A Small Furry Prayer

One couple’s star-crossed love affair with dangerous, dying, and dumb dogs.

A Small Furry Prayer: Dog Rescue and the Meaning of Life By Steven Kotler Bloomsbury 320 pp., $24

At first glance, A Small Furry Prayer looks like yet another entry in the endless series of books about adorable canine scamps who heal marriages, comfort the sick, and bring joy to the world. There’s even a cute puppy on the cover with pleading eyes and a silent message: “I was told there would be doggy biscuits.”

Put your visions of head scratches and tummy rubs on pause. This gritty journey into “a world made of dog” is unlike any dog story you’ve ever read.

Awash in doubt and heartache, it’s the original tale of one couple’s star-crossed love affair with dangerous, dying, and dumb dogs. It also chronicles the author’s quest through science and the sacred to understand the complex emotional ties between man and beast.

Back in 2007, an unfortunate and predictable series of events led author Steven Kotler and his girlfriend to pack up their eight dogs and leave Los Angeles for northern New Mexico. Their plan is to open a dog sanctuary in a part of the country that’s home to mountains, miracles, a high heroin overdose rate, and a severe lack of “normal people.”

Painfully introspective and damaged by a long illness, Kotler feels lost despite his having a destination: “I was forty years old and no longer sure my life meant much of anything.”

In New Mexico, life turns out to encompass a collection of canine characters. There’s Squirt, an indelicate female dachshund-pug and “brawler with a short fuse and a roamer with no common sense” who looks like “three bowling balls stuffed inside a tube sock.”

And Otis, the bull terrier who, Kotler says, “smashed a box into my chest, a stereo into my head, and a cactus onto my lap, then dove for his favorite spot, directly beneath my feet.” This happened while Kotler was driving around 75 m.p.h. somewhere outside Needles, Calif.

There’s even more: Fearless Chihuahuas. Male and female dogs that fall for the same gender (the love that dares not bark its name). And a sick white terrier named Chow who’s “abused, abandoned, blind, deaf, gloriously fat, comically ugly.... [Chow] disliked humans, disliked other dogs, bit all species equally and with little provocation.”

On top of figuring out how to make sure everybody gets along, the couple must manage canine health, housing, hunger, and waste management in their miniature dogtown. One challenge is the most vexing of all: teaching a damaged dog to love and be loved.

As the sanctuary grows, becoming both a hospice and a kind of rehab center, the inevitable happens. Dogs die or get rehabilitated and find new homes. Loss overwhelms Kotler, robbing him of the ability to function.

He has plenty of company: Many of us suffer mightily when our pets die, sometimes more than when we lose friends and relatives. When that happens, we often feel guilty. It’s just a dog, we tell ourselves, or just a cat or horse... even though it isn’t.

Why do we care so much about furry creatures on four legs? To find some answers, Kotler taps into decades of scientific research in pursuit of ways to understand the amazing human-canine bond.

While he relies too much on bone-dry excerpts from scientific studies, Kotler manages to find plenty of evidence to support the idea of a unique bond and, in some cases, an impenetrable divide.

Dogs are cute like babies – helpless, inquisitive, playful – and humans love cute: It draws us to take care of our own little ones. Dogs that aren’t so cute, including those whose only sin is black fur or ugliness or drooling issues, have much more trouble attracting potential owners at the pound and are more likely to be killed through euthanasia. “As it turns out, what makes a dog adoptable has very little to do with dogs; a great deal to do with humans.”

Kotler also looks at the science of giving. Why do we help animals? Why do we protect the sick, meek, and elderly? Why do we have empathy in the first place, and do animals like dogs have it, too?

While the rewards of helping others can be huge, the cost of caring can be even higher for ultrasensitive people like Kotler. As he acknowledges, his grief often overwhelms him.

One cold night his girlfriend-turned-wife finds him standing above the grave of an old schnauzer named Vinnie who often shivered when he was alive. Kotler, holding a blanket and a shovel, offers a heartbreaking explanation: “I was worried he was cold.”

For a moment, this man – dog’s best friend – is too overwhelmed by emotion to think of anything but hurt. But every reader will see the warmth within.

Randy Dotinga regularly reviews books for the Monitor.

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