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What Does a Dog Really Want? : NONFICTION : IN THE COMPANY OF NEWFIES: A Shared Life, By Rhoda Lerman (Henry Holt & Co: $25; 162 pp.)

June 30, 1996|Jeffrey Mousaieff Masson | Jeffrey Mousaieff Masson is author of "When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Life of Animals."

In "The Hidden Life of Dogs," Elizabeth Marshall Thomas asked what dogs want, and answered by saying that they want to be with other dogs. Rhoda Lerman, writing about a single breed--Newfoundlands--has come up with a different answer in "In the Company of Newfies: A Shared Life": They want to be with us. In fact, they really want to be us.

I love both books because the authors have much in common: They love dogs and they write well. Lerman talks about kennel blindness, where you only have eyes for your own dog, and she lives her own version of this--she only has eyes for Newfies. I can't tell whether she thinks other dogs wish to be humans or whether this odd disease strikes only Newfies. But there does seem to be something special about them.

Lerman breeds Newfies, raises them, shows them and shares her life with them.

Most dog books focus on training, breeding or problem dogs. Few tell you what it is really like to live with a dog. Lerman conveys a true passion for her animals, and as soon as you finish this book you will want to run out and at least see a Newfie, if not get one. She tells the story of several dogs in rich, emotional detail. She loved them all, but in different ways, for no two dogs are identical.

I learned from Lerman's book how dogs' desire to please us is their very reason for being, even though they spend a great deal of time trying to figure out what we want. Maybe their connection to us is even deeper than we think.

Lerman tells the story of a Newfoundland who visited a school for troubled children and became attached to an autistic boy. The boy and his family later moved. One day, the dog bolted out of the house down a country road and was killed by a car. The owners were stunned when the phone rang soon afterward and the autistic boy's mother told them her boy had run into the road and been killed by a truck. As Lerman interprets it, the Newfoundland was moved to save the boy at the very moment he was killed: "Tiny was attached to the boy in deeper ways than we can imagine."

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