Friday, November 26, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Curl up with a furry friend for these feel-good reads

Special to The Seattle Times

"The Dogs of Bedlam Farm: An Adventure with Sixteen Sheep, Three Dogs, Two Donkeys, and Me" by Jon Katz (Villard, 256 pp., $22.95). You know how we all picture that dream home we want to retire in and savor the best that life has to offer? When you're in your 50s, you probably have downsizing and less work on your mind.

Not Jon Katz. When he purchased a $250,000 farmhouse on 42 acres in tiny West Hebron, N.Y., a couple of years ago, he couldn't have imagined what the oncoming winter had in store for him and his menagerie.

"It was certainly a test of my willpower," he admitted during a book-stop tour here last month. "But I saw two to three books in the place, too. By that, I mean, the challenges it would throw at me were the ingredients of which personal adventure is all about. It offered a chance to own animals and interact with them in a way city life would not allow."

For Katz, a lifelong "dog person," the only drawback was the time spent away from his wife, Paula Span, a Columbia University School of Journalism teacher, who resides in the family home in Northern New Jersey.

The rich tapestry is infused with a can-do spirit, as this city guy struggles to deal with one of the Northeast's worst winters in decades, launched by a 30-inch snowfall the first week of December and the fragile nature of a dream.

It's about farm folks accepting a dog writer from the city and how he prioritizes a sick or injured animal's life a bit differently than his neighbors. While his sheep and donkeys play prominent roles in this lively and flavorful narrative, the heart and soul centers on Katz's relationship with his three border collies, chiefly Rose, a businesslike, focused and unflappable young animal who quickly blossomed into an incredible herder.

"She, more than anything or anyone, got me through that winter," Katz said. "I briefly had the conceit I rescued her. But, in reality, she rescued me.

"Dogs have their own identities and personalities, certainly, but they're also living and breathing testaments to our pasts, our families, our strengths and frustrations," he said. "They have their own traits and instincts, but to a considerable degree they are what we make them, what we teach them to be."

While Katz's family is, to a large degree, his animals, Bedlam Farm helped him reconnect with his sister, with whom he has been out of touch for years, and grasp the piercing realism that death is part of farming, i.e. the very nature of raising animals.

An inspiring portrait of the human-animal bond, "Bedlam Farm" traverses an emotional terrain that ranges from embattled spirit to celebratory energy. And it made me a Katz fan for life.

"How Dogs Think: Understanding the Canine Mind," by Stanley Coren (Free Press, 351 pp., $26). If you thought you knew your dog, think again.

That four-legged character is not an easy read, claims Stanley Coren, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia and one of the world's top authorities on dog-human interaction.

With a sharp-eyed analysis and wry wit, he meticulously examines the species' capabilities in a four-star toolbox fully equipped to help you better interpret Fido.

Quickly, he emphasizes that for us to understand what our dogs are thinking may prove unattainable. "The main problem is," Coren says, "that we are human and as such we can reason only as a human does. If the experience of the animal is completely different and alien to ours, we may have no human reference that allows us to interpret the 'thinking' behind the behavior."

Coren complements scientific data with a wide gamut of anecdotes and observations, in the process leaving you feeling I've been there, done that myself. And out of this patchwork quilt emerges a well-documented portrait that probes the limits of each of the dog's key senses, differentiating those boundaries by breeds.

"People I Sleep With," by Jill Fineberg (Ten Speed Press, 132 pp., $19.95). No, this isn't what you think.

It's a spirited mosaic of 200 black-and-white photos focusing on 48 humans with their favorite pet, ranging from dogs and cats, to an African scorpion, chicken, wolf, parrot, alpacas, monkey, rabbit, donkey, tiger, pig and others. Each feel-good vignette is complemented with an appropriate quote dedicated to the human-animal bond.

Fineberg, who lives in Santa Fe, N.M., with her two cats, has had her photos published in Time, Newsweek, People and other publications.

"What a Lucky Dog! How to Understand Men Through Their Dogs," by Wendy Diamond (Animal Fair, 112 pp., $15.95). This frisson of delight — i.e., dating guidebook for dog (and men) lovers — by the founder and editorial director of Animal Fair magazine has carefully selected a list of 32 popular breeds and the mutt, profiling each in three categories — personality, naughty dog and new trick.

For example, the golden retriever:

Personality: "Who's that soulful, golden man sitting still in the corner? Welcome Mr. Golden Retriever into your life! Don't be hoodwinked by his low-key demeanor, he's a smooth operator. Once he spots and finds you attractive, he will instantly approach and introduce himself. Mr. Golden Retriever loves everything and everyone, including children, people and other breeds."

Naughty Dog: "What's yours is his! Golden Retriever is not above going through your closets and personal belongings when you're not aware."

New Trick: "Help Mr. Golden Retriever channel his high energy by giving him projects to do around the house or yard. When you suggest that he becomes your handyman, do so with a healthy dose of compassion."

Diamond's breezy, unassuming approach shifts gears from the 32 profiles into a section labeled "Training Tips to Keep Your Man," which details the basics such as no, come, sit, stay, down, roll over, housebreaking, etc. Finally, a chapter of couples' success stories is followed by a resource list of agencies nationwide from which to adopt Mr. Perfect.

"Hound Health Handbook," by Dr. Betsy Brevitz, D.V.M. (Workman Publishing, 468 pp., $16.95). A thorough, well-organized resource, this is the outgrowth of clients' questions to the author/veterinarian, some of which there was not enough time to explain during an office call.

She says, "I wanted a crib sheet I could refer to in the exam room when time or words (or both) failed me as I was trying to explain a complicated disease to a concerned dog owner.

"I wanted to teach dog owners how to use their powers of observation so they could be the best possible health advocates for their pets. I wanted to save people from making unnecessary trips to the vet, and yet rush them in when their dogs really needed to be there."

Sections are dedicated to preventive health care, common canine illnesses, quick reference for first aid, poison control and injuries, plus a resource list. While you'll find very little new here, her lively and flavorful approach makes "Hound Health Handbook" an owner-friendly resource.

But one novel feature merits mention: In a checklist for 130 popular breeds she details significant ailments common to each, accented with a subjective "veterinary cost index," ranging from 1 to 3 in $ signs, with a 3 denoting the owner is likely to incur expenses for two or more significant medical problems during the animal's life; 2 suggesting one significant medical ailment; 1 indicating you'll probably only face routine veterinary expenses such as annual check-ups, vaccinations, heartworm prevention and dental care.

Ranny Green is a Times desk editor.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company


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