June 22, 2017
(++++) CANINE MARVELS
Sniffer Dogs: How Dogs (and Their Noses) Save the World. By Nancy F. Castaldo. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $7.99.
A Dog Like Daisy. By Kristin O’Donnell Tubb. Katherine Tegen/HarperCollins. $16.99.
The wonders of canine perception are difficult for humans to comprehend, for all that dogs are our closest animal companions and have lived with and helped us for thousands of years. Humans are primarily sight-driven, so it is very hard for us to understand the intricacies of a smell-driven species such as dogs. But that does not stop authors of both fact and fiction from delving into the mysteries of dogs’ perceptions and showing how intimately humans and canines can relate to, work with and help each other. Nancy F. Castaldo’s Sniffer Dogs is a fine introduction to the topic, and fascinating because it shows some of the many ways in which dogs’ super-sensitive noses can and do save human lives – in an almost offhand manner, as if sniffing out danger is the most natural thing in the world (which, to dogs, it apparently is). Castaldo starts by explaining a bit about dogs’ anatomy and the way they use not only their noses but also their Jacobson’s organs to perceive smells. The Jacobson’s organ is often mentioned in connection with snakes, which use their forked tongues to sample their environment and then process what they pick up through this organ. But in fact, many animals have Jacobson’s organs – they even develop in humans, although ours appear to be non-functional. In dogs, though, the organs are highly active and very sensitive, helping dogs form “a sort of image identifying [a] smell.” That is, we think of “image” visually, but to dogs an image is a complex mixture of scents. “This ‘image’ is even better than a [visual] photograph,” Castaldo explains, because it “provides even more sensory clues.” Castaldo shows how dogs use their hyper-precise nasal-imaging capabilities to search for and find missing people, to detect explosives, to locate survivors of disasters, and much more. Dogs seem to want to help humans – as the result of untold generations of being bred for just such purposes – and the techniques used to obtain their help are well-explained here. For instance, dogs capable of finding people are chosen by being given a toy when they bark during early training…then their trainers hide with the toy and give it to the dogs when they locate the human and bark. The game goes on as long as necessary to get the dog to associate receiving a toy with finding a live human and barking. Castaldo does a first-rate job of explaining and showing this type of training and discussing some surprising elements of dogs’ abilities: “You might find it hard to believe that it can actually be easier for dogs to locate buried bones than bones exposed on the surface of the ground. The reason is that surface bones have a greater chance of breaking down and losing their scent over time in the sunlight, wind, and heat.” And that is a perfect example of the difference between sight-driven humans and odor-driven dogs: a killer will bury a body so humans will not see it, but in doing so will make it easier for a dog to locate and uncover it. Dog training for assistive and law-enforcement purposes can be long and intense, but when it is over, Castaldo says, “It’s pretty rare to see these dogs make a mistake after they have finished training. A dog’s nose just knows.” The pictures of dogs scattered throughout Sniffer Dogs all show alert, involved, dedicated canines whose expressions, to human eyes, appear focused and intense. People who owe their lives and their emotional stability to sniffer dogs and therapy dogs and other assistive dogs know that the seemingly almost magical power of dogs’ noses is something to cherish. Young readers will understand that much better after going through Castaldo’s book.
To feel rather than intellectually accept the value and importance of dogs as helpers of humans, though, requires a novel – a book with a predefined story arc that can present events with a neatness and precision absent in the real world. Kristin O’Donnell Tubb’s A Dog Like Daisy is a fine example of this approach. The book is narrated by Daisy, a rescued pit bull mix determined to succeed as a service dog helping a veteran cope with post-traumatic stress disorder. Although there is no real way for a human author to know what a dog thinks, or even if a dog thinks in any way translatable to what humans mean by “thinking,” Tubb gives it her best shot and comes up with some very effective scenes as a result. For instance, when Daisy first comes home from the pound, she explores the house and realizes through smells that “these humans are definitely new here.” Then she continues sniffing and realizes that “the other humans who were here before had a dog. A dachshund. Twelve years old. With a bladder infection.” Scientifically accurate or not, that is a wonderful observation that certainly could be what goes through a dog’s mind. It is also a nice touch of humor in a book that is, at heart, deeply serious. Although determined to succeed as an assist dog – her 10-week training is being paid for by the Veterans Administration, and she must go back to the pound if she fails – Daisy repeatedly misinterprets what her new human pack wants or needs, and often lets her outgoing and ebullient nature get the better of her when she needs to be sober, attentive and concerned. So the book is all about adjusting: Daisy adjusting to her new “pack,” and the human family trying to adjust to her presence (Colonel Victor says that his “therapist says this is the best thing for PTSD”). Daisy quickly becomes too aware of what Victor needs, but cannot, of course, explain her perceptions to the humans. For instance, when she is being trained using a noisemaking clicker, she says it sounds like “giant bones snapping all around us. I know the second I hear it that the Colonel doesn’t like it. I feel his shade deepening.” But the trainer thinks Daisy is not doing well – until Victor eventually helps sort things out. Who is actually training whom? Real-world dog owners often wonder this, and in A Dog Like Daisy the question is made explicit: Daisy thinks the humans with whom she interacts are learning or not learning proper behavior, but they, naturally, are focused on what she is learning. There is a real-world power imbalance between humans and dogs – dogs are considered property, and humans literally have the power of life and death over them – and some of that leaks through in Tubb’s novel. But because it is a novel, not a real-world story, Tubb can form it as she wishes. She can have Daisy take advice from a pet lizard, contemplate the best role she can assume in life, and think through a way to fail a test deliberately when that is best; and Tubbs can introduce a deus ex machina (actually a canis ex machina) to solve the apparently insoluble problems of Daisy and the Colonel and the Colonel’s family. The result is a tear-jerking climax that leads to a wonderfully upbeat ending that could, really could, occur in the real world. Nothing in A Dog Like Daisy may be really real, but everything is plausible, and as a story of how dogs might think and what could happen in a particular kind of dog-human relationship, this book is a tale that is very well told indeed.