Looking back, Garfield discovers that the names we give our pets reflect their changing status. The Ancient Greek philosopher-historian Xenophon believed short names, expressing character, were best for dogs. He recommended Psyche (Spirit), Thymus (Courage), Phrura (Guard) and Speude (Roarer). The English equivalents – Fido and Rover – have fallen from fashion over the past century, with modern Britons more likely to give their dogs the same names as their children. 2020’s top dog names – Bella, Max, Luna and Lucy – are as likely to be called in the school playground as in the park.
This book is just as amiable as you’d expect from Garfield, but it’s also a bit too whimsical and wearyingly disorganised. You could write it off as a rush job done as a publishing proposition – dogs sell – except it’s odder and less cynical than that. Garfield clearly really does love dogs. Here, he writes like one. He woofs and bounds around the subject and frequently vanishes into the undergrowth in pursuit of phantom rabbits... If you’re in the market for 300-odd pages of mostly interesting things that Garfield has thought, invented or Googled about dogs, slapped down in no particular order, then Dog’s Best Friend will be your jam. Me, I thought it was a bit of a dog’s breakfast.
As Simon Garfield says in this moving and invigorating study of all things canine, loads of us do love our dogs: ‘We schedule our days around his needs, his meal times, his walks . . . We spend a bizarrely large amount of our disposable income on him,’ — the vet’s bills, the insurance costs, elaborate foods such as rabbit and venison treats or snacks made from Himalayan yak milk and hypoallergenic salmon and rice. Miller had his own television, so he could bark at Gyles Brandreth. The domesticated dog, rounding up sheep, cattle and goats, evolved from the wolf, jackal and coyote. It quickly learnt about ‘the manipulation of humans . . . You give dogs food, dogs will sit, roll over, whatever you want.’
Along the way the author retells well-worn stories about dogs in art, fiction and literature, all of which can be easily accessed in their designated Wikipedia pages. The reader is forgiving, mostly because Garfield himself exudes a puppyish persona, his prose is bouncy and his dog facts digestible: almost one billion dogs inhabit Earth, 80 per cent “breed of their own volition”; the greyhound is the second-fastest mammal, after the cheetah; in the first four days of the Second World War 400,000 domestic dogs and cats were put down by their owners in London, because pets weren’t allowed in bomb shelters; the Sooam Biotech Research Foundation in South Korea will clone your dog for £75,000; and my favourite — dogs find listening to soft rock calming. Motown? Not so much.
Dog’s Best Friend feels like a typical lockdown book: warm, slightly soppy, written at speed (I spotted a couple of errors) and a tad padded. Garfield pulls his punches, understandably, at those who are both his target and his readers. Unforgivably, he even spares those who call their dogs “fur babies”. Are we in danger, he asks, of replacing dogness with humanness? But then he ducks the question, exclaiming: “But then again, lighten up!” ... Garfield also swerves contentious areas such as the human medical procedures — oncology and organ transplants — now being imposed upon dogs. Nor does he dwell on how owners reject their pets when cuteness fades and vast numbers of pampered dogs, made neurotic by their lifestyle, are abandoned.