Globe Review


Saturday, December 22, 2006

Print Edition - Section Front

Dogs: Canine saviours and saviours of canines

Review by Elizabeth Abbott

Wally's World
Life with Wally the Wonder Dog
By Marsha Boulton

McArthur & Company,
242 pages, $24.95

Why Does My Dog Act That Way?
A Complete Guide to Your Dog's Personality
By Stanley Coren

Free Press,
 288 pages, $32

Despite its seasonal appearance, Wally's World is no jolly Christmas-season reminiscence about a beloved pooch, in this case a bull terrier with a face his "mom," Marsha Boulton, describes as "a bicycle seat with eyes."

That's because the two most important humans in Wally's world are Boulton, an award-winning humorist, the first sheep-raising author to win the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour, and her long-time partner Stephen Williams, whose books Invisible Darkness: The Horrifying Case of Paul Bernard and Karla Homolka and Karla: A Pact with the Devil, unleashed a tsunami of judicial rage against him. From Wally's puppyhood to his old age, Williams was subjected to criminal charges, arrests, imprisonment, trials and acquittals, and the emotional turmoil and financial devastation this caused.

Luckily, he and Boulton had Wally the Wonder Dog to distract and love them. Wally "shaped our life and saved it, too, in the way that only a dog can do," Boulton writes. Wally became the child they did not have, and transformed her and Williams into a family.

Wally, named after poet Wallace Stevens, followed other well-loved dogs into the Boulton-Williams farmhouse. He was an orange-striped, brindle puppy with "a white blaze that started in the ruff around his neck, extended to his muzzle and up between his eyes where it stopped in two devilish points at the top of his head. His black nose was framed in a ragged heart and a perfect black dot centred his chin," Boulton recalls.

Before long, despite dog breath reeking of raccoon droppings, Wally was sleeping with his people. He and Boulton practised his puppy obedience class lessons. Diva, the older Shar-Pei, taught him how to be a better dog. Whitened with makeup and cornstarch, he participated in dog shows. Boulton writes about his head-on confrontation with a porcupine: "Stephen had been mug-shot. Wally had been mugged in the woods."

Wally accompanied his people everywhere. On a newscast following one of Williams's arrests, he and Wally were shown playing football across from the police station.

During a publicity tour Wally gorged on a $60 hotel room service meal paid for by Boulton's publisher. On camera during a television interview, he licked the artificial tan off Boulton's ankles, cleaning them "as carefully . . . as an egg in a carton."

As if Williams's troubles were not enough, Boulton was diagnosed with cancer. "Empowered by Eve Ensler's play The Vagina Monologues, I can admit that there was trouble with my vagina," she writes. After surgery, she gave to each of a collection of short stories she wrote "what I fervently hoped for myself -- a happy ending."

That happy ending was a long time coming. As Boulton and Wally watched, police arrested, handcuffed and carted Williams off to jail. A period of intensified judicial harassment ensued. Williams's lawyer, Eddie Greenspan, remarked: "I have never acted for anybody with this many offences in my life. We're close to the Guinness record already." Police raided the farmhouse and seized the household computers; Boulton lost a historical novel-in-progress -- "I did not know that writing about Presbyterians was a felony" -- and her recipe for lamb and artichoke stew.

The couple could no longer function. "As writers, our tools were taken. As farmers, we could no longer protect our livestock. As people, we were inextricably changed." That Christmas, Boulton and Williams were too exhausted to decorate their house; instead they tied a ribbon on Wally, "our sole present -- and all we really needed."

Their "trubbles' ended only when Wally was elderly and weakened by Lyme disease. Williams was exonerated. Boulton passed her cancer-free five-year milestone. "I do not know where I would be had Wally not been in my life," she writes. "Whatever happens -- and I know plenty will -- I am forever grateful to have shared Wally's world."

Wally's World is a gripping memoir that moves gracefully between humorous stories about Wally, the beloved dog cum child, and Boulton's narrative of Williams's tribulations, told with icy irony and barely restrained anger -- "not all that much has changed since Salem." Astonishingly, she scarcely mentions the monstrous Bernardo and Homolka; they are Williams' territory, as is the "pact with the devil" that freed Homolka after only 12 years in prison. Though Williams' books about them triggered judicial harassment that pummelled her relationship and savaged her writing life, Boulton has refused to let the actual murderers into Wally's world.

Why Does My Dog Act That Way? is an entirely different kind of book, another chapter in B.C. psychologist-dog maven Stanley Coren's serialized encyclopedia of canine nature, behaviour and training methods. This time the doyen of canine scholarship (The Intelligence of Dogs, How Dogs Think, How to Speak Dog) promises to show "how to create a Superdog, not one who flies and wears a cape, but a dog that is friendly, fearless, co-operative, intelligent and trainable," and how to measure dogs' personalities and compare them to others of their breed.

The practical implications are enormous and might prevent millions of dogs -- one-third of those adopted in North America -- from being discarded for behavioural issues and incompatibility with their owners. Even Charles Darwin disposed of a hound he considered "graceless, noisy, and drooling . . . witless and lacking in self-control" though he adored Polly, a rough white fox terrier whose character meshed with her master's needs.

Coren begins by debunking the assumption that "dogs are just wolves in sheep's clothing." For one thing, dog DNA reveals a mix of ancestry that includes jackal, coyote and dingo as well as wolf. For another, breeding has made dogs so different from their forebears that their lupine antecedents cannot explain their behaviour.

Coren hypothesizes that wolves and other canids, rather than humans, did much of the initial breeding that transformed their offspring into dogs with little of the dominance, suspiciousness and aggression characteristic of adult canids. Even as adults, these animals retained the pup-like traits of barking, friendliness and accepting leadership. "Domestic dogs are the Peter Pans of the canine world," Coren writes.

While wolves shunned sustained human contact, dogs were comfortable near the humans who used them to protect their encampments and perform other services, such as warming their beds; a "three dog night" meant that it was very cold. Later, hunters bred for retrieving, shepherds for herding, bored royalty for pocket-sized toy dogs. Dogs today can be categorized as retrievers, pointers, spaniels, setters, sight and scent hounds, guard dogs and personal-protection dogs, draft dogs, vermin hunters, fighting dogs, companion dogs, Spitz-type dogs, herding dogs or drovers.

The genetic manipulation that was the vehicle for creating different breeds within these categories led to breed-specific traits and behaviours that are the keys to understanding dog personalities. Even mixed breeds can be assumed to share those of the breed they most resemble.

Coren has devised a 60-question Dog Behaviour Inventory personality test, much like those used to assess humans, to evaluate canine intelligence and learning ability, sociability, energy level, emotional reactivity, and dominance and territoriality. He also suggests which combinations of these traits make a dog suitable for various services: pet therapy, police duty or just plain companionship.

In his chapters on creating superdogs, Coren describes how the U.S. Army's Superdog Program, and especially Australia's Drug Detection Dog Breeding Program, have pioneered the process. The secret involves choosing selectively bred puppies and exposing them to a variety of experiences that include handling, stimulation and measured stresses.

Unfortunately, man can also create the antithesis of the superdog. In a chapter called Creating Monsters, Coren describes the history of fighting dogs and the appalling techniques used to train them. "You got to give the dogs a taste for blood," one trainer told him. After rabbits "you work up to cats and then other dogs that won't put up much fight."

Rap and popular subcultures glorify dog fighting and make it a thriving business for gambling operations and mob involvement. "Illegal dog fighting occurs in every state in the United States and in all provinces in Canada," Coren notes.

These "Macho Dogs for Macho Men" savage humans as well as other dogs. In the United States, for example, pit bulls account for 41.2 per cent of all dog-related deaths, 49.6 per cent if pit crossbreeds are included. Coren calculates that "pit bulls account for 80 to 100 times the number [of fatal attacks] we would expect based on their population percentages."

As a scientist, Coren thinks in terms of probabilities and, he writes, "the probability is high that aggression will be triggered in those lines and breeds of dogs that contain the genetic heritage of dogs selected for their fighting abilities in recent generations -- even if that animal has lived a peaceful and uneventful life until that moment." He hopes that chemical profiles will soon be developed to identify dogs with these dangerous tendencies. Otherwise, political solutions and breed bans "may result in the virtual extinction of certain "at risk" breeds."

But selective breeding can convert the descendants of "Devils" into "Angels." Today's good-natured bull terriers -- Wally is a perfect example -- descend from fighting "pit and bull terriers." In the mid 19th century, they were selectively bred for temperament, with genetic input from Dalmatians, greyhounds, borzois and other breeds, and for a distinctive appearance. Now the elegant bull terrier is an ideal family dog "with the potential to be a friend, a nanny, and a bodyguard."

The British bulldog, once violent, aggressive and seemingly impervious to pain, has been transformed into a mild-mannered, stoical dog that retains only his ancestors' ferocious appearance.

Why Does My Dog Think That Way? is an enormous contribution to our knowledge of the history and still-developing nature of dogs. Coren's explanations of the mechanics of genetic manipulation and his interpretations of scientific data are clear and insightful. His Dog Behaviour Inventory is an important tool to ensure that ignorance about breed characteristics do not sabotage the magic and mystery of the human-dog relationship.

Elizabeth Abbott is a writer and research associate at University of Toronto's Trinity College. She lives with a pack of hounds and a sensible cat who is currently in training for certification as a pet therapist in a children's reading improvement program. The hounds, alas, love books so much they devour them