Richard Teleky, a teacher (York University), novelist, critic and poet, also happens to be a proud and committed dog lover. He starts the preface to his recent book, The Dog on the Bed: A Canine Alphabet, by pointing out that he was born in the Chinese year of the dog, “which may account for the sympathy I have for dogs.”
There’s more than sympathy at play here. The Dog on the Bed presents itself as a work of old-fashioned abecedarianism, but is also a paean to Teleky’s own dogs and an excuse to recapitulate all he has learned over the years about the history, physiology, sociology and ethology of man’s best friends, citing personal experience, a wealth of found anecdotes and wide, deep reading in the literature of dogs and their millennia-old relationship with humankind. (And I mean a lot of reading; the book’s bibliography is 21 dense pages long.) Teleky has thought about dogs a lot, and believes that, to a great extent, they define humanity.
The book comes with a canine dramatis personae, divided into “principal dogs” – Busters 1 and 2, Max, Morgan, Rennie, Spotty, Zoli – and “cameo appearances” from more than a dozen others.
The Dog on the Bed is an ideal introduction for those new to dog companionship, covering as it does nearly every aspect of the human-canine relationship in one easy-to-digest volume.
But it is also good fun for old hands, and a sort of refresher course for those who have done a lot of their own reading. Teleky covers everything from the evolution of dogs to recent developments in animal rights to the many ways dogs have inspired artists, musicians, writers and entrepreneurs through the centuries. His 65 short essays, illustrated by 20 or so black-and-white drawings, are always engaging and sometimes downright fascinating.
A quick sampling of the chapter headings – many letters contain more than one chapter – gives an idea of the breadth of Teleky’s approach, covering as they do Anthropomorphism, Breeds, Cruelty, Death, Excrement, Food, “God” (Teleky’s quotation marks), Humour, Intelligence, Judging Dog Shows, Kitsch, Lumps, Movies, Noses, Obedience Classes, Pugs (Irish poet Nick Laird, addressing his own pug, wrote, “Your weapon of choice is a sneeze”), Quadrupeds, Rights, Second Dogs, Trainers and Training, Uncanny (one of my personal favourites, including dogs who know when their people are coming home and dogs who find their way home over hundreds, or even thousands, of miles), Veterinarian, Work, Xylocaine, Yapping and Zoli (Teleky's pug).
The writing is sometimes clumsy, surprisingly so considering Teleky’s literary pedigree; I suspect his editors did him no favours. But his passion and affection shine through in every chapter, and if you’re a dog aficionado, his book is tailor-made for browsing. You can’t go wrong.
H.J. Kirchhoff is the deputy Books editor for The Globe and Mail.