A Cabinet of Canine Curiosities to enjoy

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Terri Schlichenmeyer / The Bookworm

Your dog is the best in the world.

He knows dozens of commands; he clearly has more in the smarts department than any other dog you know; and when you watch dog shows on TV, you laugh because your fur-baby looks way better than those mutts. In fact, it’s a wonder Hollywood hasn’t come knocking because, compared to your dog, Lassie is a loser.

But can your dog talk? Can he take himself around the country by train or pay your mortgage? If not, then read about dogs that can in the new book Amazing Dogs by Jan Bondeson.

Ever since the first caveman brought home a cave puppy and Mrs. Caveman said, “Great. What can it do?”, humans have bragged about their talented and wise pooches. Thus, it is that history is filled with boastful owners and their canine Einsteins.

Take, for instance, the Great Munito, a dog that was supposedly fluent in several languages, could do complex mathematics, play dominoes and drums, and perform “acrobatics”. Munito’s owner was a shabbily-dressed, seemingly illiterate man but he was no dummy: there were actually several Munitos performing throughout Europe in the early- to mid-1800s.

And then there was Rolf, who “dabbled in mathematics, ethics, religion, and philosophy” and once was “disrespectful” of an impertinent journalist.

It should be noted that both Munito and Rolf were the subjects of fierce study and great debate in their time. Bondeson points out that while these dogs were surely intelligent, they were, more likely, excellent readers of body language.

Still, there’s no doubt that some amazing dogs have pre-dated your collegiate canine. Railway Jack knew all the train schedules around Great Britain, and he knew when and where to get snacks. Owney, an American dog, was a beloved pet of postmen around the country. History shows a Saint Dog (though not a Saint Bernard!) and saint-like dogs that were used for charity work well into the last century. Turnspit dogs, now all but extinct, kept households running — literally. And since the beginning of our times, we’ve honoured dogs at the end of theirs.

If you take a book on Victorian England, toss in something on 18th and 19th century European history and add a few words connecting it to modern times, you’ve got Amazing Dogs.

And you’ve got a conundrum…

While bookstores are filled with hundreds of cutesy books on noteworthy canine behavior and look-at-my-dog stories, author Jan Bondeson digs for different kinds of tales: those of pups who made their marks on culture. Imagine, for instance, at a time before mass media, how a “talking” dog must’ve been the talk of the town.

But the vast majority of what you’ll find in Amazing Dogs comes from two, three, even four centuries ago. That’s interesting, but heavy. A general knowledge of early-modern cultural history will go a long way towards appreciating this book fully.

And yet, if you’re a life-long dog lover and can overlook occasional fustiness, you won’t want to miss it. For you, Amazing Dogs will be pawsitively the best.

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