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The Book of Dogs!

By (August 2, 2015) No Comment

book of dogsOur book today is The Book of Dogs, a lovely leatherbound thing put out by the National Geographic Society back in 1919, subtitled “An Intimate Study of Mankind’s Best Friend.” The text is by Ernest Harold Baynes, with plenty of black-and-white photographs supplementing color illustrations by Louise Agassiz Fuertes and Hashime Murayama, and although semi-official dog breed books are in plentiful supply today (in support of a multi-billion dollar dog industry), they were fairly thin on the ground a century ago – this book was one of the Society’s earliest bestsellers.

It was no doubt helped considerably in reaching that status by the renown of its author. Nobody remembers Ernest Baynes today, but at the turn of the last century he enjoyed nation-wide fame as a friend to animals and what we would now call a conservationist. He was soft-spoken and shy in person (a bellicose friend of his working at the dear old Boston Evening Transcript once warned him that these retiring traits would hurt his career – then Baynes sold his first piece to Harper’s, and his friend promptly shut up and went back to hacking out 800-word book reviews for the Penny Press), but when he made an impression, that impression stuck – which is one reason he had so many devoted friends in his life, including President Theodore Roosevelt.

ernest harold baynesBaynes devoted himself to animals. He worked tirelessly to save the American bison, which would almost certainly have gone extinct without him. He took aim at the millinery fashion of the day, the mania for elaborate bird plumage in ladies’ hats that was devastating whole justicepopulations of bird species – and his energy, plus a gift for publicity that he’d never have admitted he possessed, actually helped to change the fashion. He also took in stray animals to live in his various homes – including stray wild animals who seemed to forget their ferocity when they were snuggling next to Baynes in front of an evening fireplace.

And he wrote. Since there’s been no biography of him in nearly a century and since so far as I know his papers and letters have never been collected, we may never know quite how much he wrote. But he could generate a line of strong, stringy prose very quickly, and because of the aforementioned damn sweet personality, he never met a commissioning editor who didn’t want to hear from him.

The text for something like The Book of Dogs very likely took him a leisurely weekend or two (and probably netted him a nice hefty $400 at a stroke), and to be fair, that text contains neither stunning insights nor exactly poetical language. The product is very much cut to order: a potted history of the dog, starting (naturally) with its creation-through-domestication:

The dog is the oldest friend man has among the animals – very much the oldest. Compared with him the cat and the horse are new acquaintances. Probably we shall never know when the friendship began, but the bones of dogs lying side by side with the bones of primitive men tend to show that it was in very, very remote times.

beagle and bassetHe gives his readers a fairly standard run-through of famous dog-anecdotes from history, ranging from Babylon to Egypt to Rome to Greece in a little less than a dozen breezily readable pages. And then he gets to the heart of the book’s purpose: a breed-by-breed rundown, for an American dog-buying public that was growing in size, in spending money, and, since the end of the Great War, in international outlook.

For these readers he laid out the basic breeding and behavioral standards of a few dozen kindspointer of dogs, from breeds that were already familiar to Americans on the East Coast, like the beagle:

He should be an active, intelligent, well proportioned, and capable little dog, with plenty of tenacity of purpose, though great speed is not to be expected. He must have no Terrier traits, either physical or temperamental, nor any throaty tendency or flews. The expression is just like that of a very alert Foxhound.

To breeds that were mainly found in England and Europe and were only just recently making inroads in the United States, like a strange-looking creature called the basset hound:

With its keen scent, extremely short legs, and very slow movements, it was well equipped for finding game in dense cover. The face of the rough Basset is often very wistful.

Unlike any dog-breed book today, in The Book of Dogs the basset hound is immediately followed by none other than the pointer, a juxtaposition that naturally caught my attention! And what about the pointer? Well:

He must be keen of eye and nose, obedient, teachable, and staunch. Many otherwise fine Pointers lack the courage of their convictions, and it is easy to spoil a good dog either by too gentle or too rough handling.

lucy reads about dogsSome of the talk in these entries was the merest bluster on Baynes’ part, although most of his readers probably never knew it. He himself had almost no stomach for game-hunting (even when hosting a President who sometimes seemed to have a stomach for little else), and that stuff about the dangers of “too gentle” handling is particularly funny, coming from the pen of a man who once endured innumerable nips and scratches in order to nurse an abandoned baby fox to healthy adulthood.

The world of purebred dog breeding has mushroomed into big business, as mentioned; no book as digressive and ramshackle as The Book of Dogs would find a publisher today. But it was great fun to turn these pages again, and think back to those happy days when certain kinds of dog breeds were unknown to unsuspecting America …