Author: Caroline Knapp
Type: Non-fiction, single subject, memoir
Full title: Pack of Two: The Intricate Bond Between People and Dogs
I read it: March 2013
You are either a dog person or you are not. Sometimes it does seem like you can simplify down to this level; dog people will never understand how some people cannot be into dogs, and non-dog people have trouble comprehending how dog owners can put so much energy into their pooches. As a dog person, I have some pity for you if you did not grow up around these animals, but I also understand why the dog world may seem strange and overblown. There is certainly no other human-other animal relationship that comes anywhere close to the intensity of human-dog. But it is an intensity that is an absolute treat to be part of.
Caroline Knapp explores nearly all facets of the human-dog dynamic with chapters like “Fantasy Dog,” “Bad Dog,” “Family Dog,” “Surrogate Dog,” and my favorite, “Inscrutable Dog.” That last is the most intriguing to me because it points to how there are limits to what we can know about dogs, as well as what they can know about us. Knapp does a wonderful job at illustrating how dog owners really do have important personal relationships with their pets and their dogs really do have unique, individual personalities. On the flip side, she continually reinforces that these animals are separate, other, apart, just outside of reach of true understanding. And that is okay. It is what makes the warm, happy mystery that much richer.
The book is very personal, and much of it is Knapp’s own account of the effects of abrupt life changes that led her to getting a dog somewhat spontaneously. Because of this, there is a lot of focus on the “Surrogate Dog” and “Therapy Dog” areas. She goes to lengths to show that dog relationships are not delusional relationships (well, not for most people, and certainly not if those people take an interest in learning about dogs). She writes about her Lucille, “Out in the world with her, I have found a path to others. At home with her, I have found a way to be alone without the ache.” She mentions another person in the book who says, “This is the only nonpolitical relationship I’ve ever had.” As I look across the room at Luca, she chews a rope to shreds and regards me with eyes I can both interpret and misinterpret in an instant. What I can know is that I get pure honesty from her.
But does she give her owners unconditional love? Perhaps, although I liked Knapp scissoring into this over-used concept. It certainly feels right on some levels, but one man from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is entirely against it. Knapp sums and extends upon his view that unconditional love “implies that the relationship is essentially nonreciprocal, as though our only role with dogs is to stand there and absorb. In fact, I think the healing power of dogs has less to do with what they give us than what they bring out in us, with what their presence allows us to feel and experience.” If a person is not changed for the better by being the master of a dog, then they are sadly not paying attention, or must simply be giving no effort. Relationships with dogs are different than relationships with humans, and it is exactly this reason that canines are so wonderful to touch, smell, praise, challenge, hold, accept, direct, and grow alongside.