Last year, more dog-centric books were published than at any time in history, it seems. One in particular stood out, earning high praise both from us and many other reviewers: Gail Caldwell’s masterful Let’s Take the Long Way Home. Like many of the current books, it’s a memoir, but unlike most of them, it’s not really about dogs, but rather about a friendship in which a shared love for dogs played a central part.
Taking a similar nonlinear approach, two more books, Dog Walks Man (Lyons Press, $22.95) and A Small Furry Prayer (Bloomsbury, $24), deserve your attention. What do these two have in common? They are both experiential stories of how dogs enlightened and enhanced the authors’ perceptions of themselves and the natural world.
In Dog Walks Man, art critic John Zeaman scours his New Jersey neighborhood to find ideal areas to walk with his Standard Poodles (Pete and later, Luke). From mundane around-the-block trudges to expeditions into the urban jungle of the Meadowlands, the author seeks a life that “consists of wildness,” and the dogs are perfect partners in discovering it. When he felt like dogwalking was becoming a chore, an oftrepeated Groundhog Day-like scene, Zeaman simply found more varied and interesting spots to take the dogs—the “fringe,” as Thoreau called these nature nooks.
Similar to the prophet of Walden, Zeaman’s slow-paced musings—on art, natural history or his dogs’ social graces—have a calming, meditative quality to them. There are also many humorous “aha” reflections that make a reader feel that she has much in common with the author. For example, he considers what he calls “dog-walking marriages”—a relationship with another dog-walker whose dog gets along with yours, whose schedule matches your own and with whom it can seem that you spend more time than you do with your “at home” partner.
If Dog Walks Man is contemplative and mellow, Steven Kotler’s A Small Furry Prayer is a book about questioning and questing. Subtitled “Dog Rescue and the Meaning of Life,” it takes place in r ural n orthern N ew M exico—a region where “there weren’t too many normal people around.” Which made it a perfect place for the author and his wife to start their dog sanctuary, Rancho de Chihuahua (ranchodechihuahua.org )—home to not very “normal” dogs: special-needs dogs who are too old or too frail or simply too “compromised” to be easily adopted.
Kotler comes to dog rescue fearing that he will feel too much—even refusing to accompany his wife into shelters—but he soon realizes that a dog sanctuary has a way of forcing the issues of empathy and altruism onto its inhabitants (of both species). As for the meaning of life, Kotler does a stellar job of exploring it through the meaning of the human-canine bond, delving into the works of scientists, philosophers and psychologists.
Even better are his observations of the interactions among the sanctuary’s free-range dogs, all of whom are fully realized characters in this story. He gleefully throws himself into being part of the pack, taking the big dogs and the many Chihuahuas on forays into the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, where both dogs and humans experience a “flow state,” defined as “a joyous and complete merger of action and awareness.” Being totally involved in the now, time flies and the ego melts away—a feeling you’ll surely share when reading Kotler’s delightful and insightful book.