Book: You Had Me At Woof: How Dogs Taught Me the Secrets of Happiness
Author: Julie Klam
Type of Book: Non-fiction, memoir, book about animals
Why Did I Read This Book: I saw this book on an endcap at Borders and the dog on the cover just shouted out to me, “Buy this book, buy it now!” Googly-eyed animals suck me in every time. The dog on the cover reminded me of my long lost Daisy (her Christian name was Daisyheadmaisy), a bug-eyed cat who began my love for creatures with bulging eyes.
Availability: Published by Riverhead Books in 2010, you can get a copy here:
Comments: This is going to be one of those insufferable reviews wherein I process my reactions about a book using examples from my own life. In this case, I really can’t help it. While Klam is a dog-woman, I am a cat-lady and generally one would think the two might not have a lot in common. But a rescuer is a rescuer and people who love deeply creatures with googly eyes are cut from the same cloth, and that cloth is one that talks a lot about its experiences. It was fascinating to see the lessons Klam learned rescuing dogs and how they were at times eerily similar to the lessons I have learned, but I think the lesson that is the most universal is that loving animals makes you a better person. Yeah, there’s a lot more to this book than just that sappy reduction, but it just make me feel sort of warm inside to realize that my eventual impression that Klam is a good egg was further reinforced.
Klam rescues Boston terriers (I thought the little dogs were pugs of some variety but no, they are Boston terriers and I sort of want one now…) and in the course of rescuing dogs that were not well cared for, that were abandoned and had behavioral problems, she came to a lot of conclusions about her own life after interacting with the animals she saved.
Like me, Klam got her first real pet relatively later in life. Klam’s first Boston terrier, the love of her dog life named Otto, came into her life when she was 30. Well, Otto didn’t come into her life – she sought him out after a dream and Otto proved to be her animal soul mate. And while Klam says within six months of adopting Otto she grew up, I think rather that adopting Otto proved to her that she was far more capable of selflessness and responsibility than she thought, traits lacking in a lot of adults.
…I had practically restructured my life for Otto, without even realizing it. I didn’t order spicy foods because he couldn’t eat them, and I always ordered enough for two. If he got up during the night, I got up and took him out. If he had an accident on the floor, I gave him Pepto-Bismol. I never resented anything I had to do for him… It took time but my relationship with Otto made me realize that if you love someone, you’re more than willing to compromise to meet their needs–whether it be more nights of roast chicken than you would ordinarily choose, skipping an evening on the town, or not watching a television show with a barking dog.
My first real pet came to me when I was 24. Adolph, the most epic cat who ever lived. I had no idea how to care for him at first and fed him yucky food until he developed crystals in his urine. Even after I put him on a strict premium diet, I would give him small plates of whatever I was eating. I knew he didn’t want any, he knew he didn’t want any, but he needed to know he had the right to decide, and he always refused. I fashioned a bizarre pillow for him out of a half-empty kleenex box, or rather he took over the box when he realized he could set his head into it and nestle neatly into the kleenex. I was not as noble about cleaning his messes as Julie was with Otto as Adolph was a bad cat and frequently did very gross things on purpose – ask me one day why I cannot eat guacamole – but I too learned that if I could share a space with that cat and so quickly adjust my life in ways that seemed absurd, I was less set in my ways than I thought. I also came to understand that I was never likely to be a good mother – I am, in fact, far better with animals than people.
I loved reading Klam’s experiences with pet psychics and her attempts to determine if she could become a psychic herself. It was a thing of humorous beauty, but I admit I approached pet psychics after a rescue. You see, we couldn’t determine if Patchwork Sally’s kittens were still alive out in the nasty field where we found her (she was lactating when we grabbed her). The pet psychics all assured us they were dead but we found them all alive and that was when we really wished we could communicate with animals because that was a trapping mission that redefined frustration. But it was a nice comfort to know that another reasonably sane person wondered if she could indeed walk with the animals, talk with the animals. Klam’s lesson? It’s always a good idea to try new things because in trying to be an animal psychic, she learned she loved telling the stories. My lesson? I will always end up in a field during a Texas rainstorm searching for lost kittens even if verified psychics tell me not to bother.
Sadly, Otto passed away when Klam was pregnant. She later felt that Otto had been looking over her during her pregnancy, and I often felt like Adolph lasted longer than he should have because I descended into the weakest place in my life the last year he was alive. Immobilized by a leg break that exacerbated a prescription pill addiction, my husband and I spent a year in hell as I pulled myself out of the hole, and Adolph was my constant companion the entire time. I came back better and stronger than I could ever have hoped, and I always wondered if Adolph could sense we would be okay, that he didn’t need to stay here as the cord that held us together. Of course, I romanticize him at times, as did Klam with her Otto, as she searched through puppy pictures to see if maybe Otto was reincarnated in another dog. But luckily Julie found dogs who answered her emotions, dogs whose lives she made so much better. I already had rescued hundreds of cats before Adolph died, and had lost precious cats before he died so I guess I had a slight emotional advantage but like Klam and her Otto, I wonder if there will ever be another Adolph. The answer is no, but I still wonder (and hope) anyway.
And while I am not going to touch on all the lessons Klam learned because I think you should buy this book and read it for yourself, her experiences rescuing dogs with a rescue group closely mirrored the nonsense I encountered in my rescues. Owners who didn’t tell the unvarnished truth when surrendering animals, citing the continual “My kid has allergies!” excuse when really it was “I haven’t put an ounce of effort into training this animal/I resent even minimal vet expenses/I found an animal I like better/I procured this animal knowing I would need to change my lifestyle but am too much of an asshole to change/My boyfriend told me to get rid of it.” Oh yes, they promise to help with expenses and then you never hear from them again. Note to all who genuinely need to relinquish an animal for legitimate reasons: Irresponsible pet owners have ruined it for everyone. If you tell a rescue group that you will donate money to the cause, you will be surprised how quickly the group will respond, not out of greed but because I don’t know a single rescuer who has not spent so much money on animals that even a tiny donation given in earnest doesn’t make them feel like their efforts are at least appreciated.
So much of this book was a reminder to me of my own time in rescue: watching as Klam got her dog legs and learned how to negotiate with dogs that needed more help than others; reading as she suffers the heartbreaking loss that we all feel when we feel responsible for not doing enough to prevent harm from coming to our animals even though, as we all know, accidents happen; the deep bonds we develop with animals as we learn about their personalities and they learn about ours.
The part of the book that made me cry the hardest (and I began to cry when I read the dedication Klam makes to her husband because I too am married to a man who would never say no to an animal in need) was the chapter about Dahlia, an older dog for whom life had been very unkind, a dog who was not particularly attractive and whose personality seemed blunted.
There was something about her expression, her eyes, that reminded me of Migrant Mother, Dorthea Lange’s famous portrait of a farm laborer in the dust bowl of the Depression. The woman, Florence Owens Thompson, was thirty-two in the picture, but she looked to be in her mid-fifties. Maybe Dahlia was younger than she looked: maybe she’d been beaten down by life, too.
Yet, as Klam and her husband did not see the magic in Dahlia, their daughter Violet did.
I felt very sorry for Dahlia, but I wasn’t in love with her. But someone in the family was. Violet would sit by Dahlia in her bed, set up tea parties for the two of them, and sing long, made-up songs about Queen Dahlia and the magical fairies of the enchanted wood. She read Dahlia books and selected videos for Dahlia to watch. Paul and I looked on, trying to figure it out. Dahlia was the least charismatic animal either of us had ever come across and yet Violet saw her as the belle of the ball.
Kids are smart like that. But the reason Dahlia’s story resonated with me so well was because I knew what would happen the moment Klam mentioned that Dahlia’s tummy seemed bloated. The vet wanted a sample of Dahlia’s urine because they thought she had Cushing’s Disease. Yeah. The second Klam speculates maybe Dahlia is younger than she appears, we were on the right track, but then with a swollen belly? Oh yeah. You know what’s about to happen if you’ve been in the rescue game any length of time. Cue the puppies. Though when the inevitable started happening, Klam was sure it was Dahlia preparing to die. She woke in the middle of the night with a strong feeling Dahlia had died but instead found two little creatures in Dahlia’s bed. And like all of us who have had this scene go down in our homes, she realized that the vet in question was probably an idiot and that the trite saying that all life is a miracle is true, especially when it is unexpected life. Since Dahlia was an older dog, Klam also ended up doing that marvelous thing every rescuer will end up doing at some point – she bottle fed the puppies until Dahlia’s health was sorted out to the point that she could reliably nurse.
Then Klam did the thing that has most assuredly won her a place in the heaven where happy dogs go – she kept Dahlia together with her two puppies, Wisteria and Fiorello. Dahlia had likely had her babies wrenched from her in all her previous pregnancies yet despite her history and her age, had been a doting mother. The puppies were closely bonded. Klam wanted them to remain a family, an idea that many people dismiss, but having seen what happens when cats who are siblings or parents-offspring are permitted to remain together, often the bond is visible even to people who do not know the cats are related. Dahlia got to stay with her puppies until she died, and passed knowing her puppies were with people who love them. That seems like an extraordinarily sentimental and presumptive thing to say because who really knows what animals think? Except you do know. The instincts that drive humans drive animals too. They don’t want a flat-screen TV or the latest smart phone, but like humans, animals want their offspring safe and happy.
This all reminded me of pretty Sweetness, a cat who surprised us with stealth kittens. She had been a stray in Dallas. My mother fed her and begged me to come and get her when Sweetness showed up with a litter of kittens. So we drove four hours one way in a poorly air conditioned truck in the Texas summer and fetched Sweetness and her kittens (well, four were hers – mom, in her zeal, grabbed a completely unrelated kitten who was at least four weeks younger than Sweetness’ other kittens). Sweetness’s kittens went to the Austin Humane Society and found a home, but since Sweetness had not finished lactating yet, we held onto her for a couple of weeks. We would get her spayed, then take her so she could get a new home, too.
Sweetness was a large, strange girl. She liked humans but loathed all cats, even her own children once they became old enough to qualify as cats. She mostly wanted to be left alone. She over groomed her stomach, she sounded cranky, she looked cranky. We felt she would be happier in a home without other cats. We made the spay appointment with our vet (whom I also later judged to be a moron), but the appointment got screwed up and we brought her home, intact. We rescheduled the appointment in two weeks and before that date came, we noticed Sweetness was resembling a bowling pin. Surely not. Surely we had not transported a pregnant cat across county lines. But we had. She gave birth before the spay appointment came due and gave birth to the most superlative litter of kittens I have ever known. We kept the runt, Clementine, because she seemed fragile and because the Humane Society was up to their eyeballs in black kittens, and the rest went to the Humane Society. I still miss The Goose and Portnoy. But after that litter, Sweetness made it known to us that she wouldn’t mind staying if we would leave her alone, so we did and she would come to see us periodically for attention, then would slink off to her hiding places. She proved to be so nervous that we knew being at a shelter would have made her miserable and would have broken her odd spirit.
Sweetness could be kind to her grown baby but she mostly wanted to be left alone and her reclusiveness made it hard to know when she was ill. She developed renal failure and passed way in 2009. And while she never really liked the other cats, she was a part of their extended family. In fact, it was Tabby-mama, dancing around outside whatever room Sweetness was in, that alerted us to her being ill. Tabby was bereft when Sweetness died. We all were. But we took a certain amount of comfort knowing that all of her babies, including her foster kitten, all went to wonderful homes and that her silly girl Clementine is here reminding us of her, for like her mother, she has no use for other cats and is extremely nervous. But that didn’t stop Tabby-mama from tailing her for days after Sweetness died to make sure Clementine would be okay without her mother.
Also, Sweetness smelled like Fritos, as did Klam’s beloved Otto. One of many little cross-species coincidences. In one scene, Klam describes picking up her dog Moses and singing Cole Porter’s “Cheek to Cheek” as she danced with him. We sing a very bastardized version of this song to Noodle, our most defective cat.
Noodle, you’re my Noodle,
And I love you so much I can hardly speak.
‘Cause you’ve got too many toes on your four feet. (Alternate last line: Even though you have a tendency to leak.
And clearly, like Klam, I like telling the stories from my Island of Misfit Cats.
This was just a great book, pure and simple. I loved as Klam discussed the people she worked with to rescue dogs, the merely whackadoodle and the outright creepy and negligent, yet she never became shrill and overly judgmental. I loved reading as her family negotiated their way around new dogs, and how the dogs reacted to one another. I was especially grateful that Klam didn’t sugar coat the fact that some of the dogs just weren’t… her kind of dogs. But that never stopped her from doing her best for them, and that is how it should be. Klam respected deeply the individual dignity of each dog she encountered, beginning as a neurotic mother to Otto and becoming a source of salvation to Dahlia.
That she very clearly tells stories that will resonate with all animal lovers should be clear from the amount of remembrances she evoked from me. This book, humorous and touching, bordering on sentimental in a way that makes sentimental work without cloying stickiness, was simply amazing. I read it in one sitting. I think you should read this book and then maybe go volunteer at your local SPCA or rescue groups and then tell the stories of the animals you meet. See what lessons you learn and how they correspond to Klam’s. I tend not to read heartwarming books but I am very glad I read this one.