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Book Review
Mutts: America's Dogs,
by Brian Kilcommons & Michael Capuzzo

Review by: Kate Connick, Nov. 2000

Mutts: America's Dogs is a tremendously frustrating book. A host of contradictions, it contains good information along with material that makes my ulcers burn, all wrapped up in a warm, likeable writing style. I want to love this book. But I don't. The book is divided into three parts, and I can easily recommend two of those parts. However, the middle of the book - over 50% of the pages - is faulty enough to cast doubt on the book as a whole.

Sigh, how can I dislike a book about mutts? I adore mutts. So do the authors. Heck, I like the authors. Brian Kilcommons and whoever he teams up with (Michael Capuzzo, in this instance) never fail to write entertaining, readable, humorous books full of accurate, sensible, down-to-Earth advice.

To its credit, the book is full of photos and stories of heroic, famous, noble, compassionate, victimized, and just plain ol' hale and hearty mutts. The intention of the book is to celebrate mutts and validate mutt owners, and it succeeds brilliantly in that respect. By the time youíre done reading this book, youíre proud to own a mutt... or you want to run out and get one right away!

The book gets off to a rousing start. Ask someone what kind of dog they own, and invariably the mutt owner looks down and mumbles, "just a mutt" as if it were some sort of mark against them. I know that mutts are the best, and you might know that as well, but we live in a society that values super-models and show-dogs. As a result, millions of darn good dogs of unknown and undistinguished parentage die in pounds while people plunk down exorbitant sums of money to purchase genetic garbage from pet stores, simply because the latter have those overrated "AKC papers."

The authors capture the truth of this, "There are no Westminster Dog Shows to show off the finest mixes, no award-winning public relations staff to tout their virtues, no certificates of authenticity, no brand-name identification, which is of course the kiss of death in a consumer society. Yes, this is the central problem... Nobody makes money off them."

Kilcommons and Capuzzo demonstrate a scathing wit and delightful sense of humor as they compare mutts to diehard Honda Accords and AKC dogs to "a Beamer with a Yugo engine." Breeders are disdainfully referred to as "matchmakers," and in perhaps my favorite analogy, they offer this sage suggestion, "Go to your local animal shelter. Trust that nature, and the miracle of hybrid vigor that created our American democracy, produces better stock than faulty human-controlled breeding, which produced the British royal family."

It's a great start. Similarly, the end of the book offers helpful, but too brief, tips on selection of puppy and adult mutts, as well as a quickie primer on common behavior problems. There are a few photos of mutt puppies and the adults they grew into. I would have liked to have seen more of those illustrations, especially because what you predict at 8 weeks is often a far cry from what you see at maturity.

I wonít belabor my thoughts on his training methods, but they are well within the range of what is common and considered acceptable and effective (something of a watered-down traditionalist that uses basic behavior modification, heís neither a clicker-trainer nor a Koehler-style bully). He scores points for encouraging crate use, not being afraid of food in training, and explaining the usefulness of setting limits and being an effective leader.

Generalizations on what to expect from a sporting mutt versus terrier mutt versus herding mutt are helpful. Unfortunately, itís not always easy for someone to guess at whatís in a mutt. One personís Beagle mix is another personís Pit Bull mix is yet anotherís Pointer mix or Lab mix. One can get too hung up on what "kind" of mutt they have. And this leads me to my dissatisfaction with this book...

Capuzzo makes the claim that, "You have to know who your dog is to have a perfect relationship." He apparently didnít feel fully at peace with his mutt until he decided that she was some sort of Collie mix. I cannot possibly disagree more strongly with this philosophy. If you need to know your dogís genetic background, go get a purebred dog. The beauty of mutts is the fact that you just donít know. Some mutts are truly unidentifiable, one of a kind snowflakes to use the authorsí metaphor.

The second part of the book attempts - partially in fun and partially in an effort to be helpful - to categorize mutts by "breed." The result is a mess. Sometimes silly and even oh-too-cute for words, sometimes offering meaningful advice, sometimes contradicting itself entirely, the second part completely undermines the book. I have to take a deep breath here and attempt to explain my many problems with their approach.

Itís one thing to refer to mutt breed types as The Benji Type or Sporting Mutts or some other broad generalization. Itís another to discuss specific types of mixes. Yes, shelters are full of Shepherd-Collie or Lab-Shepherd or Collie-Husky-Shepherd types of dogs. You might or might not be able to identify them properly (who really knows whatís in a mutt?) and you might or might not be able to make assumptions about how theyíre likely to behave. The fact is that mutts are less predictable than purebred dogs, in terms of behavior and appearance. Thatís not necessarily a bad thing.

This book insists on making inaccurate, unscientific comments like calling mutts "hybrids" (which technically, they are not) or making poetic observations like, "The Greyhound-Labrador Retriever Mix. A dream union. Amazingly athletic, incredibly sweet... A beautiful creature mentally, physically, and spiritually..." Or suggesting that if you add a dash of this to a dab of that, youíll end up with some sort of eureka wonderdog. I know that this book is targeted for regular pet owners. I know that it is not intended to be scientific and sophisticated. Yet this entire tone gets my panties in a twist.

Although the authors do discuss homeless dogs, euthanasia, and spay/neuter and insist that mutts should not be bred, it is hard to believe when they swoon over this specific mix and that specific mix. Why wouldnít I want to breed Greyhounds to Labs, as indicated above? Or Labrador Retrievers to Basset Hounds and make "bassetdors" (one of a number of gratingly cutesy mutt monikers in the book)? In glorifying mutts, the authors go too far. They donít stress that responsible breeders, at least in theory, go to great ends to try to screen out bad temperament and health from their breeding programs. Thereís nothing magical about mutts to make them immune to defects. Mutts are just as capable of being affected by problems as purebred dogs, their only real advantage being that they are generally less inbred (and thus less corrupted by disasterous couplings of recessive genes). On the down side, mutts as an absolute rule are produced by completely irresponsible people who didnít know enough or care enough to neuter their pets and/or keep them from roaming. In this happy book, we donít hear enough about that.

It is a fine line between glorifying mutts and encouraging their production. Yes, the authors do advise against the latter, but do they advise in a meaningful way? Am I taking myself too seriously? Amidst the celebrity profile mutts, they discuss three mutts that Iíd like to highlight: Benji, Murray, and Dreyfuss.

Do you remember when the first Benji movie came out? Everybody and his brother was breeding little mutt terrier/poodle creatures to cash in on the craze. Many of these dogs flooded shelters. Benji himself was a sexually intact male, and the authors state, "FORTUNATELY (emphasis mine) there was a litter of little Benjis waiting to succeed their dad... By the time Benji II retired and Benji III took her place, there were so many Benji-related spawn that Benji III was a Ďgreat-great-great-grand nephewí of ĎThe Old Man.í Or something like that. ĎI donít know how many greats or how many grands there are... thereís no way to be sure.í" Thereís no mention by these authors about all the homeless Benjis who died in pounds while everybody was cashing in. It all seems so sweet and wonderful, so idyllic.

Then thereís Murray (from tv show, Mad About You). Both Murrayís mother and his father were rescued from pounds. They were not neutered. No, they were bred to one another to produce Murray. Unstated message... you too can cash in on a mutt if you donít neuter him and breed him?

Oh and then thereís Dreyfuss (from tv show, Empty Nest). He is one of a number of intentionally-bred crosses between Golden Retrievers and St. Bernards. Isnít that special? I actually know somebody who breeds Airedales to Goldens and/or Labs to get some of those cute trampy dogs you see on tv commercials. I know other people who breed Border Collies and Border Terriers to produce "border-borders," the ultimate short-class-height agility competitor. Is this responsible? Is it something the authors want to condone? Even with their disclaimers about dogs dying in shelters, I do not like the implied endorsement of irresponsibility. Frankly, it would be a better book if they encouraged everyone in creation to run out and breed mutts but use the same high standards of screening for health and temperament that responsible purebred breeders are supposed to use.

Some of the crosses they discuss are so obscure that one would be unlikely to ever see one in a shelter. A Lakeland Terrier cross? A Great Pyrenees x Alaskan Malamute? This renders their comments irrelevant at best.

Some of their advice is flatly contradictory. They pan purebred Golden Retrievers and Springer Spaniels, yet state that, "However, a Golden Retriever-Springer mix you pull out of the pound may be the worldís best dog." Um, why? I like things to be logically consistent, and some of their comments simply arenít.

The attentive person may find some comments which are actually valid breed criticisms, but theyíre hard to find amidst all the cutesiness. Are they simply trying to be silly? Are they trying to provide a useful resource? It isnít clear, due to the uneven tone.

In the end, I really canít endorse this book. I liked the first and last part, but the preponderance of the book is fluff that perhaps promotes mutt propagation, or at least makes light of it. Mutts donít all find happy endings. Most of them die in pounds, because irresponsible people allow them to be born and others turn up their noses at adopting them. Most donít become Benji. Not all are healthy or mentally stable. Theyíre just dogs, no more and no less. Their specialness lies in their uniqueness, the inability to replicate them. I think thatís what a mutt owner really needs to hear. The frustrating thing is that this book really does contain some wonderful stories, some great information, and does it in a palatable writing style. It is a truly infuriating book for a mutt-lover to read!

Note: This book review was originally published at epinions.com


bonebone
Mutts: America's Dogs by Brian Kilcommons & Michael Capuzzo.
Published by Warner Books, 1996. ISBN: 0446519499

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