The last few years have seen an astonishing increase in the number of books published on pet care and training. Among them are a handful of the most useful and humane texts ever published, better by far than any that have come before.
Problem is, these few rare gems have been vastly outnumbered by books that aren't worth an investment of either money or time. Between the covers of most pet books is nothing but garbage. Reliance on such dross has surely resulted in many a pet owner giving up on a poorly behaved animal.
My complaints with these books vary. Some of them are well-written but fall far short on knowledge or technique. Others are penned by bona-fide experts, but are so poorly written that getting through them is a chore. By far the worst are those short on both accurate information and readability, the kind of books whose publishers cynically figure to move them off the bookstore shelves with calculatingly cute cover photographs.
It's certainly true that you can't tell a book by its cover, unless the name on it belongs to one of those who knows animals and is able to share knowledge in an accessible, even humorous, style. I have run across very few such people; one of them -- Job Michael Evans -- has just come out with his best book yet, "People, Pooches & Problems" (Howell Book House, $19.95).
Mr. Evans is a New York City dog trainer who's probably better-known for his earlier life as head trainer at the New Skete monastery in upstate New York. As Brother Job, Mr. Evans was part of a team that raised top-quality German shepherds and took in hundreds of dogs for private training. Before he left, he co-authored one of the most popular dog-training books ever written, the 1978 classic "How to Be Your Dog's Best Friend" (Little, Brown & Co). He has written four excellent books on his own since, including this latest.
The monks of New Skete haven't done as well. Their recently released follow-up to "Best Friend," "The Art of Raising a Puppy" (Little, Brown & Co., $17.95), is so deadly serious and dull that I kept falling asleep while reading it. The most interesting thing about it was noticing that the monks have apparently given up their drab clerical robes for blue jeans and Reeboks. In all, it was a disappointment.
"People, Pooches & Problems," on the other hand, is a delight. Since leaving the monastery, Mr. Evans has made a living as a trainer, author and lecturer, helping thousands turn their canine headaches into well-mannered pets. The Evans approach stresses that a behavior problem -- such as digging or food-stealing -- cannot be treated until the relationship between pet and owner is working well. A dog must respect its owner's leadership status before formal training can go forward.
This may come as disappointing news to anyone looking for a "quick fix," but Mr. Evans warns that treating one problem without working on the underlying cause for misbehavior may cause a dog to express itself in another way -- trading digging for chewing, perhaps.
The heart of the book is Mr. Evans' "Radical Regimen for Recalcitrant Rovers" ("RRRR," for short), a 20-point program to establish a proper pecking order -- with the pooch on the bottom. After the "RRRR" is under way, Mr. Evans explains how to cure specific pet problems through the use of "set-ups," situations that trigger bad behavior so corrections can be made.
Basic obedience is a part of it, too, and Mr. Evans stresses humane yet firm ways to teach the "five words dogs live by": "heel," "sit," "stay," "down" and "come." There's a whole chapter on teaching the recall that, if followed, will turn any bolter into a dog that can be trusted off-leash.
"People, Pooches & Problems" is among the best training books ever written, one that every dog-lover -- as well as veterinarian, groomer or kennel operator -- should read cover to cover.
As Mr. Evans says, "Don't complain, train!" You and your dog will both be better off for it.
Another new release, "Old Dogs, Old Friends: Enjoying Your Older Dog," by Chris Walkowicz and veterinarian Bonnie Wilcox (Howell Book House, $22.50), is useful to anyone with a senior canine. There's nothing new in it, but it does have just about everything anyone needs to know about caring for older dogs (although an index would have boosted its value as a reference immensely).
The best thing about the book are the stories of older dogs as shared by their owners, and the pictures of dozens of active older pets. Age alone is no barrier to a full life, for dogs as well as people.
Ms. Spadafori is a newspaper reporter and an animal obedience trainer in Sacramento, Calif. Questions about pets may be sent to her c/o Saturday, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278.