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When I agreed to read and review Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson’s THE DOG WHO COULDN’T STOP LOVING (Harper 2010), the regal Charles Hobson Booger, III was still with us. When it arrived, the day after Charles died, I’ll admit to wanting to burn it.

Essentially, I was afraid that the pain would never stop. And the crying would never stop.

But it has lessened some, and I’ve gained back that five pounds I lost, so I suppose my heart is on the mend. And if it’s not, and sometimes I feel it isn’t, at least I am able to return to productivity, and even visit Deb’s tribute without completely breaking down.

Jeff Masson’s new book didn’t cause me to unravel, but I did learn a lot about our friends and coevolvers, Canis familiaris. And I received confirmation of something I’ve known since 2004, when we adopted retired racing greyhound, Violet Rays: That there’s sort of a critical period for dog-behavior acquisition, and if it’s missed, the dog isn’t likely to mature into the type of loving being whose behavior we’ve come to associate with “pet” dogs.

But let’s back up a bit.

This Masson book (here are all of them) is for Benjy, who was supposed to be a service dog but who was, shall we say, less than enthusiastic about the career choice that was made for him. He was adopted by the Masson family and was apparently the most loving dog all who met him had ever had the pleasure of being licked by. Masson tells Benjy’s story–and Benjy stories–while explaining his theory about the mutual domestication of dogs and humans. You may know that dog/human coevolution has been a popular topic in the past decade, and if so, this might help: Masson “takes E. O. Wilson’s [biophilia] hypothesis and gives it a new twist. Not only have dogs and humans influenced each other for tens of thousands of years, they have done so in far more profound ways than any other two species on earth, and primarily in the direction of acting on the capacity for love in all its different manifestations, such as showing sympathy, feeling empathy, and expressing compassion” (xi).

This coevolution isn’t a mere side-by-side existence. The point is that, as Chapter 3 is titled, “Dogs Make Us Human.” Masson traces the history of our relationship with dogs, and sprinkles in stories from various cultures that love as well as despise them, and concludes that dogs are more significant to humans than any other animal (39). This includes horses, cats and cows. And he details why. As much as I might love Emily (our kitty), the way Masson sees it, she doesn’t love me back in the same way. She’s not capable of the kind of love that dogs and humans are capable of for one another–across species. And he presents a pretty compelling argument by basically describing how little regard Emily really has for me and how quickly she’ll shred my hand (although she behaves very differently with Baby Sky, interestingly. There’s never a claw in sight and she’s very patient). However, I have to disagree with page 78’s: “Will a cat comfort you when you are sad? He might, but I would not count on it.” My experience says otherwise (particularly with my childhood kitty, Brady), but generally speaking Masson’s depiction of cats is accurate.

Yes, I wanted to also say to him “Yeah dogs are great, but you didn’t see my multi-year relationship with Mr. Magoo, a Muscovy duck who was blind in one eye.” But he then addresses that. There are duck stories and elephant stories and pig stories, but the reason we hear about them is because they are extraordinary. The dog’s uninhibited, unconditional love of his person/people/maybe even everybody, as in the case of Benjy, is the rule, not the exception. And that concept–and the reason for it–is what drives this book.

(Just a note here: I also think what we the reading public reads about is dictated by what publishers think is worthy. I’d bet that there are far more stories of human/nonhuman, nondog love than we know about. And though the Internet is changing that, part of the reason we all think dogs love us so much is because everyone’s always talking about how [most] dogs love us so much, and because we all want to read and hear and watch stories about dogs because that’s part of our culture here in the US.)

Our coevolution looked like this: “We reinforced the behavior in one another again and again and again, over many thousands of years, until it was instilled in both species” (55). This is why we aren’t anthropomorphizing when we speak of the compassion or love or grief that dogs show. We’re not saying they appear to be acting like us; we’re saying they’re acting like themselves. (And others, such as Marc Bekoff, have also discussed this.)

I’ll end with a handful of brief thoughts because this is getting way too long (Baby Sky’s been napping and I’m surprised she’s still asleep but certain she’ll wake any moment):

  • There are a couple of potential sore spots for some people in this book, one being the discussion of pit bulls. I don’t know enough about pit bulls, however, to say that any part of it is incorrect.
  • The fact that if puppies don’t get enough love when they are young means they aren’t likely to grow into dogs like Benjy explains a lot about greyhounds who are bred, trained and forced to race. Violet Rays raced for over two years, spending her days and nights in a kennel or being transported between South Florida and Oregon, only to be out of her kennel for about two hours per day, and with a muzzle on for that two hours (and maybe even while in the kennel). She exhibits very few characteristics of Benjy, a dog who loves everyone and is ecstatic to do so. Charles, however, who was also bred and trained to race, did so exactly twice. Both times, he refused to leave the gate and he was immediately retired. But because he was with people–and other species of dogs–at a younger age than Violet, he was able to grow into a more dog-like dog.
  • We “break” dogs in many ways, training them to race being only one. Masson writes of the slavery of so-called service dogs, and I’m glad he does.
  • He also disagrees with Cesar Millan’s claim that we should dominate our dogs.
  • Yes, there’s a vegan message.

And with that, I hear the beginnings of wakey time on the monitor. Off to Baby Sky’s room where, after all of the above, and with plenty of other rooms in the house, I will see none other than Violet Rays and Emily napping next to her crib.

Check out THE DOG WHO COULDN’T STOP LOVING, and let me know where you stand on whether or not dogs make us human.


4 Comments Post a comment
  1. How highly disappointing is this newer offering from an author I'd previously admired so much! Given this review and the few but telling examples cited, I would NOT support him or certain of his viewpoints by buying this particular book.

    For years, I've loved and helped promote his co-written book, "When Elephants Weep." Because of this I bought his other book, "The Nine Emotional Lives of Cats," which in a nutshell, left me not just thinking, but KNOWING, he'd never formed a real relationship of any great depth with a feline being. It was quite the let-down and I've warned other animal lovers against reading it, not wanting to help spread such disinformation.

    Unhappily, this book on dogs only seems to clinch my opinion. Despite Mr. Masson's brilliance in some other animal-related areas and issues, his normally keen observational skills seem to dim remarkably regarding cats, suggesting a surprising speciesism of the heart. This seeming bias does not help in raising the perceived 'status' of cats in this age's uncaring, blinded society (particularly regarding cats) — a position I would think Mr. Masson NOT wish to be a co-creating/conspiring part of. I would strongly suggest that no reader believe he is much of an 'expert' on felines and their relationships to and with us or other species…nor on pitbulls, either, it sounds. Additionally, the Egyptians' idolizing of and respect for cats seems to belie the special status he ascribes only to dogs' history with us.

    I'm left rather shocked and dismayed, disagreeing vehemently, and wishing to inform Mr. Masson that "CATS can and do help us evolve into even MORE enlightened beings." He should have lived at OUR home to observe the possibilities…ones that changed ME (and many other humans I know who've had beloved feline family members) forever!

    January 10, 2011
  2. Deb H,
    If you look at all of Masson's animal books, there's a progression. With each book, he seems to "get it" more and more, deeper and deeper. I look at this book as part of that and have already read interviews where he says that since the release of the book he has been educated about pit bulls. We certainly know from his books that when he learns something new, he incorporates it into his life and his work. Though I don't know if the cat people have educated him to the extent that the pit bull people have, let's hope that that happens, or better yet, that a cat comes into his life and he is open to what the cat has to teach him.

    January 10, 2011
  3. Thanks much for your comments back, Mary. Not having more than 2 of Masson's books myself, it's great to hear there's been steady progression in his education and perceptions – hope springs eternal! I suppose I'd just erroneously expected that simply from the stances in "When Elephants Weep," it was almost a "given" that his open outlook would extend to all other species as well – what really excited me about that book in the first place.

    Although it seems to be the case for many people, I'm not sure whether it's really a "certain" animal that ever need come into one's life, or simply the act of already sitting in the willingness to open one's eyes and heart, that 'makes' any particular being the cat-a-lyst (ha) for such a change in perception, but for whatever reason, the felines Masson HAS had in his life to date haven't yet quite done the trick. But yes, let's hope for another such teacher to grace his life.

    I also meant to mention I really appreciated your comments that included Mr. Magoo, too. Same difference, as they say.

    As a further footnote, although you may not wish to post this (or any) part of this reply, please accept my deepest condolences on the transition of your very beloved Charles. Yes, indeed, your friend's tribute was simply beautiful, and I hope all the support you received has served to somewhat soften the edges of your pain since.

    January 10, 2011
  4. mady #

    The Emperor's Embrace is an excellent book by Masson. I was going to buy more of his books but after reading The Emperor's Embrace I listened to an interview with him where he stated that he and his wife are vegan but yet they allow their small children to eat animals!!! I haven't taken him serious since.

    June 16, 2011

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