Dog tales

Josie, our family dog and best friend to our young sons, nearly died last week. Some brands of slug and snail poison are as tempting to dogs as they are toxic. Poor Josie is not one to resist temptation, and she helped herself to a full ration from the neighbor's garden.

When she arrived at the veterinarian, with help from caring neighbors, she was convulsing violently. The doctor gave her a 50 percent chance of survival with aggressive treatment. If she made it through the night, she'd probably recover fully. If not, well, we tried not to think about that.

We desperately hoped we would not have to deliver heart-breaking news to our children in the morning. During the wait, my husband and I talked about all the joy Josie has brought to our family. At the same time, we tried to prepare ourselves for the worst. We were lucky, and sunrise brought good news.

Josie's brush with death made me realize how much our pets mean to us, and forced me to ponder her inevitable mortality. While I usually avoid books with soft-eyed dogs on the cover, especially if the word "memoir" also appears, I sought them out this time. The Ashland Public Library has several new books that fit the bill.

"Dog Years" by Mark Doty is on the new-release shelf. In this book, Doty writes of his love for his two dogs and his grief at their deaths.

Doty is regarded as one of America's finest living poets, a recipient of many prestigious awards. He is also a great chronicler of loss. In an earlier memoir, "Heaven's Coast," Doty explores the death of his partner, Wally, from AIDS. Arden, a retriever, figures prominently in that memoir, as does Beau, a younger retriever Doty brought home during Wally's final days.

In "Dog Years," he examines his relationship with Arden and Beau, and with death itself. Moving backward and forward in time, Doty sets the story of the dogs against Wally's deterioration. He explores the dogs' large role in helping him cope with grief and later finding love with someone else. Woven throughout the elegant structure of the book are poetic reflections and hilarious anecdotes about his time with the dogs.

"Dog Years," in many ways, is more a love story than anything else. In it, Doty shows that, when we open our hearts to love, we balance ourselves on that line between joy and heartbreak, abundance and loss.

After Doty's poignant memoir, I wasn't ready for more tales of loss. I leafed through a few other dog stories at the library, but finally settled on "Dog Days" by Jon Katz. The book is on the library's spring reading list. It, too, has the requisite sweet dog staring back from its cover, but what sold me was the sentence on the page after the dedication: "No dogs die in this book."

Jon Katz is a well-known author, columnist and talk show host. He's written several books about dogs and his life on a small farm in upstate New York.

"Dog Days" chronicles his fourth year of rural life after leaving the big city. Helping Katz manage the farm are four dogs: the veteran sheep-herding border collie, Rose; two friendly labs named Clementine and Pearl; and a new border collie named Izzy.

"Dog Days" paints a colorful portrait of farm life without too much sentimentality. While Katz characterizes all the farm animals fondly, his focus, as with most of his nonfiction, is on the dogs. Readers especially get to know the hard-working Rose and the wild, lovable Izzy. The dogs are both colleagues and friends to Katz. He cares for them, works with them, and learns from them.

The book is full of funny stories and heroic deeds. In this way, it is like the Doty memoir, a valentine to anyone who has ever learned something about love and life from an animal. Katz writes, "The perfect life is like the perfect dog: neither exists and joy is a fraction of the experience of owning a farm."

"Dog Days" had a particular resonance for me, as Katz's friends and neighbors appear often to help him and his animals through a hard time. This is something I appreciate every day living in Ashland. Like Katz's, my family's own story features good neighbors and an affectionate dog, all set against a gorgeous landscape.

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