“Watch her on the days your hip is hurting you,” a trainer once counseled me about a protective Irish wolfhound of mine. And sure enough, she was right. Even before I was aware of experiencing pain, Tally would pick up on the pre-limp change in my gait, and become vigilant about preventing me from being bumped — positioning her body to block any approaching person or dog.
There are ordinary glimpses such as this in our lives with pets and more extravagant ones in reports from researchers about animals that show us the depth of intelligence, insight, and emotion in the creatures around us.
I think of two very different contributions in this realm that really shook people up — the first in 1960 when Jane Goodall discovered chimpanzees doing something thought to be exclusive to “man” — making tools. And the second, in 1993, when Elizabeth Marshall Thomas studied her own pets with an anthropologist’s eye in her wildly popular book, “The Hidden Life of Dogs.” Both seemed to spawn an avalanche of similar discoveries and books.
Goodall and Thomas each made some people unhappy — those who believe there is a wall between humans and other animals — while bringing sheer joy to others of us. The others of us, of course, are multiplying and so are the ever-increasing numbers of studies and books that explore the rich inner lives of animals.
Two of the latest entries are “The Possibility Dogs: What a Handful of ‘Unadoptables’ Taught Me About Service, Hope, & Healing,” by Susannah Charleson, and “How Animals Grieve,” by Barbara J. King. The first title is more assured in its telling than the second.
“Possibility Dogs” is a moving page-turner of a memoir from an accomplished trainer who shifts from the work of search and rescue to that of psychiatric service dogs. Her gritty, funny, insightful stories are of down-and-out dogs who end up performing miracles for people suffering from such things as post-traumatic stress disorder, acute panic attacks, or obsessive-compulsive disorder.
The nuts and bolts of training these dogs and the stories of the people who need them are intermingled with Charleson’s own life story.
The psych dogs save lives in traditional ways — they can prevent a panicked owner from wandering onto a busy street, for instance. But they also work in more subtle ways. Their training is fascinating — how on earth do you teach a dog to stop a person from compulsively checking to see if the stove is turned off? Part of it is encouraging “intelligent disobedience,” or refusing a bad command given by a confused person. Charleson provides just the right amount of step-by-step detail to make it all clear, without becoming didactic.
In some cases, however, there are skills that defy explanation.
Some of the dogs know their owners and intuit the right thing to do.
And then there is Charleson’s search and rescue dog, Puzzle, who can find her way back to their room in a high-rise hotel. You would think that the elevator would throw her. But Charleson shows that the dog is infallible. She presses buttons for several floors as a test. Puzzle sticks her head out at each stop, seems to scent the air, and then pulls back in. The dog only exits when they are on the correct floor. How exactly she does this is, well, a puzzle.
“I am curious and challenged by Puzzle,” Charleson writes, “emotions that for me sit so close to happiness that I cannot tell them apart.”
Insightful and earthy, Charleson is never maudlin. She keeps it real. Jake Piper is a dog who was abandoned and nearly starved to death (he’s been hungry for such a long time that even long after rescue he continues to whimper while he eats). He is “a ghost puppy . . . all knobby joints, tucked tail, and big dark eyes.” But Charleson writes of a moment between them, when in reaction to her praise, “He leans in, looks tenderly into my eyes, and burps.” Around here, we call that the love burp.
All the stories have tremendous heart and power and you believe Charleson when she writes: “Any dog can surprise you,” and “great dogs can come in odd packages.”
Do animals mourn the loss of those close to them? Barbara J. King makes the case for this kind of emotional understanding in her book “How Animals Grieve.” The anthropologist is right on when she says, “Historically, science has badly underestimated animal thinking and feeling.”
Several species get their own chapters as she canvasses the scientific literature to ask if elephants, chimps, dolphins, cats, dogs and even bison and chickens among others, mourn. Compelling evidence for some species, though, is diluted by weaker inclusions for others.
HOW ANIMALS GRIEVE
By Barbara J. King
The University of Chicago Press, 169 pp., illustrated, $25