Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Marley and Me

This dog needed a prong collar.

That pretty much sums up the whole book.

"Marley and Me", by John Grogan, is not exactly a book of profound revelation, in fact, the deepest thought that Grogan elicits is, well, jealousy. Two thirds of the way through the book, the Grogans rip up their "Bocahantus" South Florida sunshine roots and retire to pastoral, bucolic Pennsylvania to manage an organic gardening magazine.

Who wouldn't want that?

The 'catch' of Marley is the breezy, cheerful, inclusive story. Unfettered of Elizabeth Marshall Thomas-like anthropomorphizations, Marley's life is an attempt at control and a success at happiness.

There is a great message in loving your pets for who they are, and fulfilling commitments. But there is also great moral in learning from someone else's mistakes, and training your dog! And there is great warning too. Grogan describes how they trusted Marley with their human babies. Fortunately no harm came of it, but it made Ms. X cringe.

Ms. X Recommends: Marley and Me was the best option at the airport bookstore to while away the hours on a cross country flight. Worked perfectly for that, but now I think it's going to sit on the bookshelf for a long while.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Beverly Hills Tex-Mex

Beverly Hills Chihuahua released last year. Ms. X watched it this afternoon. That is pretty typical of Ms. X's responsiveness to the Entertainment Industries latest panderings.

If you don't like Chihuahuas, well, you probably aren't even reading this post.

If you do like Chihuahuas, but you can't stand all the clothes, bling and crap - not to mention lifestyles - those poor little dogs put up with, you might be able to stomach the movie.

It has redemption.

It loses redemption at the end (in a BIG way; more about that later) but for a little while, in the middle, an ugly black and tan sloped back GSD freed the socialite bitch from a dog fighting ring and from the golden chains of her past.

Chloe lost her booties, lost her diamond collar and gained a eau' de Mexico No. 5 with the help of a well fed and groomed crew of Mexican strays.

That's where animal movies always lose it for me. Come'on. We're supposed to believe there are fat purebred bulldogs running (quite cleanly I might add) around the streets of Mexico City? Or the infamous alley cat gang in Stuart Little: if memory serves me there was a British Shorthair, Abbysinian, a couple Orientals and the ringleader was a Russian Blue?

Yeah right.

After wondering around for a while Drew Barrymore and Andy Garcia - I mean Chloe and Delgado - stumble upon the Lost City of Chihuahuas, deep in the heart of Mexico.

Hidden in the barren desert ruins is an enormous free ranging pack of ... Chihuahuas. Their ancestral home perhaps. How they survive is as questionable as how their leader, a long haired applehead, gets his grooming done.

But I suppose if you can feed a 100 odd tiny dogs in the desert, you can keep your long wavy locks, long and wavy.

Plump, well cared for dogs posing as strays is minor nitpick. Purebreds posing as strays is probably not so significant either, if it weren't for the moment at the end of the movie, after Chloe and Papa "kiss" (Papa, btw, voiced by George Lopez was one of the few voice-dog duos that really worked. Drew and Chloe, not so much.) that the movie producers forgot they were making entertainment, and slapped a warning label on their product. The warning was something to the effect of 'owning a pet is a big responsibility', 'lifetime commitment', ask your mommy and daddy first...

Now why the heck not, you might say.

Sorry. I am not one of those people who sit back and go "WOW. How Great was that of Disney to put that message out there! I of course would never irresponsibly purchase a dog, but I am well aware there are very few people like me and it is soo important that all the stupid people who just think Chihuahuas are cute and would run out and buy one so they could put ugly bling all over it get this very important message!".

Nope. That message was directed at me. I was the idiot Disney had in mind (so were you, don't kid yourself). And it's just another notch in the belt tightening around the neck of pet ownership.

Look at the movie for what it was. Paris Hilton covered her little purse dogs in bling from head to toe, and it was so popular that Disney made an entire movie about little purse dogs. They didn't have to do that. But if they hadn't, they couldn't have made a lot of money off purse dogs covered in bling.

While telling us those little purse dogs are too big a responsibility for the common man.

Especially those much loathed deer head chihuahuas. (Which Chloe is.)

Why, did you know that some people abuse deer headed chihuahuas just because they are deer headed? Yup. Says so right on the internet. So only evil people would breed dogs with such obvious faults that make people abuse them.

(Ignore the fact please, that appleheads have much higher c-section rates than deerheads. Forced c-sections are not abuse.)

Ok. So maybe Disney is right that the world is full of stupid people. Ms. X resents being lumped with any of them.

No Mas.

Some interesting articles on the dogs in the movie:
The Dogs from Beverly Hills Chihuahua

Beverly Hills Chihuahua

Ms. X recommends: Go ahead, show it to the kids. All in all it's not bad and if you don't mind Piper Perabo grinning like the Joker, you can watch it too.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Hidden Life of Dogs

I'm delighted to share The Hidden Life of Dogs by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas with you, because it gave me an excuse to read it again.

The Hidden Life of Dogs is a captivating record of observations about what dogs do, thoroughly mixed with a creative anthropomorphization of the dogs' motives. Ms. Thomas herself writes in the introduction that

A book on dogs must by definition be somewhat anthropomorphic, and reasonably so since our aversion to the label is misplaced.

It is a clever diversion to lend credibility to your words by acknowledging their biggest flaw, but it doesn't dispel the fact that this book needs a large WARNING: DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME.

Ms. Thomas kept a dog pack in her house. Contrary to the advise of dog experts, her pack was not carefully managed or controlled. It was instead allowed to morph and spar as naturally as possible. We get to watch the pack cohere and tear itself apart through a rose-colored window behind which our pets and our wild canids, the wolf and coyote, seem to exist in a state of tantric but terse equilibrium. We are left there to judge the good from the bad.

The pugs, Bingo and Violet, monstrosities of mankind, merely exist on the outer edge of the tantric circle. Tragic characters from a human folly, Bingo pines for the "real" dog, Maria (a husky), a natural canid and one of the 'beautiful people', while Violet pines for Bingo. It is Bingo and Violet who begin to raise questions about right or wrong.

When Bingo passes, little Violet is allowed to live the last year of her life crouching and trembling under a table in a self-imposed prison. We must conclude that this is what nature has decreed for Violet. But there is nothing natural about Violet, from the intentional design of her ancestors to the (most likely) artificial insemination of her mother, to her life in a home with a dog pack not of her choosing.

One could argue that leaving Violet to the caprice of "nature" was only wrong in the sense of abdicating for her the self-imposed responsibility humans took in the creation of the pug. But how is that Ms. Thomas' fault? Should she be responsible to the sins of past show breeders?

In Ms. Thomas' world, dogs only want each other. And so she reminds us frequently how her role in the dogs lives was only to allow, as much as possible, those natural canine interactions.

Should she have intervened? If dogs are self destructing, do we have a moral obligation to intervene? What about an owner/pet obligation to intervene? Ms. Thomas tells us humans are mere "cynomorphic substitutes" - outsiders in the canine inner circle. That is something to be thankful for. The canine inner circle is brutal, and Ms. Thomas interprets the canine conscience as a mirror of our own, mixing attachment and pain.

Consider the case of Viva, the dingo outcast who, like Violet, was unable to integrate into the dog pack. When Vivas' pups were born, Ms. Thomas anthropomorphizes a "single mom" figure, alone, frightened and utterly incapable of stopping the horror that was about to consume her.

The death of Vivas' pups is painted as merely the unavoidable consequense of being born to the lower ranking dog. Do dogs commit murder? It is Koki, the murderess, who emerges as the sympathetic figure because she didn't want to kill -she just had no choice.

But what about Ms. Thomas? She is the outsider, the observer, the human. Did she have an obligation to prevent the slaughter?

Ms. Thomas doesn't try to answer the tough questions. She writes her story for what it is.

I will confess to not being entirely sure of her intent. Is she advocating for humans to withdraw from the lives of animals? Or is she illuminating our similarities to remind us of our forgotten interdependence? Ms. Thomas writes that dogs have shared our lives for twenty thousand years, our world is their natural habitat. Interdependence, it seems, is our existence.

The Hidden Life of Dogs was first copyright in 1993, right before the clicker training popularity boom. If Ms. Thomas thought excessive training was "brainwashing" before the advent of shaping and luring and working for every mouthful of food, we can only guess at her reaction to the modern uber-focused canine performers.

If nothing else, Ms. Thomas does succeed at getting us to look again at our dogs basic canine nature. And perhaps, after all, that was her only intent.

Ms. X recommends: The Hidden Life of Dogs is one of my favorites. But perhaps the best thing about it is that it sparked my all-time favorite Dave Barry column.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Don't Shoot the Dog by Karen Pryor

(This blog originally posted on 7/22/2006.)

Well, I've done something I don't often do. I've read a book twice. And not a fiction book either.

Don't Shoot the Dog is a collection of Karen Pryors' opinions, observations and conjecture regarding the real-life application of certain scientific principles of positive reinforcement.

The middle section of this book, Chapter 4 to be precise, is rare and useful resource. Ms. Pryor creates 10 typical household scenarios from a grouchy spouse to a cat that won't stay off the table. For each scenario, she presents a way to address the problem using a wide range of approaches from pure punishment to purely positive.

This section is absolutely invaluable to anyone who has to deal with other people or animals. It gives a way to say "if I do this... what might happen?" Or "so and so does this, I want them to do this... how can I change their behaviour?"

When I first read this book, I was new to the whole world of behavioural manipulation. Now many years and much wisdom and experience later, I read it a gain with a new and suprisingly more objective perspective.

I have never been convinced that the purely positive approach is our evolutionary destiny, and Don't Shoot the Dog reinforced me. There are wonderful things you can do with positive reinforcement, but most of the successes seem to come from the timely use of a marker signal. And when the subject does the right thing, of course he should be rewarded... But I digress. This is a review of Ms. Pryor's opinions, not mine.

For an ethologist, or anyone trying to sew together evolution, biology and behaviour, there are a lot of frayed edges in this book. But average Joe and average Jane, looking for a way to make dinner with Grandpa tolerable, will quickly pick up on the books main theme.

Reinforce the behaviours you want, while giving minimal attention to those you don't.

The most novel thing about this concept is that the behaviourists think they invented it. The underlying principle however, is really the foundation for that other social institution we call "manners". Judith Martin has written advice columns for the past few decades reflecting this approach over and over and over.

The behaviourists did explain it to us though, and gave us insight on how it works and how to refine and perfect it.

Ms. X recommends: Don't Shoot the Dog is good advice for getting along with grandpa, grandma and that annoying Aunt Bee. Chapter 4 alone is worth the price of the book."

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Pro Pet Choice

(This blog originally posted on 5/14/2005.)

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Designer Dogs
Complete Idiot's Guides
Margaret H. Bonham - Author

Ms. X hasn't read this book, so don't consider this an endorsement, yet. However, I think the concept's sound.

"With photos, descriptions, specifications, and characteristics of more than 22 designer “breeds,” this helpful guide provides detailed information on everything aspiring pet owners need to know, including finding a breeder."

This is a great idea. Crossbreeds are an 'idea whose time has come' you might say, judging from their popularity. But truth is while the advantages of crossbreeds have only just begun to be sought in dogs, crossbreeding is a long established practice with other domesticated animals.

And finally, some ambitious, dynamic and caring dog lover (stop now, I know what your thinking but it wasn't Ms. X ) has stepped up to the plate and written an all-persons guide to these modern advancements in pet choice.

And what's her reward? The pedigreenatics claim "How Irresponsible!"'

Friday, April 11, 2008

The Worlds' Window

Throughout the course of history, when someone or a group of someones have wanted to gain control of society, they push their agendas by influencing emotions and undermining the real knowledge of the masses.

In other words, buying indulgences to keep your loved ones out of hell was par for the course, until the Bible was translated in everyday language and Gutenberg invented the printing press and Viola! People could learn truth for themselves.

Today there are many books, all printed in common languages. But that doesn't mean they are actually read. Certainly in dogdom there are still many someones pushing agendas through emotional appeal and suppression of fact.

You see it in the breeder who tells her vet how to treat her dog. "You have to do it this way" she says. "Because an experienced breeder said so!" And THEN she gets on her chat group and asks "why do we do it this way?"

It's in the dog trainer, that espouses "purely positive" tactics but has never heard of Breland or Bailey.

In GutenDog Press, we'll share insights from real educational works, and go to ground after emotional hype.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Dog, Structure and Movement

(This blog originally posted on 4/26/2006.)

The Dog ... Structure and Movement by R. Smythe, M.R.C.V.S

This little gem of a book isn't cheap. But it is Essential. It's a major weapon in the arsenal of the smart puppy buyer.

The only thing that will ever improve the quality of pet puppies in this world is the educated puppy buyer. This book is a beginners textbook to the structure of the dog. WHY do the bones fit together the way they do; WHAT happens when breeders purposely change one little thing here or there. And most importantly, Dr. Smythe tells the reader where the "withers" are, what a "barrel-shaped" ribcage looks, etc.

When you finish this book you will be able to pick out the dog with the long, obliquely angled shoulder blades, and you will know if it is a good or a bad trait for that type of dog.

Ms. X has often heard the complaint about a pet breeder whose dogs don't match the standard, and she's heard the show breeder using this as an excuse to tell pet buyers they should only buy from show breeders. Yes, Mrs. Show Breeder's dog may match the standard better, but she may also be matching an interpretation of the standard that is BAD for the dog's structure.

How's a puppy buyer to know?

With Dr. Smythe's book, you can. With Dr. Smythe's book in one hand, and a standard for ANY breed of dog in the other, the now-educated puppy buyer can look at the parents of any potential new family member and tell 1) do they fit within the standard for the breed? and 2) do they have a strong, healthy structure?

Ms. X recommends: BUY BUY BUY. The Dog, Structure and Movement is about putting the power to make smart choices back in the hands of the puppy buyer. And the puppy buyer's intelligently discriminating decisions will benefit all dogs.