An interview with Martin Kihn, whose Bad Dog (A Love Story) will be published April 5 by Pantheon
So what's the deal with a book titled Bad Dog and subtitled A Love Story— what's that about?
I liked the irony of it, which works on a lot of levels. I start the book thinking my dog, Hola, is a 90-pound Bernese mountain dog menace—obviously, she's the bad dog. But after I decide to take responsibility for my animal and actually try to train her, it dawns on me I've been the bad dog all along. She was fine. I was holding her back because of ignorance and fear and self-centeredness. All those things people do so well without any help from dogs. Also, back when I was still drinking I secretly read a memoir by Caroline Knapp called Drinking: A Love Story that made a big impression on me. It was the first time I'd read about an alcoholic who was someone I could relate to—a well-educated, upper-middle class writer type who happened to be a drunk. Her book definitely helped me admit my problem and find a program. My title purposely mirrors hers.
Which came first: taming Hola or curing Martin?
There's a scene in the book where I'm at a pretty famous dog-training camp in the woods of Virginia, and my teacher pulls me aside and says, "Your dog's very nervous because you're afraid." I had another trainer out in White Plains tell me Hola was basically picking up on my fear and acting it out. Most dogs are very sensitive to our body language and general vibe, more sensitive than people. I kept wondering why Hola wasn't improving even though we were working on our commands. It took me a while to figure out I had to get sane first and Hola could follow. And let me tell you, sanity is a lot harder than dog training!
What would you like readers to take away from your book?
I always thought of this as my "dog training book," but lately I realized I'm wrong. It's a memoir about recovering from spiritual ruin that's set in the world of dog training. My own spiritual ruin was soaked in alcohol, but there's a lot of roads away from the rainbow—not just addictions, despair in all flavors. At the worst moment in my life so far, something told me to try to get the Canine Good Citizen award from the American Kennel Club. I don't know why. But it started me back on the path to reality. It forced me to focus on the dog, take responsibility for the dog—which made me less selfish, self-centered, which made me human. I have an epigram from C.S. Lewis about how focusing on anything outside ourselves takes us one step away from spiritual bankruptcy. Hola did that for me. I owe her my life.
Your wife, obviously, has a pretty major role throughout the book. How has she ultimately reacted a) to the pooch, b) to your sobriety, c) to the book?
She loves Hola. They have a great relationship today. We moved to Minneapolis and they take a two-mile walk across the Mississippi River every morning—it's the cutest thing ever. Hola's an old lady now. Eight is old for a big breed like a Berner. But her health is good and her attitude is fabulous. Obviously, my wife is glad I'm sober. I doubt she'd even be my wife if I was still at it. As to how she's taking the book, all I'll say is it's an adjustment. I'd advise anybody out there thinking about writing an embarrassing memoir to think long and hard about the consequences. It might not be worth it.
Publishing veteran Ed Breslin has just written Drinking with Miss Dutchie (no subtitle), about his canine pal helping cure Ed's alcoholism. What's going on here—a trend? Seriously, is this more than a coincidence?
I didn't know about Breslin's book until I read his interview with you, actually. But I'm not surprised. I don't know if it's a trend, but dog books are obviously popular these days and there have been quite a few good ones lately. I think dogs and religion give us hope in perilous times, so I expect they'll both get more popular. There's also a great trend out there to recognize the mental health benefits of pet ownership. This whole area of psychology is just beginning to be studied seriously. We dog lovers have known about it forever.