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Teaching humans new tricks

Dogs have some traits that humans would do well to emulate.

By EVE TAHMINCIOGLU, Times Correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 23, 2000

Many years ago, while working for a daily newspaper in Manhattan, I came face to face with a peculiar and somewhat disturbing human phenomenon: Some people like dogs more than they like people.

This realization hit when during a daily editorial meeting I stood up and asked the 12 or so editors and writers in the room if they would contribute money or donate food for an event I helped organize to raise money for homeless women in New York. After my 5-minute spiel about the event, I was met with some blank stares and people nervously thumbing through papers, trying to avoid eye contact. I sat down and assumed everyone was probably too strapped to contribute. They were underpaid journalists, for God's sake. No problem, I thought, and the meeting moved on.

Suddenly, an assistant editor burst into the room, late for the meeting that everyone was supposed to attend short of death. She was disheveled, her mascara running and hair strewn about. She had just come from a pet hospital, she said. Apparently a dog had been hit by a car on her way to work, and throngs of people disrupted their daily routines to attend to the ailing pooch. It was horrific, she said. The dog's leg was broken and possibly, she added with a gasp, there was internal bleeding. Since the canine had no collar, she and the others that accompanied the dog to the pet hospital, all strangers, promised the hospital staff they would pay the doggie's bills.

Next thing I knew, checkbooks and wads of cash were flying toward the assistant editor, who thanked the generous group as her eyes welled with tears.

Now, I love dogs just as much as the next guy, but I couldn't for the life of me understand the outpouring of empathy for the gimpy pup, especially in light of the cool reception my plea for the cold and hungry homeless women, some with children, received.

This memory from my past was recently unearthed by a book called Second Thoughts On: How to Be as Terrific as Your Dog Thinks You Are. The author, Mort Crim, the host of Second Thoughts, a national radio program, details his life with his two now deceased dogs, Golum, a "gentle" Doberman pinscher, and Bogey, a "cocky" dachshund. The pair helped comfort him when his wife died, and he developed a strong affection for the dogs, inspiring him to write a book explaining why people should try to be more like dogs.

Crim, who is also a motivational speaker and head of a communications company, will be in Tampa on Wednesday to promote his book.

When I read the title, I immediately thought, "Not another dog book ascribing human qualities to dogs."

There is an endless litany of books on the market already that give dogs a little too much credit. Here's a sampling: A Dog Is Listening: The Way Some of Our Closest Friends View Us, Dogs Never Lie About Love: Reflections on the Emotional World of Dogs, The Social Lives of Dogs: The Grace of Canine Company, Bad Dog!: True Tales of Trouble Only a Best Friend Can Get Away With and How to Speak Dog: Mastering the Art of Dog-Human Communication.

I have had my dog Henry for nearly eight years and never bought a dog book of any kind. I'm not really worried what he thinks about me, and I know he would probably drop me like a hot potato if he found another home where he would be fed and petted from time to time. And since Henry licks his butt and rolls in dead rodents, I am pretty sure he has nothing to teach me.

So what's with the canine captivation?

"Dogs are simpler than people," said Marion Schwartz, a research associate in the anthropology department at Yale University. "If you do something for them, they give you unconditional love; they don't keep asking for more. The relationship of people to people is so much more complex."

Schwartz, who herself wrote a dog book, A History of Dogs in the Early Americas, published by Yale University Press, said people have been obsessed with dogs for centuries and that obsession shows no signs of waning.

The problem is, she said, when people take their dog obsessions too far.

"You never want to cross the boundary that these dogs are worth more than people," she said. "Dogs are very smart, but they do not have the range of emotional content that humans do."

Crim insisted he does not love dogs more than people. "I never thought of them as my children," he said. "I did not allow them to eat at the table."

And furthermore, he said, "This is not a dog book. It does not belong in the pet section. It's a self-help motivational book about people."

Despite all the dog references, Crim said dogs were not the focus of his book. "I used my dogs as perspective," he said. "This is an analogy."

The goal of the book is to encourage people to be more like dogs in their day to day lives.

One of the best doggie attributes humans should aspire to is "total acceptance," Crim said. Dogs adore their owners, without reservation. "Sure, there's a naivete about that, but that's what makes them so charming," he added.

Another admired dog characteristic is loyalty. "Loyalty is a quality we all admire and one that sometimes seems in short supply these days," Crim writes in his book. "The fact that dogs score so high in the loyalty department may be a major reason we love them so much."

One of my favorite traits Crim discusses in his book is a dog's endless need to frolic. The author believes humans need to play more, not just children but adults as well. "It's sad when we allow the responsibilities of the grown-up world to suffocate our natural urge to have fun."

It all comes down to not taking ourselves too seriously and being less cynical. The occasional throw-caution-to-the-wind approach, made into an art by dogs, might help an individual's well being, Crim said.

Makes sense, I suppose. Sometimes when my dog Henry is lying on the floor without a care in the world, I find myself wondering, "Why can't I just let go of things that make me crazy?"

But then reality sets in. Henry lives a dog's life. We can't send the pooch off to work. He can't feed the baby. He doesn't even pay attention when we clean the house, other than to run out of the room when the scary vacuum cleaner is turned on. He doesn't understand the local news. And he couldn't care less whether the bills are paid. Well, unless it affected his table scraps.

At a glance

  • WHAT: Mort Crim discusses his book, Second Thoughts On: How to Be as Terrific asYour Dog Thinks You Are
  • WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday
  • WHERE: Barnes & Noble, 213 N Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa
  • COST: Free
  • CALL: (813) 871-2228
  • ALSO: Crim will be appearing 5:30-6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Big Kmart, 7651 W Waters Ave.

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