Simon Garfield's history of the unbreakable bond between dogs and humans is an entertaining read

Simon Garfield, with Ludo. Picture: Sarah Lee
Simon Garfield, with Ludo. Picture: Sarah Lee
  • Dog's Best Friend: A Brief History of an Unbreakable Bond, by Simon Garfield. Hachette, $32.99.

This book charts human beings' changing relationship with dogs, from the earliest days of association with wolves, to "buying an electrically heated daybed for the Cavalier King Charles spaniel". In engaging and often amusing prose, the author looks at evolution, dogs in art, literature and social media, to name but a few of the topics covered in Dog's Best Friend.

Simon Garfield deals with the evolution of the dog, and the various theories about how they came to be. There is no doubt, however, that early ancestors of the dog found humans' ability to generate waste appealing, and "it wasn't long before the smartest dogs learnt a little about the manipulation of humans". The changing of the dog's face from wolf-like to more baby-like (with majestic exceptions) is a result of human selection, but research suggests that "dogs were as much a product of self-domestication as they were of human engineering".

The intelligence of dogs is always a fascinating subject for those of us besotted by this animal. As usual, border collies are the focus of this section. I await with bated breath a scientific study of the intelligence of Staffie crosses, although the unfortunate fate of an intelligent little Soviet mongrel called Laika, sent into space to die, is dealt with here.

The variety of dogs and the solidification of the notion of "breeds" and "designer dogs" leads the author to Crufts, but also to Australia, where the Labradoodle was first bred in the 1980s, for the very best of reasons. A need for a guide dog which had all the virtues of the Labrador with a non-shedding coat led Wally Conron to produce Labrador-poodle crosses. Because nobody seemed to want a mongrel dog, he invented the word Labradoodle, and this eventually led to a mad rush towards "fashionable" crosses, given hybrid names, often produced in appalling conditions, and now able to be ordered over the internet. Conron himself now wonders "whether we bred a designer dog or a disaster". Because irresponsible breeders will rush out dogs to demand without worrying about health consequences, and market the resulting dogs online, we may already be at a point where, as Garfield writes, "a fragile addition to a human life for a decade or more [is] on a par with the purchase of a theatre ticket". Or perhaps, with streaming a Netflix hit.

Garfield also looks at problems faced by more traditionally bred dogs. For example his own dog, a Labrador, is "prone to hip dysplasia". The general tone of the book is quite light; some will feel the author does not go far enough in examining whether it is a form of cruelty to breed dogs with inherent difficulties, such as those with trouble breathing. But he does state, "The question 'What is wrong with these dogs?' is easier to answer than the question 'What is wrong with these breeders and owners?'"

There has been a move to treat dogs more and more like people, something reflected in more "human" names being given to dogs, and the inescapable tendency to depict dogs in clothes on social media. But the grief felt at the loss of a dog, which has long been marked by dog cemeteries and poetry of differing qualities, will be familiar to anyone who has ever loved a dog, whatever its name. Dogs in literature is a section many will find particularly interesting, and authors touched on include Dickens (although only Bulls-eye, not the amusing Jip), Virginia Woolf and PG Wodehouse. I found the author's long-standing attachment to the cartoon character Snoopy less understandable, and therefore of less interest. However many will disagree and find Garfield on Snoopy fascinating, given the continuing popularity of Charles Schulz's canine creation.

A memorable and lesser-known poem by Siegfried Sassoon about walking his dog appears in the last section of Dog's Best Friend and I defy any dog-lover to read it without some emotion. The author tries to bring together an overall theme of the book in this last chapter, which is the simple truth that people and dogs are "happy when we're together". The relatively short life-span of the dog comes up; the author's dog is 12 years old, so he will soon be facing this sad reality. That some resort to cloning dogs to "avoid" this loss once again says more about the fragility of people than dogs.

Dog's Best Friend is a readable and entertaining, even surprisingly elegant, book devoted to our slobbery and often smelly companions. It wears its considerable research lightly, and includes suggestions for further reading.

If, like me, you find walking without a dog a strangely unsatisfying experience, as if you were suddenly existing in only two dimensions, you will read this book in a single sitting. Even those less owned by a dog will find much of interest here.

  • Penelope Cottier wrote a PhD on images of animals (including dogs) in the works of Charles Dickens at the ANU.
This story An ode to faithful companions first appeared on The Canberra Times.