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Woof! Woof!

OPEN ME . . . I'M A DOG! By Art Spiegelman . Joanna Cotler Books: 32 pp., $14.95 (forthcoming: Sept. 30) : A SEARCH FOR THE PERFECT DOG. By Gary Shiebler . Broadway Books: 114 pp., $15 (forthcoming: Oct. 6) : DOGS NEVER LIE ABOUT LOVE: Reflections on the Emotional World of Dogs. By Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson . Crown: 272 pp., $24 : DOG'S BEST FRIEND: Annals of the Dog-Human Relationship. By Mark Derr . Henry Holt: 380 pp., $25

September 14, 1997|SELMA G. LANES | Selma G. Lanes is the author of "The Art of Maurice Sendak" and "Down the Rabbit Hole: Adventures and Misadventures in the World of Children's Literature."

There are more than superficial links between children and dogs. Ask anyone who has ever undertaken the housebreaking and training of a new puppy about the time, energy and self-sacrifice the job entails. The experience is rather like the earnest, never-ending parental efforts expended during the first years of a baby's life. Both puppies and small children are without guile and enviably open to the wonders of the world around them. And how many of us talk to dogs in that special, affectionate (often singsong) tone of voice usually reserved for infants and toddlers? Perhaps the strongest link of all has been forged by those lucky adults who cherish for a lifetime fond memories of a family dog who meant more to them as they were growing up than the best of best friends.

No doubt aware of the appeal of dogs to most small children, the gifted adult cartoonist and New Yorker cover artist, Art Spiegelman, has chosen a small, magical dog as the subject of his first children's picture book, "Open Me . . . I'm a Dog!"

If the wacky title sounds more suited to a primer for future veterinarians than to a nursery entertainment, never mind. More surprises are in store: There are velvety, flocked endpapers to pat, a pop-up doggy tail that can be made to wag nicely and even a sturdy leash attached to the book's binding that allows any child so inclined to pull the shiny-covered work around like a you-know-what.

There is ingenuity galore but, alas, no substantive core. The book, which begins promisingly at a young child's level of understanding, quickly shifts gears into a dream-nightmare sequence of considerable sophistication. The dog hero is alternately turned into a German shepherd (human, not canine variety), a giant bullfrog and, finally, "this book." Youngest readers-listeners are likely to be confused, even frightened en route, while older readers may well grow impatient and feel had by the author's plot shenanigans and mildly condescending tone. Though the narrator points out the advantages of being a hybrid dog-book--"I don't have fleas and I never bite. If you forget to walk me, I promise not to make a mess on the carpet"--most listeners would surely opt for the real McCoy.

Gary Shiebler's "A Search for the Perfect Dog" is a short, genuinely sweet and decidedly helpful primer for anyone, adult or older child, who is contemplating bringing a dog into the home. Starting with the "very thin, baked-potato-brown" mongrel that just appeared at his family's front door when he was a small boy, Shiebler has had a lifelong attachment to a wide variety of mostly mutts. After working as both a fashion model and an actor, the author took a job as "humane educator" at the Helen Woodward Animal Center in San Diego. His job was "to teach visiting children about pet care, responsibility and the humane treatment of animals." Offhanded and anecdotal in approach, Shiebler's book soft-pedals didacticism or even formal words of advice. Instead, the author lets his brief profiles of some 20 dogs, mostly mixed breeds, deliver a variety of important messages about patience, sympathetic observation, right and wrong treatment and, finally, love.

While there is no doubting Shiebler's uncanny empathy with his four-legged charges, at times his stories seem just a bit too pat and glib. His habit of putting words into dogs' mouths can become tiresome, as can his frequent anthropomorphic asides. When he describes an inseparable pair of dogs, Chas and Sunshine, he urges us to "imagine Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn with fur."

Regardless, Shiebler's near palpable joy in "the first moments of meeting a new dog" is contagious. Not too surprisingly, the reader discovers that there is no perfect dog, any more than there are perfect dog owners. Instead, there is a mysterious chemistry at work, a kind of "magic connection" between a given dog and its master. In the end, the author sees dogs as "invaluable partners in helping us to discover or rediscover a place where we can love with all our hearts."

Certainly this is a sentiment Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson would endorse. His provocative "Dogs Never Lie About Love," with its disarming subtitle "Reflections on the Emotional World of Dogs," is a compelling collection of 16 essays about man's best friend. It follows an earlier work on wild animals' feelings Masson wrote in collaboration with Susan McCarthy, titled "When Elephants Weep."

The strengths that this Sanskrit scholar and former projects director of the Freud Archives brings to his subject are intelligence, originality and a refreshing willingness to go out on a good number of scientifically unsupported limbs in his enthusiasm for canines. "How often has yesterday's speculation become today's fact?" he challenges and then goes on to apply his "informed speculation" to a wide array of personal observations about dogs and their feelings.

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