Category Archives: dog

The Art of Racing in the Rain

by Garth Stein

I found this to be a bit too sentimental and obvious. It’s difficult to criticize such a good-natured story, especially one told by a dog (Enzo), and if it were only a matter of the cliche-filled story of a man (Denny) who is talented and looking for a break, whose wife dies of cancer, whose troubles with difficult in-laws lead him to lose custody of his young daughter, topped by the accusation of child molestation involving his nubile niece… I might leave well enough alone.

But when the author tries to shoehorn little life lessons into the edges of this story by means of car racing parallels, it becomes a bit much:

“He says racing is doing.  It is being a part of a moment and being aware of nothing else but that moment.”

“Ideally, a driver is a master of all that is around him, Denny says. Ideally, a driver controls the car so completely that he corrects a spin before it happens, he anticipates all possibilities. But we  don’t live in an ideal world. In our world, surprises sometimes happen, mistakes happen, incidents with other drivers happen, and a driver must react.”

“Often things happen to race cars in the heat of the race. A square-toothed gear in a transmission may break, suddenly leaving the driver without all of his gears. Or perhaps a clutch fails. Brakes go soft from overheating. Suspensions break. When faced with one of these problems, the poor driver crashes. The average driver gives up. The great drivers drive through the problem. They figure out a way to continue racing.”

“When the pressure is intense and the race is only half completed, a driver who is being chased relentlessly by a competitor realizes that he might be better off pushing from behind than pulling from the front. In that case, the smart move is to yield his lead to the trailing car and let the other driver pass. Relieved of his burden, our driver can tuck in behind and make the new leader drive his mirrors.”

“No race has ever been won in the first corner. But plenty of races have been lost there.”

The primary life lesson that Stein wants to impart to us is the repeated refrain, “The car goes where the eyes go.” In other words, your life can go in a direction that you yourself choose. You have to make conscious choices, and keep your eyes on the prize… While I have no disagreement with this, I found these little set pieces of driving advice to be terribly unsubtle, clunky even. But Stein is relentless in this tactic. And having all of these nuggets of wisdom transmitted by a dog, who cannot drive or even hold a steering wheel (Enzo laments more than once on his lack of opposable thumbs), and who has gleaned all of this by listening to his master speak and watching television, seems to be reaching too far for one book.

Near the end, after his wife has died and the head of Ferrari’s testing program has asked our Denny to test drive Ferraris in Maranello (!!), we have a final analogy. Because of course, life doesn’t travel in a straight line, and there may be obstacles on the course, but the car goes where the eyes go:

“A driver must have faith. In his talent, his judgment, the judgment of those around him, physics. A driver must have faith in his crew, his car, his tires, his brakes, himself.

The apex sets up wrong. He is forced off his usual line. He carries too much speed. His tires have lost grip. The track has gotten greasy. And he suddenly finds himself at the turn exit with no more track and too much speed.

As the gravel trap rushes at him, the driver must make decisions that will impact his race, his future. To tuck in would be devastating: wrenching the front wheels against their nature will only spin the car. To lift is equally bad, taking grip away from the rear of the car. What is to be done?

The driver must accept his fate. He must accept  the fact that mistakes have been made. Misjudgments. Poor decisions. A confluence of circumstance has landed him in this position. A driver must accept it all and be willing to pay the price for it. He must go off-track.

To dump the wheels. Even four. It’s an awful feeling both as a driver and as a competitor. The gravel that kicks up against the undercarriage. The feeling of swimming in muck. While his wheels are off the track, other drivers are passing him. They are taking his spot, continuing at speed. Only he is slowing down.

At this moment, a driver feels a tremendous crisis. He must get back on the gas. He must get back on the track.

Oh, the folly!

Consider the drivers who have been taken out of races by snapping their steering wheels, by overcorrecting to extremes and spinning their cars in front of their competitors. A terrible position to find oneself in –

A winner, a champion, will accept his fate. He will continue with his wheels in the dirt. He will do his best to maintain his line and gradually get himself back on the track when it is safe to do so. Yes, he loses a few places in the race. Yes, he is at a disadvantage. But he is still racing. He is still alive.

The race is long. It is better to drive within oneself and finish the race behind the others than it is to drive too hard and crash.”

All of this might be acceptable in a light-weight, quick read. I’m a dog lover, and like a lot of guys I take pleasure in driving a car. But when on top of everything else Stein layers on a spiritual component:

“I don’t understand why people insist on pitting the concepts of evolution and creation against each other. Why can’t they see that spiritualism and science are one? That bodies evolve and souls evolve and the universe is a fluid place that marries them both in a wonderful package called a human being. What’s wrong with that idea?”

I remove a further star from my review. No further explanation or elaboration is given for this idea that “spiritualism and science are one.” But one of Enzo the dog’s refrains throughout the entire story is that dogs who are ready will return to this world as people in their next lives. Sure enough, when Enzo dies following Denny’s wife’s death, and Denny has moved to Italy with his daughter, and has of course gotten the chance to not only test drive cars for Ferrari, but actually race in their F1 program… to become world champion (!!), in the last scene of the book, Denny’s “greatest fans” come to say hello to him after he’s just won a race, telling him that he is “better, even, than Senna” (!!). An old man and his young grandson. Whose name is… wait for it… Enzo… *sigh*

Category: dog, novel, sports | Tags: ,

Dog Man

by Martha Sherrill

This book was recommended to me by more than one person I met at the dog park. As an Akita owner, it seemed like a must-read. Dog Man chronicles the life of Morie Sawataishi, who more or less single-handedly saved the breed from extinction in WWII-era Japan. Under the duress of wartime, the dogs were eaten for meat, and their fur used to line soldiers’ coats. It was illegal to own them, and all most all of Japan’s Akitas had been rounded up. The Akita had already been mixed with a few foreign breeds, such as Mastiffs and German Shepherds, to introduce greater size and strength when dog-fighting became popular in the years earlier. Then, when WWII broke out, some Akita owners deliberately mixed their dogs with German Shepherds, which were spared from the war effort because they were valued as service dogs.

I learned quite a bit more about the Akita breed, including how the split between Japanese and American Akitas came to be: Two particular dogs were born in postwar Japan who embodied the characteristics of two different bloodlines. One was from the city of Akita and the other from the city of Odate. There was something of a rivalry between the two areas to produce the best dogs. Kongo, from Odate, was a large, barrel-chested dog who had some traits that were associated with foreign dogs with which the Akita had been earlier bred. Goromaru, from Akita, was longer-legged, and not as stocky as Kongo. His face was rounder, as opposed to the longer, slightly more Shepherd-like face of Kongo. And where Kongo had loose skin, Goromaru’s was tight. It happened that Goromaru’s owner was a glamorous former actress, and as a result this dog was widely seen and admired across Japan. He came to the attention of U.S. servicemen stationed in Japan after WWII, and they too liked what they saw. As a result, the Dewa line of Akitas which he represented were acquired and taken back to the United States. It also happened that the two Akitas that Helen Keller acquired were both from Kongo lines, which made these dogs all the more desirable to the Americans in Japan. This was the origin of the difference between the modern American and Japanese Akitas.

In Japan, these two champion dogs, so different in appearance, became the rallying cry for the standardization of the breed. It was the Ichinoseki line exemplified by Goromaru which was chosen to exemplify the original and true characteristics of the Japanese Akita. Morie was involved at this fundamental level, as an owner and breeder who showed his dogs in many competitions, winning more often than not. Dog Man is structured by the succession of dogs that Morie owned, each defining a portion of his life, while at the same time re-establishing the breed that he loved more than anything. In tandem with a few other men who owned Akita dogs, with whom he crossed his own, Morie sought to return the breed to its old snow-country origins. He saw that in the wake of the sudden, incredible demand for Akita dogs driven by American servicemen, puppy mills were springing up all over the country, and many of the people involved were only interested in making money, not in producing sound, healthy dogs with true characteristics of the breed.

Morie had ample opportunity to do the same, but amazingly, never accepted money for one of his dogs:

“Kitako [Morie’s wife] encouraged him to sell a few puppies now and again, even to simply offset the costs of his dog habit, but Morie resisted. Every time he tried to put a price on one of his dogs, he felt uneasy. He had only one litter a year, sometimes two, and he liked to see the puppies go off to people he knew and respected. He might repay a favor or a vague social debt by giving away a puppy, and he didn’t mind making an instant friend, either, but when he thought about selling a dog to a total stranger–or taking cash for a puppy–something inside him was revolted.”

Breeding was not easy, either, because at this point there was so much other blood in the Akita line:

“Every dog had an atmosphere of its own, and a look, and a balance of qualities as well as vulnerabilities and mannerisms that Morie found fascinating. Sometimes when he admired a dog’s strengths, he tried to imagine what would happen if it were bred with one of his own. People who’ve never done it tend to imagine dog breeding is simple. But Morie spent untold hours contemplating the possibilities–always hopeful and excited. Life was full of mystery and magic, and risks. Genetics most of all. If you put two dogs from the same established breed together, they would reproduce themselves almost perfectly. But if you put two Akitas together, the force of the unknown took over. Beneath the obvious traits of each Akita, there were dozens of hidden ones waiting to come to the surface.”

What was he looking for?

“‘I always wanted to breed confident dogs,’ he says. He looked for energy and endurance, a ruggedness and competitive spirit… a dog with a strong will, a vigorous dog with kisho.”

After winning many, many prizes in the show ring with various dogs, Morie decided to train one of his dogs, Samurai Tiger, to hunt. They began with duck hunting, and then rabbits and pheasants. Eventually, together with his mountain man friend Uesugi, Morie took Tiger bear hunting.

“Uesugi always said that when you stood face-to-face with a bear, it brought out the true nature of a dog and the true nature of a man.”

“Even though some of the old legends about Akitas describe them hunting in pairs, Morie never hunted with more than one dog. He found that his dogs tended to compete for game and fights started. There were other displays of dominance, too, which were distracting and simply a waste of time.”

On that first hunt, they got a bear. “After they’d hauled the bear out of the hole, Uesugi gave Samurai Tiger some of its blood to lap up. ‘That did something powerful to him,’ Morie says of the dog. ‘ After that, it was as if he’d follow that scent to the ends of the earth to taste it again.’”

Eventually, Morie and Samurai Tiger would kill 11 bears together. By 1975, Morie had been breeding Akitas for 45 years, but would still get anxious when a new litter was ready to be born. “There was always the chance that another Samurai Tiger might appear. ‘They say you get only one dog like him in your lifetime,’ Morie says, ‘but I thought if I lived long enough, I might get two, and prove that saying wrong.’”

And by this time, the Akita breed characteristics had become firmly established:

“Since the 1980s, the dog world of the north had begun to favor an Akita with a slightly different look–longer and thinner legs, a more foxlike snout and triangular eyes–but by the early 1990s, this style of dog prevailed as the new standard in Japan. It had been a long, slow struggle since the end of World War II, when the dog men of the snow country had simply hoped to produce litters of puppies with erect ears and curling tails. Now the days of the hodgepodge dogs were over. The stout bodies, bear-shaped heads, and shepherd faces were gone, too. The traces of cross-breeding with Western dogs in the early part of the century had been erased. And when two of these Japanese Akitas were bred, there weren’t surprises–but perfectly uniform litters of dogs so similar it was nearly impossible to tell them apart.

The result was a smaller, more finely featured Akita than those in America and elsewhere. That didn’t bother the snow country breeders. Since the Akita was their native dog, they felt they were allowed to set trends, rather than follow them. But it was this, along with a desire to resist being influenced by the international market, that led the Japan Kennel Club in 1996 to begin refusing to recognize Akitas from other countries, creating a split that has still not been reconciled. To many breeders and Akita clubs worldwide there are two distinct breeds, and ‘American’ Akita and a Japanese one, something the American Kennel Club has not yet recognized.”

But, despite the fact that Morie had contributed greatly to the preservation of the Akita dog, he felt that something in them had changed:

“Slowly over the years as Japan became tamer and richer, he says, the Akitas changed too. Their faces are delicate and sweet. Their eyes are sensuous. Their mouths seem to curl up in a perpetual smile. They are cute dogs, happy dogs, pets… He’d helped to preserve the Akita breed–the flesh and bones of the traditional snow country dog. But what about its heart and soul, its nature? The essence of the Akita–its unique spirit and ruggedness–now seemed unsuitable for the modern world…‘I worry that the dogs are losing their core aggressiveness and sharpness, their shrewdness,’ Morie says. ‘Having kisho means a fighting spirit. And I think it’s a fighting spirit that has allowed the Akita to survive for centuries. But people want dogs to be useful to them, and so their traits are always desirable in relation to man, and what man wants from a dog.’ … When you rescued an animal from extinction, what was the most important thing to save, the body or the spirit?”

Inside of a Dog – What Dogs See, Smell, and Know

by Alexandra Horowitz

It’s commonly accepted that the dog was the first animal to be domesticated by man. We’ve had thousands of years together, and there is no stronger bond between humans and other animals. And yet, what do we know about them? I mean, about their inner thoughts, motivations, feelings? Many a dog owner will tell you that s/he understands his or her dog, knows what they are thinking, and vice-versa. But do we really?

As Horowitz points out, in all these thousands of years, the dog has not really been studied in a scientific manner. The conventional wisdom in animal science is that the interesting things to be learned about animal minds will be found among the primates. But that is changing, as scientists realize that over the course of our long history together, dogs, “through the artificial selection of domestication, [ ] have evolved to be sensitive to just those things that importantly make up our cognition, including, critically, attention to others.”

Horowitz would seem to be qualified to talk about this stuff: she is a dog owner and lover, of course, and a scientist by training:

“I study animal behavior. Professionally, I am wary of anthropomorphizing animals, attributing to them the feelings, thoughts, and desires that we use to describe ourselves. In learning how to study the behavior of animals, I was taught and adhered to the scientist’s code for describing actions: be objective; do not explain a behavior by appeal to a mental process when explanation by simpler processes will do; a phenomenon that is not publicly observable and confirmable is not the stuff of science.”

So, the scientist observes dogs. And in doing so, Horowitz spends considerable and repeated time describing how dogs are also sensitive observers of humans. Dogs don’t know, for instance, that they should not stare at a handicapped person, and they don’t tire of repeated observation, but retain a childlike ability to be fascinated:

“What makes dogs good anthropologists is that they are so attuned to humans: they notice what is typical, and what is different. And, just as crucially, they don’t become inured to us, as we do–nor do they grow up to be us.”

And of course dogs have other highly acute senses, most notably smell. They can detect things about us by means of their noses that we humans would need special instruments to measure. Many of these things have bearing on our behavior. An example is testosterone level – not only can a dog sense when this is heightened in a human, but the cortisol level in the dog will rise or fall in correlation.

The book is full of many such observations, drawn from a multitude of studies –  animal behavior studies, human behavior studies, child-psychology studies,  comparisons of dogs and other animals, or of dogs and humans, etc. None of it is dry or tedious, and much of it is personal. Interspersed throughout are vignettes concerning the author’s own dog, Pump.

“Every dog owner would agree with me, I suspect, about the specialness of her own dog. Reason argues that everyone must be wrong: by definition, not every dog can be the special dog – else special becomes ordinary. But it is reason that is wrong: what is special is the life story that each dog owner creates with and knows about his own dog. I am not exempt from feeling that, even from a scientific vantage. Behavioral scientific approaches to dogs, far from displacing this story, simply build on the singular understanding of the dog owner – on the expertise that each dog owner has about her dog.”

Ever aware of the dangers of anthropomorphism, Horowitz introduces us early on to the concept of umwelt, or “self-world.” “Umwelt captures what life is like as the animal.” In other words, we have to think like dogs in order to understand them: “it will be our tool for resolving the tension between what we think we know about dogs, and what they are actually doing.” While it may be an imperfect tool, Horowitz provides a plethora of examples as she shares what she has learned about dogs which make vivid the gaps, and allows us to enter that much more deeply into the canine mind. While we might note that a dog has urinated on a fire hydrant, our dog, by taking a few whiffs of that urine, can know the sex and age of the peeing dog, what it last ate, and its general health…

Such are the things we learn about what dogs see, smell, and know.

Category: dog, science | Tags: ,

Katz on Dogs

by Jon Katz

I’ve been doing a lot of dog reading since getting Charlie, and not all of those titles are listed here. I figure I will remember what The Akita was about. But there were a few things in this present book that I wanted to take notes on. There are of course many schools of thought with regard to how to train dogs – dogs in general and particular types of dogs as well. Here are some of Katz’s thoughts:

“…what is perhaps the most essential ingredient in a dog’s life: a human who will take emotional responsibility for him.”

“Humans may not be as unique as we think; perhaps other animals also have a well-developed sense of self-consciousness. But probably not the animals that share our homes and menace our bedroom slippers. The more I’ve moved away from interpreting my dogs’ behavior as nearly human, the easier it is to train them, and the less guilt and anxiety I feel.”

“The reality is, we don’t know that much about what dogs think, because they can’t tell us. You can make up your own mind about what you think dogs think. Behaviorists tend to believe that dogs ‘think’ in their own way–in sensory images involving their finely honed instincts. They’re not capable of deviousness or spite. They love routine: nothing seems to make them more comfortable than doing the same thing at the same time in the familiar way, day after day–we snack here, we poop there, we play over here. I am astonished at how little it takes to please them, how simple their lives can be if we don’t complicate them with an overlay of human motivation.”

“Remember (and it can never hurt to say before each training session): ‘This is an animal, not a child.’ Most dogs are quite willing to follow the rules; when they don’t, most often it’s because they don’t understand the rules. Communication is the key to training. Don’t blame the dog for being confused. Challenge yourself to be clearer, more patient and creative about letting the dog know what you want. Try. Try again. Understand that real training takes many months, even years.”

Things to keep in mind as I try to make Charlie into the best dog he can be, while being to him the best owner that I can be. So far, so good.

Category: dog | Tags: ,