Friday, May 22, 2020

THE PRINCESS AND THE HOUND


Review of THE PRINCESS AND THE HOUND by METTE IVIE HARRISON
(first in THE PRINCESS AND THE HOUND series)

As a dog fanatic, I’m a sucker for books that feature dogs at all, especially at the core of the story. THE PRINCESS AND THE HOUND reads like a fresh fairy tale, striking that wonderful balance between nostalgic, familiar elements and unique, innovative twists.

This story is difficult to describe without revealing too much; I wouldn’t want to deny anyone the chance to read how this tale unfolds for herself. Let me say that the characters really made this novel exceptional for me. Everyone feels layered and believable, rather than typical, simple fairy tale tropes. The prince is likeable but tortured with self-doubt and the princess standoffish and odd but all the more compelling for it.

They live in a world with animal magic, but – fearful of its power – people now hunt down and kill anyone believed to possess it. Prince George’s stomach turns at enforcing such laws, for both personal and moral reasons, but he doesn’t know how one changes the minds of an entire kingdom. Meanwhile, Princess Beatrice’s moods could be explained by the sad fact that her father treats her like a useless disappointment – but there’s still more to her mystery.

Harrison deftly interweaves several plot threads, in ways you might not expect. This book frequently intrigued, surprised, and moved me, earning a fond place in my heart as a favorite, a beautiful modern classic.

Friday, May 15, 2020

THE GENE


Review of THE GENE: AN INTIMATE HISTORY by SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE

This author is already well-known for his bestseller THE EMPEROR OF ALL MALADIES, which—coming highly recommended—is on my to-read radar but hasn’t made the cut off the too-many-books-too-little-time list. However, when a friend I was visiting bought Mukherjee’s more recent book and I expressed interest, she dared me to read it in the less than 48 hours remaining in my stay. At 495 small-print pages, it was a tight squeeze, but I finished it!

Of course, it helped that THE GENE is an engrossing, well-written book. The difficulty with nonfiction can be making material that is normally very interest-specific more universally appealing. Mukherjee exemplifies the best of this art, crafting a story of “the gene” that reads like an epic tale. He begins around Aristotle’s conviction that not all traits come from the male. From there we explore: Mendel, Darwin, eugenics, and more – on into the modern era’s current research and technology. He even makes the material more personal by sharing about his family’s genetic history with schizophrenia.

At times we veer away from the science into the politics behind the research: government and societal influence, relationship dynamics between scientists, various bias. This all helps develop a complex, layered portrait of both the science and the history behind “the gene.”

It was probably more noticeable because I read this book in two days, but Mukherjee does repeat some information along the way. It’s always spaced far apart, so I assume it’s intended as refreshers and likely especially helpful for the more probable scenario where someone makes their way slowly through this book one chapter a week or so.

I haven’t yet read the popular THE EMPEROR OF ALL MALADIES, but after finishing THE GENE, I understand Mukherjee’s appeal as a writer. He’s a veritable storyteller of history.   

Friday, May 8, 2020

TRAINING YOUR DOG THE HUMANE WAY


Review of TRAINING YOUR DOG THE HUMANE WAY by ALANA STEVENSON

Years back, I worked as a dog trainer and I’ve also raised three Guide Dogs for the Blind. So I approach the topic of dog training with a lot of prior experience and insight, but it’s been a while. I recently adopted an adorable Corgi puppy, so I’ve been reading numerous books on dog training to brush up on good habits and see what’s new in the field.

Well, there is something new and I love it. Since I worked as a trainer, the field has shifted dramatically away from dominance theory (as behavioral science research is disproving a lot of old conceptions about alphas, submission, packs, etc.) and towards positive training methods. The latter has always been my preference, so it’s validating to see it gaining more research-backed support.  

Stevenson provides great general guidelines regarding how dogs learn. As one example, dogs give their situational context more weight than most owners realize. What that means is: if you always take your dog to the guest room to train him – well, he might think those commands are only relevant in that room, and that’s why he ignores you when you ask him to “sit” on a walk. You also must be careful exactly when and what you praise; sometimes the dog thinks you’re rewarding something different than what you intend. Here’s a funny example from my Guide Dog days: a puppy happened to cough at the same time he finally sat on command for the first time. His raisers highly praised him for sitting on command, but the dog assumed it was the whole sequence that earned such an enthusiastic reaction and, from then on, he always coughed when he sat.

Stevenson also discusses the importance of repetition. Dog intelligence varies greatly by breed as well as the individual dog, but often it does take a dog more times to grasp a concept than her owners think it should. And learning can be a two steps forward, one step back process. Just because your dog finally does something the correct way doesn’t mean she now entirely understands it and will always do it correctly from now on. I cannot emphasize enough the value of patience when training dogs.

The breakdown of the different types of training – shaping, luring, active, passive – is especially helpful for those new to dog training. Understanding different methods will help you decide which will be best for different commands and circumstances, as well as build your general understanding regarding how dogs learn.

I also really like that this book includes photos. I’m very pleased that Stevenson discusses dog body language in her book. It’s important in training, but often misunderstood by anyone who hasn’t specifically studied it. And the photos are immensely useful is actually visualizing what she’s describing.  

To make the book extra user friendly, there’s a handy summary of the main points at the end of each chapter. As any pet owner (or parent, for that matter) can tell you: 1. Sometimes the right thing to do isn’t obvious, or there isn’t one right thing, and 2. Sometimes even when you know the right thing, it’s not the instinctive thing so in the moment you do what you “know” is wrong. Stevenson’s quick bullet lists help any newbie or experienced trainer keep the most important training points at the forefront of their mind.

My single criticism is of Stevenson’s discussion of how dog’s view property. She claims that dogs don’t understand your wallet, for example, is yours. Agree. She says dogs often believe that whomever has an item – and sometimes that’s them! – “owns” it, for right now at least. Agree. Then she adds that you will never see a dog take something another dog is using. Um…strongly disagree. And now really confused how a trainer who has spent so much time around dogs has never seen that happen. Dogs take things from each other alllllll the time.

I mention this partly because it’s my only point of disagreement with this book, but also partly as a cautionary reminder. It’s easy to project human psychology onto dogs. I believe that’s what we did with old-school dominance theory. While I align much more strongly with positive training methods, that doesn’t mean we don’t still sometimes misinterpret dog behavior to suit our modern views. If you want to view dogs as more cooperative, it might be easy to selectively overlook that sometimes they, too – especially puppies – can be mischievous punks who wander up to a playmate and snatch away a toy mid-chew.

As an experienced trainer, I didn’t find any information in this book that was new to me, but it was a fantastic, well-organized, and insightful refresher, and I would highly recommend it to anyone with zero to little base knowledge on this topic.