Ever since humans started throwing scraps to the adventurous wolves beyond the firelight, dogs have been inspiring us and drawing forth from us the full spectrum of our emotional capacity. From enjoyment, love and gratitude to exasperation, fear and cruelty, our reactions to our furry companions have been a mirror of our greatest virtues and our deepest shortcomings. If you’re thinking of reading The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs in the hopes of finding one warm and fuzzy, tug-at-the-old-heartstrings story after another, you may be disappointed, though probably not for long. This is The New Yorker, after all, and this collection, compiled and contributed to by The New Yorker Magazine’s Malcolm Gladwell, lives up to the reputation for breadth and sophistication we’ve come to expect.
It is a book to be savored, something to be read in its smallest components and pondered. It is divided into four sections — Good Dogs, Bad Dogs, Top Dogs and Under Dogs. Each section is introduced by a piece from writer, cartoonist and New Yorker editor James Thurber (1894 – 1961), who was obsessed with dogs both in his writing and his drawings.
Fiction, poetry, journalism and creative nonfiction blend to form a panorama of all aspects of life with “man’s best friend.” Better yet, the writers are a cross-section of the best of the 20th century — E.B. White, Ogden Nash, Arthur Miller, Wislawa Szymborska, Ann Sexton, John Updike and T.C. Boyle to name a few.
You’ll learn about working dogs, and how the training of police dogs and guide dogs diverged. You’ll encounter the lingo of dog fanciers. I grew up with a beagle, and my artistic side would have been enriched by the knowledge that she wasn’t wagging her tail; she was “feathering her stern.” She wasn’t barking; she was “giving voice” or “opening.”
Then, there’s the perplexity that has surrounded the study of the canine’s olfactory talents. Dogs, you will learn, can find cell phones in buckets of water.
A good dog is a natural super-soldier: strong yet acrobatic, fierce yet obedient. It can leap higher than most men, and run twice as fast. Its eyes are equipped for night vision, its ears for supersonic hearing, its mouth for subduing the most fractious prey. But its true glory is its nose. In the 1970s, researchers found that dogs could detect even a few particles per million of a substance; in the nineties, more subtle instruments lowered the threshold to particles per billion; the most recent tests have brought it down to particles per trillion.
“It’s a little disheartening, really,” Paul Waggoner, a behavioral scientist at the Canine Detection Research Institute, at Auburn University, in Alabama, told me. “I spent a good six years of my life chasing this idea, only to find that it was all about the limitations of my equipment.” (“Beware of the Dogs” Burkhard Bilger 34)
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One of my favorite articles tackles the question of how dogs came to be domesticated in the first place. Did humans capture and breed wolf cubs, as some believe? Or, was it the proto-dog’s idea to hang out with humans? The question springs from a father’s story of coming to terms with his daughter’s irrepressible desire for a Havanese puppy.
It wasn’t cub-snatching on the part of humans, but breaking and entering on the part of wolves that gave us dogs. “Hey, you be ferocious and eat them when you can catch them,” the proto-dogs said, in evolutionary effect, to their wolf siblings. “We’ll just do what they like and have them feed us. Dignity? It’s a small price to pay for free food. Check with you in ten thousand years and we’ll see who’s had more kids.” (Estimated planetary dog population: one billion. Estimated planetary wild wolf population: three hundred thousand.) (“Dog Story” by Adam Gopnik 11)
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And, then there are the cartoons. A dog walking on a leash says to a dog holding his own leash, “So, how long have you been self-employed?” A dog looking at a menu in a restaurant says to the waiter, “Is the homework fresh?”
In “A Note on Thurber’s Dogs, Adam Gopnik relates a Buddhist-like train of one question morphing into another.
Those of us who care about dogs–and The New Yorker— ask a similar straightforward-seeming question that also provokes several trick turns. For us, the question “Why did James Thurber always draw dogs?” really means something like “Why do dogs matter for writers?” or even “What draws writers to any of their strange obsessive subjects?” (Which is another way of asking, “What is the way?”) (381).
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