Diana Wells's intriguing exploration into the rewards of relationships--both the canine and human varieties--begins when she reluctantly starts seeing a psychologist, Beth, during a difficult time in her life. With no insurance to pay for counseling, a barter is arranged in which the client becomes part-time caretaker to the therapist's dog, Luggs, a sweet, clumsy black Labrador retriever.
As Wells examines her past--her peripatetic childhood, her eccentric family, her grief over the deaths of loved ones--Luggs provides a bridge between therapist and patient. Dog lover by nature, historian by trade, Wells finds herself curious about the connections that dogs and humans have shared for centuries--and what these bonds tell us about our own psyches.
Wells observes that training a dog has much in common with the therapeutic techniques her psychologist employs. Looking into recent experiments that have proved dogs better at interpreting human behavior than chimps or wolves, Wells explores the subtleties of her own relationship with dogs. Increasingly she finds herself agreeing with Diogenes, the original Greek cynic (the word cynic comes from the greek kuon, meaning "dog"), who said that unless we think like dogs, happiness will elude us.
Wells analyzes what we name our dogs, how we breed them, how we've explored the wilderness with them, the kinds of literature we write about them, why we love them, and, most important, what we can learn from them.
When an unexpected illness befalls Beth, Luggs comforts the two women, and his devotion helps Wells come to accept that relationships--despite the possibility of hurt and pain--are what life is all about.
After her son and her sister die within weeks of each other, Wells (100 Flowers and How They Got Their Names) goes against her British "stiff upper lip" upbringing, which warns her therapy is only for the weak, and seeks out Beth, a psychologist. Wells cares for Beth's Labrador retriever, Luggs, in exchange for sessions she could not otherwise afford, and thus begins an unconventional, intricate dance between patient and therapist. Wells slowly opens up to Beth, comparing herself to a puppy, desperate for her therapist's love: "Sometimes I felt that I, too, frantically barked, endeavoring to attract Beth's attention and affection." She interweaves recollections of her life and her sessions with historical information about dogs. After her son's death, she quits going to Quaker meeting and comes to see walking dogs as an alternate form of spirituality her son would have liked; she uses this as an occasion to muse on the high regard many cultures have held for the dog as guardian of the afterlife. Sometimes these cultural tidbits interrupt Wells's more compelling and honest reflections about her relationship with Beth, which form the heart of this book. Beth's eventual illness confronts Wells again with loss; the way both patient and psychologist care for each other through this illness is poignant testimony to the power of healing relationships.