What It's Like to Live a Dog's Life

Early in her new book, Australian author Kate Jennings describes her new puppy not as a "small brown dog," but as a "tense bundle of muscle and sinew that stood seventeen inches high." Not exactly the gushy tone you might read in other dog books, but "Stanley and Sophie" sacrifices sweetness for some harsh realities: losing a husband, living in post-9/11 New York and adopting two dogs in hopes of companionship. Jennings learned to love the pair, so when it came time for her third book, Jennings turned to what she new best—her two border terriers. To be fair, it took some imagination to get into a dog's mindset: "For one, I don't do handstands when I pee" she told NEWSWEEK's Kurt Soller before delving into what makes dog literature an art form; how one should take care of monkeys; and why so many New Yorkers squeeze pets into their miniscule apartments. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK : You've previously written novels, so how did you decide to write a memoirno less, one about your dogs?
Kate Jennings: I write to explain things to myself, so I wanted to try to explain to myself why I had come to love these dogs. Given that I grew up as a really pragmatic farm girl with a yard dog, a sheepdog, I was curious why I really fell for these two. And I wanted to write about New York.

What about the city?
By writing this book, it would be my break after September 11. After the terrorist attack, life in New York really changed. In those years, we went from worrying about private lives to worrying about politics all the time. It's been an amazing eight years and I wanted to get at those emotions—they're always under the surface [especially since the attack] will probably happen in New York again.

So you then chose to express those thoughts by writing about the dogs.
Well, when I started writing this book, my agent and people in the publishing world said, "Dog books don't sell." And then "Marley and Me" came along. But it's not a straight-up dog companion book—it's my dog-monkey-and-state-of-the-world book. There's not a shelf in the bookstore for that; it's a problem, marketingwise.

"Stanley and Sophie" takes a different tack than the other dog books. This is a spoiler for our readers, but what were you going through when you decided to give away Stanley and Sophie to separate sets of owners?
That was a huge decision. In life, we mostly do things that make us happy. And in these cases, I had to broaden their lives at the cost of my own emotions. It was horrible. But thankfully, I'm still their grandmother. All that terrier energy is now spread about two sets of parents. I didn't realize it was going to work out as well as it did, and the [other owners] have become terrific friends.

The number of dogs in New York always surprises me. What do you think draws New Yorkers to put pets in their small apartments?
I think it's because of vertical living. Dogs are a way for New Yorkers to interact with their neighbors in a way that they couldn't otherwise. You can't always just stop and say hello to a stranger, and the city can be very lonely. But big dogs, Afghan hounds kept in a studio apartment, that's just crazy. And plus, dogs aren't pets.

So what are they?
They're family and companions. To take on a dog is a huge undertaking, down to the little details of how much it costs. And it's not a thing that anyone should take on lightly at all—that's an insult to the dog. They can, in a sense, be your baby. They're creatures in their own right.

Like that last response, you spent much of the book anthropomorphizing Stanley and Sophie. Have you faced any criticism?
We did this big publicity tour and there was this one Australian radio journalist who kept saying, "Look at all the animals, humans are quite different than dogs." True, my dogs don't read. But they love music. To calm my dogs, I would dance around with them. I can't say what their taste in music is, but they use music to calm pit bulls down.

How do monkeys compare? You raised two while living for Bali for a bit.
I was actually the only one who never wanted a monkey. I was never a primate person; I didn't follow all those Jane Goodall shows. But monkeys are much more unpredictable as they grow up. Monkeys have 94 percent of our genes but they don't have lots of impulse control—I guess some humans don't either. But if people think having a monkey is a pet, it's not a good idea at all! Monkeys should be in the jungle, and we should be doing everything we can to make sure the jungle stays there. They were bored with us, but they would have just been eaten if we hadn't bought them.

Monkeys share genes, but as you address in your book, aren't dog owners often said to resemble their dogs?
Sometimes they do. But I think in the case of border terriers, owners want no-nonsense dogs. We don't want a dog with frills, so we probably are like that in our own appearance. On the other side, there are very fancy breeds with fancy owners, but it does border on insanity when you're paying a thousand dollars for a leash. The amount of money one can spend on a dog can be quite mind-boggling.

Especially with competitions and the whole dog-show world.
I'm critical of that: we're talking about people who are really obsessive. Breeders are going for looks and not for character. It's lunatic.

What about these dog-borrowing services, where people can rent a dog for a set period of time?
The dogs must get very confused. Borrowing a dog? That can't be good for the dog. I guess it might be good for families who want to try out dog ownership and see what it is like. Dog ownership is a huge responsibility in many ways—and don't even think about monkeys.

What It's Like to Live a Dog's Life | Culture