Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Dog book club: Reviewing The Underdogs by Melissa Fay Greene

Liam the pug posing with his book

Most of us who share our lives with dogs know that they are truly remarkable creatures. And I think most dog parents would agree that we're only scratching the surface, when it comes to understanding what goes on in their fuzzy little brains. That's why I am always interested in books that promise to tell me more about research on the human/animal bond. I always want to know more.

This book, The Underdogs by Melissa Fay Greene, was recommended to me as a book that did more than discuss just how great dogs really are. I was promised a book in which studies were cited and conclusions were supported.

I got that. And a whole lot more.

Sinead and her book

The book follows dogs that are trained to assist people who have profound disabilities. These dogs are trained to do things like turn on lights, prevent seizures, find runaways and prevent falls. They spend years in training, and they learn how to do all of these remarkable things while living with people who help them to pick up specific tasks for specific people.

The book is scattered with studies about how dogs learn to do these sorts of tasks, and Greene even goes into archeological research to support her claim that dogs are somewhat attuned to us because they have been living with us for so long.

Greene also provides anecdotal evidence (backed up with some research) that dogs actually enjoy the work they do for humans. To these dogs, working with people is something that fills them with joy. And when they cannot work, for some reason, they feel that loss quite acutely.

I was fascinated by all of this research, of course. But it's the rest of the book that really got to me.

You see, many of the humans these dogs are helping are very small children with very severe autism. I was moved by the very hard work these parents did to keep their children safe, while these children threw tantrums, ran away or otherwise did things that were unsafe. The dogs could help by tracking the children down, pinning them down during a tantrum or blocking them from harming themselves as they wobbled and railed. But the dogs also helped the parents. They ended up working as co-parents with these very exhausted adults. The gentleness they showed these adults truly broke my heart.

Popoki the cat in her chair

At times, Greene seems to throw a little shade on cats, suggesting that a cat might never be able to perform such functions for a person. At first, I was a little upset about that. I know Popoki is remarkably attuned to human emotions, and she's come to comfort me more than once when I've struggled with a tough phone call or horrible email message while she sits with me at work.

But it's important to remember that Greene is writing about actual therapy animals, not emotional support animals. There is a difference. These are dogs that are trained to help people with disabilities, and they perform specific acts to help those people to get through the day. Popoki might be an excellent emotional support animal, an untrained creature that brings me happiness. But she's no therapy animal trained to do something specific. Maybe no cat can take on that task (although I'd love to be wrong--any stories?).

In any case, I really enjoyed this book. Greene writes clearly and with such feeling. You feel as though you're right there with those families and those dogs. And the book is a quick read, although I had to take some time away from it to cry from time to time. Some stories really are sad.

Want to try it? Use my Amazon link: The Underdogs: Children, Dogs, and the Power of Unconditional Love. I get a small compensation for each purchase, and you get a book I recommend.

What do you think? Is this the sort of book you might read? Leave me a note in the comments and let me know what you think!

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