Full disclosure: This book—about a woman, indifferent to dogs all of her life, who comes to love a beagle—is being reviewed by a man, indifferent to dogs most of his life, who has a beagle curled up on the couch at home.
So while it’s tempting to write, “Even if you’ve never had a pet, you’ll find much to identify with here,” I can’t guarantee that’s true. This book is about living with a beagle. And there are only so many people in the world who can relate to that distinct experience in all its leash-pulling, food-devouring, inanimate-object-chewing glory.
But that’s not to say What the Dog Did isn’t also a great story—wonderfully written, laugh-out-loud funny, and touching without being sappy—no matter what species may share your living quarters.
Washington journalist Emily Yoffe—a contributor to the online magazine Slate.com—is coaxed into getting a dog by her daughter, a six-year-old who, despite having had only cats as pets, writes this as her first sentence on paper: “I love dogs.” She later pleads to her mother: “Dogs are who I am.” The author’s husband helpfully interprets: “She is crying out to us about what she needs.”
Enter Sasha the beagle, an unhousebroken stray the family brings home from the shelter.
There are the requisite canine anecdotes—messes on the carpet, Sasha’s escape from the house, the author’s efforts to train one of the hardest-to-train breeds. But among the book’s many strengths is that it avoids being the literary equivalent of a conversation among “dogists,” that clutch of people at a party who spend the evening trading stories of halitosis, shedding, and Stupid Pet Tricks. Yoffe has more to say.
She writes of her childhood, which was full of animals as well as a disconcertingly lax attitude toward them: “We had goldfish that generally didn’t last quite as long as an application of lipstick. Mice, hamsters, parakeets all quickly expired . . . . We conducted elaborate funerals, then daily disinterred them, a band of elementary-school coroners studying gerbil decomposition.”
She vividly describes encounters with dogs other than her own throughout her life, such as this one with a Boston terrier: “This is what my brain said—that this Boston terrier . . . was coming over to nuzzle my leg and get me to pat him. My brain kept saying this as I noticed he was not exactly nuzzling me, more hanging from me, hanging from my left thigh where he had clamped his jaws and was now vibrating them like a pair of trick dentures. I was still trying to process this unusual greeting when I felt a fast-traveling message moving through my body, like an e-mail zipping through cyberspace. When this message got to my brain I saw that the subject line was ‘JAWS!’ I was being attacked.”
She interweaves her own story with those of others—from trainers and rescuers to family and neighbors—sometimes to moving effect. Her friend Bonnie, for instance, was diagnosed with cancer just as her 15-year-old dog was failing. Bonnie’s husband took the animal to be put down the same day Bonnie started chemotherapy. “That was her last man’s-best-friend act for me,” Bonnie tells the author, “to let me cry for her, because I hadn’t let myself cry over the cancer.”
Yoffe’s own dog fancy doesn’t end with Sasha. In fostering a string of other orphaned beagles waiting for permanent homes, she realizes that her growing affection for her highly imperfect dog might not be an aberration. In fact, Yoffe finds one of these, Roscoe, far more easily lovable than Sasha. When a couple considering adopting Roscoe initially bonds with Sasha instead, Yoffe writes: “Did a small voice inside me say, ‘They’d be so happy with Sasha and you’d be so happy with Roscoe’? Sure. But that’s the same small voice that says to some White House residents, ‘That intern is really attracted to me.’ I realized, as I told the voice to shut up, that I loved Sasha even if she was no Roscoe.”
What the Dog Did is about the effort, the work, it so often takes to love another creature—animal or human—and all of the surprising things we find ourselves doing that transcend the question “why?”