Top critical review
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Brilliant Dog, lack-luster book
on October 3, 2013
I love Dogs, have had 12 and have two now. Being retired I've been able to spend more time with these two, have taken them to Dog classes and have taught them a few things on my own. I also spend a lot of time at the local dog park and have laughed more at the antics of those and my dogs in the last five years than I've laughed in my life (and I love good comedies and comedians). I was very eager to read about how this dog, famous for it's mental ability, learned what it knows.
I'm certain that I will be in the minority and will be roundly panned for my review, but, here goes. From my perspective this book is very poorly written. It seems evident to me that the good Professor wanted to write a book about his experiments teaching his dog but had only written academic papers so brought in a co-author to juice up the book. There appear to be two writing styles. The first is an "oh so cutesy" style which I compare to, if you are young, someone's Facebook page, if that person posts every detail of his or her life, and if you are old, to a distant relative's mimeographed (Xeroxed) Christmas letter which give more detail of the family's life than you would ever want to know.
After a 9 page anecdote about Chaser in a classroom of 9 year old kids, we are 36 pages into the book before we even get to meet the puppy, Chaser. Up to now we've learned about the Professor's most recent dogs prior to Chaser, the names of the Professor's family members and for whom and where they work, as well as information on just about anyone who had more than casual contact with the dogs, and anecdotes about their interactions.
An example of this extraneous and irrelevant detail is found in the description of an incident with Yasha, a Border Collie-German Shepherd cross, one of the previous dogs, while the pup was still young: The Professor likes white water sports and describes a canoe trip (giving us the totally unnecessary information that he "went with members of the Wofford College's Adventure Club to canoe a few stretches of rapids on the Green River, only about an hour's drive from the Wofford campus." He goes on to write that he "had been very active in white water sports since we moved to South Carolina and pioneered the college's Adventure Club, introducing white water canoeing to students. Paddling class 3, 4, & 5 rapids on rivers in the Southeast was a passion of mine, and kayaking the Grand Canyon one year was a thrilling high point." (A high point of paddling rivers in the Southeast?) Note that he didn't "start" or "organize" the Adventure Club, he "pioneered" it. Do we really care with whom he went canoeing on the fateful day or where it was and how far away it was from Wofford College? I certainly don't. This is just leading up to the part that is the point, I think, of all this description. The Prof is most of the way through the rapids (three fourths, to be exact) when Yasha jumps in from the shore and is overwhelmed by the current. The Professor's response? "Coming through the last bit of rapids, I threw my paddle into the center of the canoe, grabbed the gunwales, and vaulted out into the water. (Note "the center of" and "vaulted", not "jumped") I gripped the bow of the canoe with my left hand and with my right hand reached out for Yasha, who was getting sucked down again. I caught the scruff of his neck, hooked my fingers in his collar and lifted his head above the water. And then I kicked furiously with all my might (not just furiously but also with all his might), levering down on the bow of the canoe with my left hand to buoy Yasha and A few more kicks and we were in quiet water where I could stand up and Deb met me to lend a hand"(not simply helped him).
Remember , this section is about Yasha, not Chaser, and the point of it all, I guess, is that Yasha was fearless as the incident didn't stop him from later enjoying water.
It seems that the Professor and his co-author had a contract for a book with a minimum number of pages. The result is a heavily padded book. Not only is the writing padded but no simple word will do and every extra adjective is appreciated. People aren't afraid of having their pets hit by cars, it's their "beloved" pets.
Reading this book was like having to wade through a lake of treacle up to one's neck. I couldn't do it. At some point I stopped reading and started skimming and got to the parts that seem to have been written by the Professor. Those parts are about the actual experiments and how he went about designing them. The Professor had read a paper by another researcher about another Border Collie, Rico, and the criticisms aimed at the paper about how the study was done. The Professor set out to outdo both Rico's knowledge and the manner in which his experiments will be done that establish what that knowledge is. In other words, the part of the book that actually deals with Chaser's abilities and how they were discovered.
One of the things that I found disheartening about the Professor was that, despite his knowledge of and familiarity with dogs he had an academic's blindness to some of their abilities. In talking with people who had a lifetime of working closely with dogs, in this case shepherds, they told him that Border Collies had abilities which he doubted but his experiments proved to be true. If I was an academic with an interest in studying animals I think that I would first interview the experts in the field, people who work closely with them, in order to get their views, before I started my experiments.
Even the academic sections of the book were wordier than necessary so I skimmed those as well.
A very frustrating read. Two stars because there is valuable information if you have the time and inclination to mine for it. If the writing style doesn't bother you then have at it.