My Dog Tulip Book cover, JR Ackerley

Admittedly I don’t read a lot of books about dogs, loving them, caring for them, grooming and breeding and healing and so on. But then again, My Dog Tulip is not a book about dogs;  it’s a portrait of one in particular, Tulip, and how her distinctly canine personality is all her own.

I had a wonderful dog growing up, a big black lab named Sheba. I loved her as a pet, but now that I’ve read about the intimacies and intricacies of Ackerley and Tulip, I’m not so sure that we did the best we could by each other. Ackerley chronicles Tulip’s adventures with a gentle curiosity, and manages to somehow never speak on her behalf, only having  her loving and protective and occasionally beastly self shine through.

Together these lovers try to come to some sort of understanding of each other, though their differing natures dispose them to continual miscommunication and anxiety. All they have are gestures, and Ackerliy is moved often by Tulip’s choosing appropriate places to defecate, which he interprets as her canine means of showing loving consideration. He is also shamed by his occasional inability to understand her needs, even when she’s doing her best to straight up tell the guy. This to me seems to approximately characterize almost all relationships, especially where love is involved.

The crazy thing about this book is that Ackerley never seems gushy, sentimental, he never breaks down into ‘puppy talk.’ Rather he catalogs Tulip’s moods with respect to her internal dignity. While he claims to acknowledge the effect of anthropomorphism–the danger in collapsing animal emotions into human ones–he frequently falls into contradiction: Tulip is given many humanizing characteristics, but only because ‘love’ is a written word, and canines aren’t much for reading.

That said, it seems like one could learn a lot about the meaning of love from the way that Ackerley and Tulip care for each other, from the ways they devote themselves to one another while always respecting each others liberty.

I never thought I’d say this, but I want to learn how to love like a dog.

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