The dog that ate Ohio

An English professor turns to his first love: a beagle

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To own a beagle is to know a special kind of devotion. It may be the eyes - deep pools of melted chocolate, framed by an eyeliner job Liz Taylor would kill for. One glance, and people find themselves in for a lifetime of servitude and sheepish excuses.

Exhibit A: "A Dog Called Perth," by Peter Martin. Possessor of a Ph.D., Martin is presumably an intelligent man. But he and his wife, Cindy, adored their dog with a devotion so complete, it at times crowded out common sense. (Full disclosure: My beagle has been known to come away from drive-thru windows with a junior cheeseburger, hold the tomato.)

Martin explains that they wanted their dog to embody the "spirit of romance and adventure with which we hoped to keynote our marriage." Thus, they vow never to subject her to a leash. Having so sworn, they promptly hop into a canoe, leaving the three-month-old puppy to explore on her own. Most self-respecting beagles (e.g., mine) would have headed straight for the Canadian border. Perth, however, paddles out on faithful puppy paws to join them. She continues to track the Martins for the rest of her life - onto ferries, into museums, and, after Cindy is in a car accident, up to the third floor of a hospital.

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Martin opens with a chapter extolling Perth's remarkable nature - her intelligence, her beauty, the way she smells - with the kind of parental pride that could alienate even the most ardent dog lover. Then he, Cindy, and Perth exchange the lake district of upstate New York for the hog farms of Ohio, and the excitement truly begins. The Martins named her after Sir Walter Scott's "The Fair Maid of Perth" (one of the hazards of belonging to an English professor). In Ohio, she more closely resembles another literary figure: James Thurber's "The Dog That Bit People."

One of the few ways Perth resembles an ordinary beagle is in possessing the stubborn streak of a spoiled teen and the eating habits of a mountain goat. When thwarted, she relieves her feelings by shredding a sofa, chewing through a wooden garage door, or chomping on the nose of an unsuspecting neighbor.

Allowing Perth a life of complete freedom does cause a certain amount of chaos. The Martins drive more than 1,000 miles from Florida to New York, trying to find a friend to care for her while they're in England. But Perth's reputation precedes her, and they fail utterly. In the end, they foist her off on the director of a Vermont girls' camp, hardly the best place for a dog that bites.

Martin's tendency to wax lyrical about the countryside sometimes slows up Perth's adventures. But there's a simple test as to whether a reader will enjoy "A Dog Called Perth." If Petco commercials featuring people baking birthday cakes for their dogs make you roll your eyes, perhaps you would prefer an Important Biography. If, on the other hand, you could star in such a commercial, this sweet paean to an intrepid beagle is for you.

• Yvonne Zipp is on the Monitor's staff.

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