What’s a Dog For?

"What's a Dog For?" by John Homans
Maurice Sendak drawing in "A Hole is to Dig"
Maurice Sendak drawing in “A Hole is to Dig”

A Hole is to Dig by Ruth Krauss (Harper & Brothers, 1952) was one of my favorite childhood books. I still have the well-worn copy I pored over as a child. Only a small child would wonder, “What’s a hole for?”—and only a small child would be completely satisfied with the tautology of the title’s answer. The book’s lasting appeal lies partly in the knowing innocence of its narrative structure (subtitled A First Book of First Definitions, the text dispenses entirely with the questions and jumps Jeopardy-style right to the answers), and more so in a young Maurice Sendak’s drawings of children and dogs cavorting. Krauss opines, “The world is so you have something to stand on.”; “A lap is so you don’t get crumbs n the floor.”; “Toes are to wiggle.”; and “Dogs are to kiss people.”

Fifty years later, John Homans looks for more grown-up answers in What’s a Dog For? (Penguin Press HC, 2012). The longtime executive editor of New York magazine and the doting companion of a lab mix named Stella, Homans observes: “Today the dog world is in the throes of political and ideological convulsions of a kind not seen since Victorian times, when the dog as we know it was invented. Put simply, the dog is now in the process of being reimagined.”

Of course, it is we humans, not our dogs, who are doing the reimagining, and as Homans notes, “…the politics of dogs are a reflection, distilled and distorted, of the politics of people. They’re surrogates for our own conflicts, being fought by conservatives and radicals of many stripes, all trying desperately to put their own ideological stamp on the future of dog.”

With Homans as guide, we’re off on a spirited romp across the loamy fields of dog history, science, philosophy, and politics. Along the way the author digs into theories of canine evolution, cognition, behavior, and training, the codification of breed standards and the genetic perils of over-breeding, the emergence of the animal rescue and animal rights movements, and the modern frontiers of veterinary care. Homans unearths a trove of canine trivia and fun facts that make What’s a Dog For? a champion read for anyone interested in dogs, which I assume you are, if you’ve found your way to this blog.

"Dogs are to kiss people."(Maurice Sendak, detail)
“Dogs are to kiss people.”(Maurice Sendak, detail)

In the book’s final chapter, Homans rues the inevitable heartbreak that comes with loving our dogs like children while knowing that they will not live past the age of a child: “It’s not that a dog accepts the cards it’s been dealt; it’s not aware that there are cards. James Thurber called the desire for this condition ‘the Dog Wish,’ the ‘strange and involved compulsion to be as happy and carefree as a dog.’ This is a dog’s blessing, a dim-wittedness one can envy.”

Returning to hearth and home at the end of his journalistic journey, Homans’s answer to the essential question is fundamentally no different than Krauss’s. For most of us—young or old—what a dog is for is to take us out of ourselves—to bestow kisses. The sloppier and wetter, the better.

A hole is to dig. A dog is to love. Just do it.

1 thought on “What’s a Dog For?”

  1. That book was one of my favorites, too, Jan. And I still have my copy, which I inscribed in about 1962, “For my children.” I have an interesting story about “Where the Wild Things Are.” The boy in the story was named after my sister’s first husband, Max. Sendak felt sorry for Max, when he was a little boy, because the name Max was considered very strange at the time. So he named his character Max, after Max.

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