I enjoy a good book, especially a good dog book. My office shelves are lined with volumes that cover a wide variety of canine-related themes, from New York Times best sellers to obscure German breed club yearbooks. Most were purchased in stores or online, but a few are signed copies of first editions discovered through mom-and-pop booksellers. These works have a special place in my heart, as well as in my library.
Among my favorite recent finds is a late 20th-century book, “Choosing the Right Dog: A Buyer’s Guide to All 121 Breeds,” by John Howe. Published in 1976 by Harper and Row, the book’s jacket states that the author, in his search for the right dog, “couldn’t find a book that told him what he wanted to know, so he wrote it himself.” Howe’s book is a compendium of information gathered from questionnaires answered by “well over 500 breeders.”
“Choosing the Right Dog” was written with the consumer in mind. Each AKC-recognized breed is featured in an abbreviated format with a photograph and a brief summary of its physical and mental characteristics. Country of origin is included, as are grooming requirements and any “special skills” for which the breed is equipped. The information is well-organized and presented dispassionately, as indicated by the suggested price for a “good 3-mo.-old puppy.”
Howe’s breed presentations are notable in that they could only be produced in an era before political correctness and breed-specific legislation dictated public attitude about dogs. In America’s bicentennial year, all dog breeds did not have to conform to a generic ideal, and the qualities of each – good and bad – could be printed without reservation. The candor with which “Choosing the Right Dog” presents each breed would be largely unwelcome reading today.
The suitability of each breed as a pet is described through language that is both humorous and pragmatic. The Weimaraner is characterized as “a real handful” and the Irish Terrier as a “hot-tempered scrapper.” Both the Bloodhound and Scottish Deerhound are considered to have a personality that’s “no sparkler,” whereas the Chow Chow is “simply cantankerous.” My own breed, the Irish Water Spaniel, is described as being good with the entire household “except thoughtless children.” How’s that for an honest evaluation?
Some of the breed descriptions in “Choosing the Right Dog” would be difficult to get past the censors today. For example, the author indicates the Norwegian Elkhound “Doesn’t attack intruders, however—[it] holds them at bay,” and the Bullmastiff is “much more aggressive than Mastiff.” Likewise, the American Staffordshire Terrier is portrayed as “Gentle and easygoing with own family, including children,” but it is noted that some individuals “are a menace even to family’s friends if family isn’t present” and “many are [a] real threat to other dogs.”
Of course, not every breed’s profile is so contentious. For example, the Scottish Terrier is presented as “A very special breed” that “In the course of one day may be stubborn, obedient, snappish, loving, sullen, playful.” The Yorkshire Terrier is considered “Deservedly popular” and the Boston Terrier is “Easy to live with and to take care of.”
A few breeds, like the Belgian Malinois and Tervuren, are simply underrepresented, presumably due to a lack of response to the author’s questionnaire.
The book’s photographs also provide an interesting view of purebred dogs circa 1976. Although most of the dogs represented are recognizable as their descendants seen in the show ring today, a few demonstrate a different style of dog altogether. The representative Newfoundland and Bichon Frise, for example, are both long and low, and the Pembroke Welsh Corgi and Saint Bernard photos show individuals that appear “up on leg” when compared with today’s dogs.
Some breed photos in the book, such as the Pekingese, show a dog with far less coat than today’s dogs. Others, like the Poodle, illustrate a greater length of hair than is currently seen.
A review of “Choosing the Right Dog” suggests that every dog book embraces its subject with a sentiment that is specific to the time in which it is published. Depression-era books, for example, honor the common street dog and the pet that was free to roam – sometimes with fatal consequences. Contemporary dog books, on the other hand, reflect our notion of dogs as members of the family. “Pet parents” today have endless manuals at their disposal for solving problems such as potty training and finding the right school. In 1976, a dog was a pet that could be bred, bought and sold without interference from activists and legislators.
Thirty-six years after “Choosing the Right Dog” was published, the dog remains a popular subject of books (and YouTube videos). Even as their role in society changes, dogs continue to share their lives with us, and a good dog book represents a snapshot of our symbiotic relationship.