The Fuzzy Yodas of Pet Lit

Go to the biography section of any bookstore and you’ll find yourself asking, “Who let the dogs in?” Dog stories—John Grogan’s bestselling Marley & Me, Jon Katz’s border-collie psychodramas, Emily Yoffe’s comic beagle-rescue tales—are a booming sub-genre of the confessional … Read More

By / January 9, 2007
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Go to the biography section of any bookstore and you’ll find yourself asking, “Who let the dogs in?” Dog stories—John Grogan’s bestselling Marley & Me, Jon Katz’s border-collie psychodramas, Emily Yoffe’s comic beagle-rescue tales—are a booming sub-genre of the confessional memoir. And the boom shows no signs of stopping: Katz published yet another book about life with Orson, his alpha collie and muse, in September.

Americans love their pets, of course, and they love to treat them like little people—just look at the popularity of dog strollers, Burberry collars, canine massage therapy, and “bark mitzvah” parties. These days, though, this kind of anthropomorphism is accompanied with an interesting twist: the dog not only as human, but as counselor, guru, a sort of fuzzy Yoda. Recent pet memoirs like those by Grogan, Katz, and Yoffe suggest that we’re treating dogs like furry Dr. Phils. But they also demonstrate exactly why that’s a bad idea. Dogs are fundamentally different from us, and only by appreciating them as such can we grasp our own human nature.

A hundred years ago or so, dogs were simply dogs. You had them because you had rats in the barn, or for protection, or because they were in some vague way “good for kids.” In the post–World War II era, as utilitarian reasons for dog owning declined and prosperity increased, the dog became a member of the family—never better exemplified than by Lassie, an animal whose communication skills rivaled those of Oprah Winfrey. Dogs became like us: little people in fur coats, with their own desires, hopes, and dreams. And we began to turn to them for guidance, completing their transition from catcher of rats, to savior of Timmy, to psychoanalyst.

Why? According to the Pew Research Center, dog owners today are likely to have more education and disposable income than non–dog owners. Yet they are less likely to live near family, more likely to live alone, and less likely to be part of a stable neighborhood or religious community. Dogs provide a unique, no-strings-attached kind of emotional support. We can trust them to be entirely agenda-free; unlike other moral guides, they aren’t trying to sell us anything, or to convert us to the timeless wisdom of Jesus or L.Ron Hubbard.

Dogs are simply being themselves, passively allowing us to take what lessons we will. This makes it easy to project onto them our own human fears and desires, especially since they aren’t so different from us in their needs for attention and care. But every “accident” or leg-humping display immediately clarifies their animal nature. When we acknowledge the alienness of our canine friends, we become more aware of ourselves, a process that can end in one of two ways: self-transcendence or narcissism.

Unfortunately, the most popular of the dog books, John Grogan’s Marley & Me: Life and Love with the World’s Worst Dog, takes the second route. Grogan may believe Marley’s “pure heart” taught him what was truly important in life, but the dog is mostly a framing device for Grogran’s self-obsessive riffs. Marley enters the Grogans’ lives when they are still newlyweds; by the time he exits thirteen years later they have undergone career advances and setbacks, the birth of three children, several moves, and the trauma of miscarriage. One hopes they would have learned a little bit about life during those years even without a behaviorally disordered Labrador to show them the way.

Despite the fact that the book is purportedly about his dog, Grogan never seems to learn much about Marley. The mere fact that he refers to him as “the world’s worst dog” implies that Grogan has no concept of the further reaches of canine dysfunction. Without researching the breed, Grogan and his wife Jenny bought Marley as a sort of proto-baby, never considering what training him would entail. Even after the untrained dog nearly causes Jenny to have a nervous breakdown, Grogan felt “sick” about the prospect of training: “He was the undisciplined, recalcitrant, nonconformist, politically incorrect free spirit I had always wanted to be, had I been brave enough, and I took vicarious joy in his unbridled verve.” This is narcissistic projection at its worst—Grogan was having a midlife crisis, which made him see training Marley as somehow knuckling under to “the man.”

The life lessons Grogan gleans from Marley are suspect at best, such as when he boastingly observes that “status symbols mean nothing to him.” Granted, Grogan’s trophies of “fancy cars, big homes, or designer clothes” didn’t faze Marley. But anyone who has watched a Jack Russell striving mightily to pee higher on a fencepost than the Great Dane who recently passed through knows that dogs worry about status just as much as humans.

Slate writers Emily Yoffe and Jon Katz do considerably better in recognizing the dog-ness of their dogs. If anyone should look to a dog for reassurance or therapy, it would be Yoffe; in What the Dog Did: Tales from a Formerly Reluctant Dog Owner, her offhand remarks about her neglected childhood rival David Sedaris’s. Although deliberately comic, the book takes a dramatic turn toward the end when Yoffe’s dog trainer, a confident and charismatic man, unexpectedly commits suicide. The scene jars in an otherwise jokey, rambling memoir, yet on a deeper level, it resonates. Her stories illustrate how dogs acquaint us with how little we can ever know another person. In Yoffe’s formula, the strangeness of dogs, the fact that we can never fully know or understand them, seems to be a literary device for the more dramatic strangeness of humans.

Jon Katz’s books are by far the most thoughtful of the lot. A certified trainer, Katz took his border collies’ careers so seriously that he eventually bought a small sheep farm for the dogs. A Dog Year chronicles his first year with Devon (later called Orson), the canine version of Will Hunting: a brilliant, conflicted, self-hating adolescent determined to sabotage any attempt at intimacy.

What’s crucial to Katz’s success (and likeability) is that he never forgets that his dogs are a foreign species, and he works constantly to educate himself on their needs. He believes that pets can have therapeutic value: “Dogs offer a chance to keep working at the issues that prevent me from attaching to other human beings—impatience, judgmentalism, intolerance, anger.” But he recognizes that just because a dog has four legs doesn’t mean it’s a couch.

Today’s crop of memoirs—even the sentimental, self-centered Marley—are an indication that, in Katz’s words, “the new work of dogs” is less utilitarian than it once was and more social-emotional. But if dogs are to be sources of comfort, it is necessary we recognize how they are different from us and how we’re using them to feel better about ourselves, which both Yoffe and Katz manage to do.

In our therapy-obsessed culture, awareness of the self and the selfhood of others are considered paramount virtues, so we’re already conditioned to be sensitive about the differentness of dogs. An obsessive focus on self-awareness can be dangerous, though, because it causes us to project our desires for independence or love on the way our Golden Retriever fetches a ball or pees on a fence. The best of the pet lit books remind us that the end goal of self-reflection is not this kind of narcissism. It’s the difficult, ongoing process of transcending it—which requires seeing ourselves as compassionate, if flawed, humans, and seeing our dogs as dogs.

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