Early in Benoit Denizet-Lewis’s “Travels With Casey,” the Emerson College writing professor visits a psychoanalyst to discuss his issues with Casey, a nine-year-old Labrador-golden retriever mix. “I don’t think my dog likes me very much,” Denizet-Lewis tells the doctor. “I wish Casey was more of a cuddler.”
Naturally, the shrink soon steers the conversation in the direction of Denizet-Lewis’s mother. But the questions echo: What do we expect from our dogs, and what might they want from us? Can some pet relationships fall just shy of working, just as some human relationships do? In pursuit of understanding, and possibly healing, his bond with Casey, Denizet-Lewis took to the road, piling the pooch into an RV for a four-month, cross-country trip.
“Travels With Casey” is one of two books published this month that ponder the mysteries of dog ownership; “Off the Leash,” by Globe television critic Matthew Gilbert, is another. The surface similarities are striking — starting with covers that feature the authors’ yellow labs (one purebred, one a mix) — and both authors are white gay men (one married, one single). Both write movingly about their own psychological burdens: Denizet-Lewis has grappled with addiction and depression; Gilbert describes an alienated, fatherless childhood made bearable by TV and other forms of anesthesia.
But while Denizet-Lewis seeks answers everywhere from the Westminster Kennel Club to Cesar Millan’s Dog Psychology Center in California, Gilbert centers his inquiry closer to home. And while Denizet-Lewis worries about his connection to Casey, the one area in which Gilbert seems completely unconflicted is in his utterly besotted, head-over-heels love for his puppy, Toby.
In “Off the Leash,” Gilbert chronicles a year at the dog park (Brookline’s Amory Park), observing the characters he and Toby meet there. Initially wary — like a lot of writers, Gilbert is solitary by nature — he finds, by the end, that he’s “become part of a loose community of weirdly wonderful dog people — a pack of freaks,” and what’s more, he likes it.
Of the two, “Off the Leash” is the more enthusiastic: an unabashed love letter to Toby and to dog ownership in general. For Gilbert, who had feared dogs in childhood, getting to know Toby (and the rest of the park pack) represents a kind of healing, an expansion of the heart. Watching Toby at play, he writes, makes him feel “like a child, a happy boy” — and he notices that he’s not the only person who seems to find doggy joy so infectious.
Of course, while the dogs fall into their pack fairly easily, with only a few squabbles, interaction among the human beings at the dog park can be fraught. Thrown together, Gilbert notes, “like the cast of ‘Gilligan’s Island,’ group therapy members, or ‘Canterbury Tales’ pilgrims . . . there could be raw psychodynamics and huge cultural gulfs” among dog owners.
At the same time, the situation can produce friendships, some of which extend beyond the park itself; a dynamic not unlike the television shows Gilbert writes about. “The regulars learned one another’s special traits and some of their secrets,” Gilbert notes. “We read one another’s weaknesses, teased as a sign of affection, and noticed absences — classic sitcom behavior.”
If Gilbert’s book is witty, sweet, and affirming like the best TV comedies, Denizet-Lewis’s reminds one more of reality television: its narrative less predictable, its emotional landscape edgier, its characters more extreme. As he and Casey make their way around the country in their gas-guzzling RV (dubbed “the Chalet”), they meet a pair of gay ranchers who herd cattle with border collies, an emotionally-unhinged dog rescuer in East St. Louis, and a couple of homeless teens raising puppies with a level of nurturing they never experienced themselves.
Denizet-Lewis spends a day hanging out at a dog park in New York (where he gets an earful about the feuds among rival factions), talks to a woman whose rescue dog only understands Spanish, and finds out why a professional dog massage therapist doesn’t own one himself (“if I had one, I wouldn’t bother hanging out with humans anymore. I would end up in a monogamous, nonsexual relationship with a dog”).
It’s not a spoiler to reveal that Denizet-Lewis ends his travels feeling better about his relationship with Casey — partly due to wisdom imparted by an otherwise wacky dog psychic. When the author laments that Casey doesn’t seem to offer unconditional love, she replies, “Maybe Casey is here to teach you how to love.” Or, as Gilbert concludes in an insight that could apply to both books, part of “the poetic justice of dog ownership” is that this furry, nonverbal creature “somehow becomes your partner in the progress of your identity.”
TRAVELS WITH CASEY: My Journey Through Our Dog-Crazy Country
By Benoit Denizet-Lewis
Simon & Schuster, 341 pp., illustrated, $26
OFF THE LEASH: A Year at the Dog Park
By Matthew Gilbert
St. Martin’s, 240 pp., $24.99