"Edgar Sawtelle is a boy without a voice, but his world, populated by the dogs his family breeds, is anything but silent. This is a remarkable story about the language of friendship—a language that transcends words."
—Dalia Sofer, author of The Septembers of Shiraz

Further Reading

If The Story of Edgar Sawtelle piqued your interest in dogs and dog training, here are a few resources I recommend.

Adam's Task CoverAdam's Task, by Vicki Hearne. It may be hard to understand how radical Vicki Hearne's ideas sounded when her book was first published in 1982; this was a time near the end of the long winter of strict behaviorism in academia, when too-loudly espousing the idea that animals might possess thoughts and feelings of the same kind as human beings meant career suicide. But Hearne—a philosopher, poet, and animal trainer—knew better, and I get the sense she was spoiling for a fight. She didn't shy away from applying words like "visionary" to a dog's world view, or to claim that an inept trainer might appear insane to a dog. Her great achievement in this book was to integrate the language of philosophy, psychology, and training. This is not, to understate the case, easy, and at times I get overwhelmed by Hearne's crack-the-whip allusive style. But the result is as astonishing to me today as it was when I first read it in the late '80's: a vision of training as a profoundly moral act, one that must be approached with the greatest care. The chapter entitled "How to say 'Fetch!'" is a must-read for all dog owners. And check out Hearne's wonderful essay, "Can an Ape Tell a Joke?", originally published in Harper's, and collected in Best American Essays of 1994. She's getting at the same ideas as in Adam's Task, but from an entirely different starting point. If you don't feel a pang when you read its last sentence, you haven't been paying attention.


Cover art, Animals in Translation Animals in Translation, by Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson. Much has been made over Temple Grandin's autism, but the more salient fact is that Temple Grandin is a genius. There's hardly a page in this book that doesn't contain some surprising insight coupled with practical knowledge of animal behavior. For example, look for the discussion of the so-called SEEKING circuit in Chapter 3, which describes the state of "intense interest, engaged curiosity, and eager anticipation" I recognize in my own dogs and in myself, but which I've never had a label for. And there's no missing the chapter entitled "Animal Genius," which neatly wraps up the then-current research on the origins of dogs. "You always hear that humans domesticated animals, that we turned wolves into dogs," Grandin says, "But new research shows that wolves probably domesticated people, too. Humans co-evolved with wolves; we changed them and they changed us."


Cover Art: If Dogs Could Talk If Dogs Could Talk, by Vilmos Csanyi. Originally published in Hungary under the title "Flip and Jerry" and artfully translated into English by Richard Quandt, this book outstandingly marshals what we know about canine evolution and cognition, interspersed with Csanyi's observations of his own two dogs. Of particular note are the chapters describing how, through cleverly designed experiments, Csanyi and others have isolated various aspects of canine cognition, including the ability to reason about what information (such as the location of a highly desirable treat) people have or do not have, and change tactics accordingly.

In some quarters this book has been criticized for making too-sweeping generalizations about canine behavior and cognition, but I think such complaints miss the point. Csanyi's goal is to survey for lay people what is known about the whole animal, body and mind; in order to cover the necessary ground he doesn't always stop to justify each point or split hairs. The result conveys his natural exuberance for the subject matter and makes for fascinating reading. More, please.


Cover Art: Dogs, by Raymond and Lorna Coppinger Dogs: A New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior, and Evolution, by Raymond and Laura Coppinger. In some sense, this book covers the same ground as Csanyi's, but adopts a more formal stance. I recommend reading the two back to back; you'll often encounter the same material, but it is fascinating to see how differently it can be presented. The Coppingers make a strong case, now widely accepted, that wolves evolved into dogs largely as a side-effect of frequenting the trash heaps near human settlements, where a lesser fear response was rewarded with greater access to food. Over time, this process selected for animals willing to be nearer humans.

The section entitled "Working Dogs and Mutualism" is the jewel at the center of this book. The Coppingers are at their best explaining, for example, how a sled dog team works, and why bigger isn't better when you are looking to add to your team. In the latter pages of this section, they argue that a single "motor pattern" accounts, when stretched, squeezed, or truncated, for a wide variety of dog behavior, such as herding and retrieving. I take that with a grain of salt; interpreted too literally, the argument becomes an exercise in reductionism. (That's one reason I recommend reading this book in tandem with Csanyi.) But make no mistake: the Coppingers have written an impressive volume filled with information you won't find elsewhere. I highly recommend it.


Cover Art: For the Love of a Dog For The Love of a Dog: Understanding Emotion in You and Your Best Friend, by Patricia B. McConnell. Fellow Wisconsite and Ph. D. zoologist Patricia McConnell is the person to seek out when you need insightful training advice grounded in solid science. This is one of those books that makes you wonder why it hadn't been written long before. We know dogs have emotions, but exactly how do they express them? As it turns out, quite differently from people. Learning about "whale eye" alone is worth the price of admission, but there's far more here, and its all stuff dog owners ought to know.

When you've finished loving this book, check out McConnell's previous volume, The Other End of the Leash. And for a real treat, visit her web site and order the Advanced Canine Behavior Seminar on DVD — it's a two-day seminar filled with fascinating information and demonstrations. She's at www.patriciamcconnell.com. Want even more? Listen to Patricia on the Wisconsin Public Radio program Calling All Pets (Now, sadly defunct. Bad move, WPR.)


Cover Art: Genetics and the Social Behavior of DogsGenetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog: The Classic Study, by John Paul Scott and John L. Fuller. Originally published in 1965, this book details the efforts of Scott, Fuller and the rest of their research team to disentangle nature, nurture, and heredity in dogs. The result was the genesis for all modern study of dog behavior. Scott and Fuller's book makes a cameo appearance in The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, sitting atop the file cabinets beside Working Dogs (more about that book below). If you're hardcore about dogs and dog training, you already have this book; if you want to see where some of the ideas for the Sawtelle's training and evaluation program came from, borrow this from the library and check out the photographs of the maze and detour tests. You'll find the text pretty slow going, so prepare to skim and jump around; this is a research report summarizing years of experimentation and data collection. Yet the contents are fascinating. When you've finished, ask yourself this: why are we still breeding, judging and pedigreeing dogs based on Victorian-era attitudes about class and bloodlines, involving silly physical conformation rules, and when the possibilities for behavioral breeding are so much more exciting?


Cover Art: Working Dogs Working Dogs, by Elliot Humphrey and Lucien Warner. Sitting atop the file cabinets in The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, right next to Scott and Fuller, was this book, to which I rudely appended a fictional third author named Alvin Brooks. As Edgar discovers, Brooks becomes an adversary, then a friend and confidant, to Edgar's grandfather, John Sawtelle. In the process, Brooks introduces John Sawtelle to the Fortunate Fields project, the first serious attempt to evaluate dogs based on behavior and to make that evaluation the basis for a breeding program. Much of the Sawtelle's method of breeding, raising, and training dogs — indeed, the very idea of a pedigree system based on behavior instead of physical conformation — arose out of the letters between John Sawtelle and Alvin Brooks. When I first discovered this book, it was out of print and only available on-line, but now you can buy it from a number of sources. Of course, there are more modern texts available (Working Dogs was originally published in 1934) and we've learned a lot since it was written, but if you're the kind that likes to go back to original sources, this is your touchstone work.


HachikoHachiko, the most famous dog in Japan, and one of the most famous dogs that has ever lived, plays a small but significant role in convincing Edgar of the reality of his situation. Lamentably, there are few books written about this extraordinary animal, so beloved in his lifetime that a statue was erected in his honor (then melted down during WW II for the metal, and then re-erected in 1948.) It has often been said that dogs are of a finer character than most people; if you ever doubt that sentiment, read a little about Hachiko and prepare to be humbled.

Someday, I'm gonna touch that statue.