The market is flooded with books about beloved pets since the success of John Grogan’s best-selling ‘Marley & Me’ – often with a heavy dose of schmaltz. So it’s refreshing to read a dog book that manages to entertain and inspire without relying on even a hint of sentimentality, like Lisa Rogak’s ‘Dogs of Courage: The Heroism and Heart of Working Dogs Around the World’.
Rogak is an author with a distinct vision. “But while we smile at the story of a dog who saved a couple of three-week-old kittens abandoned by the side of a busy road and left to die, or the two-legged dog who hops through hospital wards, inspiring paraplegic and others who struggle with devastating disabilities, we don’t often hear about the why and the how,” Rogak writes. “Why do dogs go out of their way to help us, often in situations that place them in danger and that may prove risky to their own health and welfare?”
The California-resident uses her experience as a journalist to explore what goes into training dogs and their handlers to be fire dogs, search-and-rescue dogs, therapy dogs and other working dogs, as well as civilian dogs who are not specially trained but prove heroic in emergencies. Each chapter is a revelation. It’s clear she’s done extensive research, including quotes from professionals around the country – and world – to speak to specific attributes and benefits of the different types of working dogs.
For example, the chapter on police dogs describes how these “dogs of courage” differ from therapy dogs – therapy dogs need to stay calm if children pull on their ears or tails, but police dogs need to react by barking or snarling. The chapter on wildlife-detection dogs includes insights from a marine biologist who trains Labradors to detect ringed seals from almost two miles away – the dogs’ powerful nose helps researchers locate and track the animals over the years to show the effects of global warming. Rogak also includes examples of specific dogs of courage within each chapter, so she goes on to write about Tucker, a black Lab who failed tests to become a police dog, but whose fear of water made him an ideal dog to find orca scat – he jumps in the water only when he detects it, in turn helping Washington researchers examine the dwindling population of killer whales in Puget Sound.
The book is complemented by color photo inserts of dogs in action, and black-and-white photos of dogs profiled as case studies in shaded break-out boxes. Some of the personal stories are whimsical, such as how a yellow Lab Seeing Eye dog helps his handler, a blind sommelier, detect chemicals in wine – they both prefer the scent of organic wine. He also sneezes around new oak barrels. But other stories tug at the heartstrings, like the Kirkwood Ski Resort employee who describes the 15 minutes he was buried by an avalanche until the paw of Doc, a search-and-rescue dog, burst through the snow and oxygen poured in. (The man, Jeff Eckland, later had Doc’s image tattooed on his chest in gratitude.)
If ‘Dogs of Courage’ has a flaw, it’s that it’s written at such a breakneck speed – Rogak did exhaustive research on the subject and seemingly wanted to squeeze it all in. She even includes the history of RinTinTin, or that even Homer (Greek philosopher, not Simpson) described heroic canine traits in ‘The Odyssey’, when the only being who recognizes Odysseus after 20 years away is his dog, Argus. Still, she’s distilled it in a way that keeps the pages turning.
Though Rogak has penned another book about dogs, ‘The Dogs of War: The Courage, Love, and Loyalty of Military Working Dogs’ (2011), she is not exclusive to the genre. She says she writes books to indulge her curiosity, which has led to titles as diverse as ‘Haunted Heart: The Life and Times of Stephen King’, ‘A Boy Named Shel: The Life and Times of Shel Silverstein’, ‘And Nothing But the Truthiness: The Rise (and Further Rise) of Stephen Colbert’, and The New York Times-bestseller ‘Barack Obama in His Own Words’. Perhaps because dogs aren’t her only interest, she is able to approach the topic of working dogs more dispassionately, simply presenting facts and stories and letting them speak for themselves.
‘Dogs of Courage’ is a fascinating read for anyone interested in being informed and inspired about the dogs dedicated to helping humans. And if you live with one of the 70 million pet dogs in America, you may be compelled to hug your dog a little tighter, and sneak an extra treat before bedtime. You might even be moved to train your pooch for a job; as Rogak writes, “Dogs are born with courage. It’s up to the humans who surround them to draw it out of them and finesse it in a way that benefits dog, human, and society as a whole.”
(Reviewed by by Jen Reeder, www.jenreeder.com)