Our Puppies, Ourselves

What the cresting wave of dog memoirs, including You Had Me at Woof and Oogy: The Dog Only a Family Could Love, says about us humans

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Photograph by Kate Lacey for TIME

Despite the constant shedding and costly vet visits, Lola, the mutt my husband and I adopted in 2009, has made our lives immeasurably easier. At the end of a stressful day, she is there when we get home, in the same joyful, expectant mood as always, blessedly distracting and utterly unfazed. Nothing melts away the chaos of urban life like a game of after-dusk fetch in the park with a glow-in-the-dark ball. Lola's calming presence in our lives is poignant, miraculous even. But could I write an entire book about this? And if I did, would any readers care?

Apparently, they might. In recent months a spate of memoirs touting the virtues of the dog-influenced life has hit bookshelves and best-seller lists, from You Had Me at Woof to Oogy: The Dog Only a Family Could Love. "I keep thinking this has got to be the last one," says Claudia Kawczynska, editor of the high-end dog owners' bimonthly The Bark, which reviews dog-related books and publishes the occasional excerpt. "And then we get another manuscript."

Many of these canine chronicles will turn out to be bad financial bets for their publishers. But every once in a while, a book hits the jackpot — like Marley & Me, the 2005 blockbuster by John Grogan — and spawns a raft of imitators. The former newspaper columnist's memoir, which includes life with an irrepressible, untrainable Labrador retriever, sold more than 6 million copies in more than 40 languages, was made into a hit movie and was the catalyst for a dozen children's books, including Marley Looks for Love and Marley and the Runaway Pumpkin. Grogan, who says he was shocked by his book's success, is often asked by publishers to contribute blurbs praising new dog memoirs. He usually says no. "Some of them feel like they're just trying to cash in on what is now a proven market niche, and that feels cynical to me," he says.

The link between humans and canines has been forged over millennia, and dog tales have been popular nearly that long; take Jack London's The Call of the Wild, for example, or John Steinbeck's Travels with Charley: In Search of America, both solidly enshrined in the canon of American literature. According to legend, when Random House co-founder Bennett Cerf was asked how to write a best seller, he answered that the surefire way would be to title it Lincoln's Doctor's Dog.

But the current crop of dog memoirs, following in the pawprints of Marley & Me, tell us less about dogs than they do about ourselves. Dogs aren't just our best friends; they're our best metaphors. Larry Levin's Oogy, which has spent 10 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, isn't really a story about a Pennsylvania family and its disfigured pooch. It's about second chances: before being rescued by the Levins, Oogy had been involved in dog fighting and left for dead. Levin and his wife endured four miscarriages before adopting twin baby boys. What a Difference a Dog Makes isn't really about author Dana Jennings' miniature poodle Bijou; it's about how she helped him recover from prostate cancer. In his telling, she seems less dog than superhuman. "Bursting with the biological urgency of life," Jennings writes, "her unlikely light is a hedge against the bleak and blank entropy that we are told will one day be faced by us, the Earth, even the universe." Kawczynska says she recently received a manuscript about a man who overcame alcoholism with the help of his dog. "It's amazing the amount we're asking from our dogs beyond just being our best friends," she says. "Which should be enough."

Many of these books are about how dogs can teach us to slow down — the way, say, a game of nighttime fetch might force you to. In You Had Me at Woof, by Julie Klam — which, in keeping with the trend, is largely about how neurotic the author is (or was) — Klam recounts her early years as a lonely young professional in New York City, mothering a Boston terrier, and how her obsession with a dog-rescue group helped her understand compassion.

While 2010 may have felt like a record year for dog memoirs, there are signs 2011 will be no different. Already these titles have been slated: Bad Dog: A Love Story and Finding Harmony: The Dog That Taught a Young Woman to Live Again.

Readers for whom all this self-discovery is a bit much might find more interesting material in psychologist Alexandra Horowitz's best-selling Inside of a Dog, which forgoes personal epiphanies and delves into the science of how dogs perceive the world. (It's mostly through smell.) Horowitz discusses why we shouldn't dress up our dogs in little sweaters ("[They] have, clearly, their own coats permanently affixed") and the key behavioral differences between wolves and dogs (the latter will look us in the eye). Scientific books like Horowitz's are "an exploration of the dog as other and not a reflection of the dog as me," says Kawczynska. "You go to the dog park so you can tell people how fascinating your dog is, but do you write books about that?"

As for Lola, I'm not sure she would make a very good book subject. She's too mellow. "Bad dogs make good copy," says Grogan. "I have a really good Lab now. She's quiet, and she lies at our feet, and she doesn't steal food off the counter. I joke that I'll never write a book about her because she doesn't do anything."