Sunday, April 4, 2010

Dog Years: A Memoir, by Mark Doty: A review

A series of reviews of books by authors featured at our 2010 May 9 through May 11 Veterinary Medicine and Literature conference. These books will be available at the Bookshelf in Guelph, Ontario for the conference.

Dog Years: A Memoir. By Mark Doty. HarperCollins, 2007. 224 pp.

Reviewed by Dr. Elizabeth Stone, Dean, Ontario Veterinary College

“One of the things that being a vet is about is the continual restoration of hope, bringing back the possibility of companionship, making a stage upon which love can continue.” Thus, Mark Doty explains his view of veterinarians and their work in his New York Times bestseller, Dog Years. Doty has written a memoir from a time in his life when his dogs, Arden and Beau, gave him the will to live after the dying of his partner, the disaster of September 11 in NYC, the persistent awareness of mortality. The dogs were always “a door toward feeling and understanding”, and were their own source of joy and sadness. Throughout the lives of his dogs, he interacted with veterinarians who made the situation better or worse depending on their own abilities and talents and the moment in time on the life continuum of the dogs.

Young aspiring veterinarians choose their profession because they care about animals. However, in the eyes of the patient, the veterinarian may not be viewed as a friend – and the animals themselves may not be at their most lovable. Doty relates how veterinarians ‘never seem allowed to see his (Arden’s) charming side; in the doctor’s office, he’s nervous, exasperated and self-protective’. The challenge for the veterinarian is to create and sustain a relationship not only with the owner, but also with the patient - and at the same time take into account the nature of the bond between the human and the animal. The health and well-being of the patient and the satisfaction of the client is only possible when this triad of relationships is understood and honoured.

Of course, veterinarians are only one part of the life of dogs and their people. Doty’s stories of his own dogs are intertwined with his perceptive observations and insightful meditations on the lives of humans and lives of dogs. The daily needs of dogs keep us ‘tethered to the ordinary world of responsibility and schedules’, dragging us out of isolation and sorrow because their very lives depend on our reliability. At the same time, their unfettered devotion to us is part of their contract with us that ‘dogs take with ultimate seriousness’. As Doty so eloquently expresses, ‘being human is most likely a much lonelier endeavour than being a dog....they live in a state of connectedness, it seems, that we have lost, if indeed we ever possessed it....they are a sort of cure for our great, abiding loneliness. A temporary cure, but a real one.”

Mark Doty, a National Book Award winner for Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems, will be doing a public reading the evening of May 9 at the University of Guelph, Ontario, and is a keynote speaker at the Veterinary Medicine and Literature Symposium.

Read Mark Doty's wonderful sonnet, Beau: Golden Retrievals at the Society for Veterinary Medicine and Literature website.

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