (she specializes in canine behavior problems), on research into the work of other dog trainers, and on personal experiences with her beloved Border collies, the author explains how a dog might be misinterpreting signals from its owner. . . . This is a helpful guide for pet owners by a specialist who clearly loves her work. “—Publishers Weekly
Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animals Behavior by Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson
“Philosophers and scientists have long wondered what goes on in the minds of animals, and this fascinating study gives a wealth of illuminating insights into that mystery. Grandin, an animal behavior expert specializing in the design of humane slaughter systems, is autistic, and she contends that animals resemble autistic people in that they think visually rather than linguistically and perceive the world as a jumble of mesmerizing details rather than a coherent whole. . . . . Grandin and Johnson deploy a simple, lucid style to synthesize a vast amount of research in neurology, cognitive psychology, and evolutionary biology, supplementing it with Grandin’s firsthand observations of animal behavior and her own experiences with autism, engaging anecdotes about how animals interact with each other and their masters, and tips on how to pick and train house pets. The result is a lively and absorbing look at the world from animals’ point of view.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals by Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson
“[Grandin] considers how humans and animals can best interact. Working from the premise that an animal is a conscious being that has feelings, the autistic author assesses dogs, cats, horses, cows, pigs, poultry, wildlife, and zoo animals based on a core emotion system she believes animals and humans share, including: a need to seek; a sense of rage, fear, and panic; feelings of lust; an urge to nurture; and an ability to play. . . . Packed with fascinating insights, unexpected observations and a wealth of how-to tips, Grandin’s peppy work ably challenges assumptions about what makes animals happy.—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
The Social Life of Dogs: The Grace of Canine Company by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas
From the jacket copy: “Elizabeth Marshall Thomas provided fascinating answers to the question ‘What do dogs want?’ It turns out that more than anything, they want the company of other dogs. Now, in this frank and moving sequel, she explores how, despite this desire, they have beautifully adapted to life with their human owners.”
Children’s Books about Dogs
Harry the Dirty Dog by Gene Zion, with pictures by Margaret Bloy Graham
A truly delightful storyline with equally charming illustrations. From the cover copy: “Harry is a white dog with black spots who loves everything . . . except baths. So, one day before bath time, Harry runs away. He plays outside all day long, digging and sliding in everything from garden soil to pavement tar. By the time he returns home, Harry is so dirty he looks like a black dog with white spots. His family doesn’t even recognize him!” (All the Harry books we have read have been winners.)
Benjy’s Dog House by Margaret Bloy Graham
About a dog who is exiled from the house when his family builds what they think will be a wonderful doghouse for him. He’s too lonely to sleep in it outside by himself, though, so he wanders downtown in the wee hours of the morning and a friendly baker lets him stay with him during the night—until a cat also takes residence there and he is turned away.
These are charming board books for the lover of spotted dogs.