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As a SERIOUS dog lover (I have four and a foster currently and I'm actively involved in Rescue), I take interest in most books about dogs and there are a lot of them lately. Dogs seem to be the latest craze in books - slipping past Angels, almost up there with Zombies, but not quite at the level of Vampires yet. However, a fair number of these books seem to be written by people who don't really have much experience with dogs and "What's a Dog For?" is one of those. John Homans is a journalist so his writing is competent, but he admits that he has truly known only a couple of dogs - both Lab mixes - so he really isn't the ideal candidate in my mind to answer a question like: What's a Dog For? And, he doesn't answer the question in this book - OK, I guess it was rhetorical anyway - but he does do a good job of lining out the basic scientific study of the evolution of dogs and their cognitive abilities, the history of breeding and humane organizations, and the changes in cultural attitudes toward dogs.
This book will be interesting to most dog lovers, but I saw two major short comings. For a book titled, "What's a Dog For?", this book is decidedly short on the history and background of working dogs (other than hunting dogs like LABRADORS - Homans' dog). Search and Rescue, aids to the physically disabled, herding dogs, therapy dogs, police/military duty; there is an almost inexhaustible list of job functions dogs have taken on in history and still do. Homans talks much about how the "emotional side" of dogs and their physical characteristics have allowed them to mold themselves into human society, yet he skims over the fact that dogs (unlike his example of tamed foxes who are also cute and emotional) have made themselves almost indispensable to people independent of what jobs we ask of them or what environments we put them in. (Hey, dogs have gone over the mountains, into the deserts and arctics, across the oceans, and even into space to work with us!!) The fact that dogs always seem willing, even eager, to "partner" with us (even our family dogs protect our person and property) versus just being a pet like a gerbil may have a lot more to do with the dog's success in our society than just the fact that they are cute. Yet, I was still thinking that for scope and entertainment, this book was still a good 4 star until Homans came to the last hour or so and entered the debate on No Kill. Homans seems to ignore the fact that the No Kill movement has resulted in the annual euthanasia rate in the US dropping from 20 MILLION dogs and cats in 1970 to about 3 million today and that many city run pounds are now operating on No Kill principles. The current euthanasia number is still ghastly but hugely improved, yet Homans only reports this change from the perspective of the ASPCA, an organization that will lose its current raison d'être if No Kill succeeds. Homans paints Nathan Winograd (founder of the No Kill Advocacy Center) as a kook and a zealot as characterized by the head of the ASPCA without interviewing Nathan Winograd or anyone active in No Kill. He uses the large Pit Bull population in shelters as evidence that we must continue killing - can't get all those dogs into refuges like Michael Vick's dogs (quotes the ASPCA guy) - but, in fact, Michael Vick's dogs were fighting dogs which most pit bulls in shelters are not AND (this is a big AND), most of Michael Vick's pits were rehabbed and ADOPTED to regular people, not killed and not sent to refuge. So this was a totally specious argument and Homans as a journalist should have caught it. Homans seems to be arguing that a commitment to stop the killing through aggressive spay/neuter programs and education is tantamount to giving dogs person-hood. I just don't agree and I don't think he presented his arguments well in this area.
Ultimately, if you are interested in dogs, this book provides a quick fairly entertaining historical summary. If you actually care about what happens to all dogs in our society, this book presents an incomplete and somewhat skewed picture. If you want to understand dogs better, this is NOT the book - Homans clearly loves his dog, but doesn't seem to have much insight into dogs as a whole. If you really want an answer to What's a Dog For?, get a a dog!
10 of 10 people found this review helpful
do you just love dogs ? / did you have a favorite dog as a kid ?
do you believe that dogs are unique within the animal world ?
does all the recent canine scientific research confuse you ?
john homans has written the perfect book for you
he is not an academic veterinarian or a research scientist
he is simply a NY magazine editor with a breezy and urbane curiosity
homans makes no attempt to be exhaustive or authoritative
he simply asks and answers the questions he thinks we'd like to know
the book has an ironic, humorous, sophisticated and affectionate tone
recent MRI research confirms that dogs can in fact "read" humans
they're also an antidote for the sadness and loneliness of modern city life
homans reminds us that most dog owners have known these facts for years
books by g. berns, c. warren, a. horowitz and t. grandin are more scientific
homans is happy to let them have their expertise and elegant theories
he simply wants to tell us what a real dog lover would want to know
2 of 2 people found this review helpful