Beyond the Book: Background information when reading The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

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The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

A Novel

by David Wroblewski

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2008, 576 pages
    Paperback:
    Oct 2009, 480 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Amy Reading

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Dog Training Methods & The Seeing Eye
Edgar Sawtelle would not have much to say—or sign—to the Dog Whisperer. Cesar Millan, the star of "The Dog Whisperer" on the National Geographic Channel, is known for his "pack-oriented" philosophy, which traces canine behavior back to their survival instinct for living in highly organized packs led by a single, strong leader. As Millan's website states, "[I]n order to properly fulfill both our dogs and ourselves, we each need to become our canine's calm-assertive pack leader." And so Millan teaches dog owners to exert dominance over their dogs—a practice found in many dog behavior books. His work has drawn criticism from other trainers who believe that countering canine aggression with human aggression is a dangerous tactic.

By contrast, the Sawtelles view their dogs as equals. In one achingly beautiful scene, Edgar's mother Trudy teaches Edgar how to train his dog Finch. She asks Edgar to command Finch to jump a short barrier. Edgar stands on the other side of the barrier and signals a recall. When Finch walks around the barrier to Edgar, Trudy scolds her son, not the dog. Edgar did not properly communicate to Finch what he wanted. Trudy points out that in this exchange, Finch was the teacher, because he taught Edgar what his own words meant. Training in the Sawtelle barn happens via positive reinforcement for successful obedience, leash corrections for slight mistakes, and an enormous amount of patience and mutual respect.

In the novel, Edgar's father corresponds with a researcher at Fortunate Fields, a kennel in Sweden, about the feasibility of crossing dogs of unknown provenance in order to capture their genes for intelligence. Fortunate Fields was an actual place, the brainchild of USA-born Dorothy Leib Harrison Wood Eustis. Eustis bred German shepherds for intelligence and loyalty and put them to work with the Swiss Army. In 1927, Eustis learned of a German school that trained dogs as guides for blind veterans. She wrote an article about the school for the Saturday Evening Post, and the article prompted an inquiry from an American blind man named Morris Frank. He traveled to Fortunate Fields and came home with a German Shepherd named Buddy. The pair received so much publicity in the United States that in 1929, Eustis returned to Tennessee to open the nation's first training school for guide dogs. The organization, called The Seeing Eye, still exists today, breeding and training shepherds, labs, and retrievers to work with people with disabilities.

In the Saturday Evening Post, Eustis describes how a Seeing Eye dog guides and responds to his owner, what might be seen as the most perfect instance of human-canine interaction:

"He must go at a fast walk so that the slackening in his gait for an obstacle is instantly felt through the rigid handle of his harness. For curbs he pulls back and stands still so that his master can find the edge with his cane; for steps, approaching traffic and all obstacles barring progress, he sits down; and for trees, letter boxes, scaffoldings, pedestrians, he leans away from his man, who follows the pull and so is led safely around. He learns the direction commands of right, left and forward, and to pick up anything his master drops. He is taught to protect his master from violence and this instinct develops in bounds after he finally wins through to his own blind master. He must be ever watchful and protective, but never aggressive, and it is that quality of perfect balance in instruction that is the success at Potsdam."

Incidentally, Hill's Pet Nutrition also has its roots in Buddy and Morris Frank's story: Back in 1939 Morris Frank asked Dr. Mark Morris, Sr., a strong believer in using carefully formulated nutrition to manage diseases in pets, whether he could do anything to save Buddy, then about 12 years old and suffering from kidney failure. In his kitchen, Dr. Morris devised the first Hill's Prescription Diet product, founding the company shortly thereafter. As for Buddy, apparently he survived and thrived.

Photos: Dorothy Leib Harrison Wood Eustis & Morris Frank with Buddy.

This article was originally published in June 2008, and has been updated for the October 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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