Willie, Cliche, and other pet theories

DOG LOVE by Marjorie Garber Hamish Hamilton pounds 20 DOGS NEVER LIE ABOUT LOVE by Jeffrey Masson Cape pounds 15.99

Emily Green
Saturday 31 May 1997 23:02 BST

When the owner of two golden retrievers compulsively collects dog trivia, that's eccentric. When the owner is a Harvard academic (or "cultural commentator") who puts the information in a book, that's scholarship. Cleverly marketed scholarship, too. Marjorie Garber's Dog Love pulls off a neat trick: it takes a searching look at our relationship with dogs, while adding handsomely to the bulging store of dogabilia and dog trivia.

As if to divide herself from the kitsch and the kooks, she begins on a sceptical, almost admonishing note, contrasting the outpouring of popular sympathy for abandoned puppies to the reaction to people in need. She gently mocks the pet-care industry, and its buoyant new US chains such as Petsmart, Petstuff and Petco, and the trade in pet insurance, pad-protectors, dog bagels and the like. But then, very like a labrador that has sat still long enough, she races off and retrieves enough doggy detail to occupy the owners of Britain's 6.5 million canines and ten times that in the US.

One senses an irrepressibility - that once she has found something out, she couldn't leave it out. She gives us dogs in literature, dogs in films, dogs in cartoons, dogs as companions, dogs as war heroes, dogs in hospitals, dogs in advertising, dogs in space, dogs according to sexual fetishists, dogs in shows, dogs in the law, dogs in cemeteries, dog cryogenics, and a delightful coda about the various formations of dog tails. Midway through the book, just when the reader feels overwhelmed, open to any subject but dogs, a method to the madness emerges. This book is not so much about dogs, but their owners.

Very illustrious owners, too. Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka, Emily Dickinson, Lord Byron, Eugene O'Neill, Sigmund Freud, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Robert Louis Stevenson ... The names alone tell a story: Dorothy Parker's mutt (a "Thurber" dog) was "Cliche"; John Cheever's bitch retriever "Edgar", Peter Mayle's mutt "Boy", Armistead Maupin's poodle "Willie", Lyndon Johnson's beagles "Him" and "Her".

A scientific discussion of dogs is restricted chiefly to the laboratories of Pavlov and Descartes, where dogs were tortured and dissected alive, on the grounds that they were machines with neither souls nor consciences. Garber uses one of Descartes's contemporaries, Madame de Sevigne, to do the debunking. "Machines which love, which prefer one person to another, machines which are jealous ... come now!"

For the British reader, Garber is a refreshing American: she's erudite and she gets Britain right, be it about the founding of Crufts, the aristocratic business of "dog improvement" or Lord Byron's passion for his dog, Boatswain. If there is a problem, it is her generosity toward her readers. Lest she lose the less well-read, she occasionally spells out the obvious (such as shades of meaning to the word "fancy").

Yet Garber's own sense of humour is quick and sly, nowhere more dancing than in the chapter about pedigree dog clubs, where she finds "fabulous bloodlines" and the American Polish Owczarek Nizinny Club advertising "luxurious non-shedding coats that come in all colours". Her straight face trembles a bit when quoting sexologist Alfred Kinsey on the subject of people lusting for pets, but the tone never descends to scoffing.

By contrast, in Dogs Never Lie About Love, the former Freud archivist Jeffrey Masson isn't out to run circles around us with dog-facts, but to settle us down in something of a dog-lovers' encounter therapy group. This is Masson's second book on animal emotions: When Elephants Weep, written in 1994 with Susan McCarthy, became a best-seller. The style is touchy- feely. Suffice it to say humans with dogs are not "dog-owners" but "caretakers". Yet a clear line of thinking runs through the mush: that it is dogs' capacity for love and loyalty, their rare emotional candour, that allows them to survive.

Garber's book takes the idea further, more clearly. Dog behaviour tells an evolutionary story about survival in a pack. Before humans self-destruct, they may wish to study the importance of it. Oddly, it is Garber, rather than Masson the analyst, who brings the father of psychoanalysis into the argument, quoting Freud's observation: "Dogs love their friends and bite their enemies, quite unlike people, who are incapable of pure love and always have to mix love and hate in their object relations."

Freud had his ideas about dog-haters, too. "It would be incomprehensible ... that man should use the name of his most faithful friend in the animal world - the dog - as a term of abuse if that creature had not incurred his contempt through two characteristics: that it is an animal whose dominant sense is that of smell and one which has no horror of excrement, and that is not ashamed of its sexual function."

The best quip, found in the Garber book, goes to Peter Mayle: "To err is human. To forgive is canine."

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