Look, I find it as hard to believe as you do, but we can only submit to the dictate of the calendar: it’s December. With that in mind I want to mention possible gift books, starting this week with ones on beasts (regular ones, not JK Rowling ones). My household includes two: black labrador Bella, who is almost 11, and more-or-less dingo Scout, who is five. Well, it’s now a triumvirate thanks to the arrival of Jack, a two-year-old English staffordshire terrier.
I can say the following only because Bella and Scout ignore this column: Jack is the cutest dog in the world. Educating him on being dog No 3 is a fascinating process, particularly as he has a jaw that could crush a lamppost. Bella is the senior dog, he’s told, and so first in line when snacks are handed out and so on.
As with all learning, books are beneficial. When I showed Jack What the Dog Knows (Scribe), he noted the cover photograph was not of him but a dark lab. The author of this enjoyable, illuminating, funny book on how dogs perceive the world is an American journalist with an antithetical name: Cat Warren. She also works with cadaver dogs, and the chapter on how US authorities have trialled different breeds to find dead bodies, and live bombs, is informative and hilarious. As an aside she mentions that at one point her namesakes were trained as bomb detectors and proved excellent at it. However there was a crucial, gloriously feline snag: they could find bombs with aplomb but wouldn’t deign to tell humans about them. “Cats were excluded … because of their demonstrated refusal to co-operate consistently in joint ventures with man.”
While we’re on the moggies, American photographer Seth Casteel, who had a hit with the superb Underwater Dogs, has now produced Pounce (Hachette), a collection of colour snapshots of cats, well, pouncing. To my eye it’s just cats with their claws out (and I like cats), but I’m sure it will be popular. Brisbanebased animal photographer Ken Drake has published the charming Pawtraits (New Holland), which is full of hounds hogging the camera. I like the one of a blue cattle dog (no doubt named Red) caught licking the face of a red cattle dog (no doubt named … well, you know). Another Australian art book is Pup Art by wife-and-husband team Gillie and Marc (gillieandmarc.com). I adore the French bulldog complaisant amid chewed croissants. This canine tribute to pop art is exquisite. It’s also expensive at $120, but then that would buy only about 4 per cent of a Frenchie.
Speaking of costs, now that I have three dogs, taking them on holidays is even harder. Who scores the front seat? So I’m keen to see Gareth Brock’s Pets on Holiday (Hardie Grant, February), billed as “the ultimate curated guide to Australia’s most pet-inclusive destinations”.
Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? (Granta), by Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal, is an absorbing book that will make you rethink animal intelligence. Why, for example, do we link intelligence to an animal’s willingness to do what we tell it to do? To end with the pick of the litter: It Happened Off the Leash (Affirm Press), edited by Melbourne novelist Paddy O’Reilly. This “celebration of our best friends” includes contributions from writers such as Sonya Hartnett, Favel Parrett, Robert Dessaix, Toni Jordan, Debra Adelaide, Ellen van Neerven, Damon Young and John Clarke, who remembers a dog that could spell. The essays are mainly light-hearted though Phillip Adams’s childhood recollection is harrowing. There are 11 chapters that group dogs by nature, from Maniacs to Protectors to Escapologists, and nice photos. I’m reassured by the one of David Astle, aka crossword compiler DA, and his dog, who has his backside planted on one of the devious human’s black and white grids. And no treats for guessing who brilliantly opens the Maniacs chapter. Andy Griffiths of course.