Wolves in Our Parlors, Dogs in Our Minds
Novelist Marcel Proust said that "...every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self." The same can be said of writers who, whether they want to or not, often tell the reader much more about themselves than the subject about which they write. Such was my experience reading The Wolf in the Parlor by Jon Franklin (Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2009).
Because this book has no introduction, I relied on the jacket copy and cover letter I received with my review copy for insight regarding the author's goal. That combined with the names of those cited in the acknowledgments and the author's credentials promised new scientific insight into the human-canine relationship as well as a good read.
Well, aside from the lack of an introduction, bibliography, index, endnotes, or citations all of which could easily appear in the final copy, this was a well-written book. And it was especially so when the author was talking about his relationship with his dog. I only wish I'd read the last chapter first because it would have made the rest of the book more comprehensible. But because I didn't, the book struck me as a collection of essays, some of which were directly related to the subject, some tangentially so, and some related in some way that I, at least, wasn't smart enough to grasp. Lacking an introduction to tell me what the author had in mind, I really could have used descriptive chapter titles to help me understand the author's intentions. What ultimately held my attention were the intermittent chapters describing the author's walks with his dog and other intimate human-canine interactions, and his thoughts at those times.
The net result of this—and I openly admit that this could be strictly my problem—is that it seemed like the author was trying to convince himself that there is a logical, scientific explanation for the love he experienced for his dog at the same time as he really doesn't want to know that such exists. I say this because in spite of the fact that he repeatedly referenced his investigative science-writer mentality and skills, The Wolf in the Parlor is not a science-based exploration of the relationship between humans and dogs. And in fact, there are some glaring errors in it that made my hackles rise, to use a canine metaphor.
But aside from this and because I'm pretty up on what's going on in the scientific community relative to canine behavior and the human-animal bond, I know that there are tantalizing clues to the answer the author said he wanted all over the place. I also know that those recognized in his acknowledgments have some of those clues and could easily have led him to others with more. I know this because I know some of these people personally and almost all of them by their work, and they have given me such clues and referred to me others. So while it was frustrating that the author chose not to ferret out this information for some reason, it also caused me to consider that the book was about something other than what I thought it was going to be.
In retrospect, I think this book belongs to that new genre of creative nonfiction: Books written by men who fall head over heels in love with their dogs at middle age or older who then see themselves as experts on canine behavior and the human-canine bond. As Franklin himself points out, women have probably had a more intimate connection with dogs and, I would add, accepted the normalcy of that relationship, for eons. Consequently, it seems like there's no need for women to validate that relationship any more than one would feel obligated to validate an intimate relationship with one's child.
On the other hand and as many women also know, there are a fair number of guys out there who first become comfortable with openly expressing their emotions via their relationship with the family pet. If I had a dollar for every time a woman said to me, "I wish he cared as much about me as he does about the dog," I wouldn't be driving a + 15-year-old car. The reason at least some of these women accept these guy-dog (or cat) relationships is the hope that the ability that enables these men to share their positive emotions with their animals will eventually enable them to share those same emotions with other people, too.
Because of that, it's easy for me to understand how an intelligent, inquisitive man who is uncomfortable expressing his emotions would be intrigued by how much easier it is for him to experience this level of intimacy with a dog compared to a person. And while his gut reaction might be, "Wow, what a boon to the human species this human-canine relationship is!" and "People need to know more about this!", his logical brain is telling him he can't go gushing about this like, well, you know, some silly romantic woman or naïve kid. He needs to find hard evidence to justify what he's experiencing. And yet, doing so seems somehow disloyal, like reducing the dog and his love for the animal to a mathematical equation or algorithm.
While many women and kids would find this need to justify the obvious befuddling, my own scientific training enables me to understand this desire. And maybe some day I'll get the opportunity to write the book Jon Franklin said he did but didn't, if for no other reason than because I think it would be a great and rewarding challenge. In the meantime, The Wolf in the Parlor reminds us that our dogs are more mirrors than wolves, capable of reflecting parts of ourselves we would never see otherwise. Writers as well as readers would be well-advised not to forget that.
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