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by Bruce Goldstein
Da Capo Press, 2008
Review by Miriam Gabriel, M.A. on Jul 14th 2008

Puppy Chow Is Better Than Prozac

Bruce Goldstein, a mid-twenty New Yorker working in advertising, suffers from a severe manic-depression. His mood-swings induce him to spend thousands of dollars for a helicopter ride as well as to meditate killing himself with the knifes in his sink. There are days on which he cannot get out of bed without his mother’s help, and others when he talks to the Devil in Central Park. His girlfriend has dumped him and he loses his job. The manic and depressive thoughts, fears and bodily symptoms are reported astonishingly honest and direct, though rather repetitious.

While neither therapy nor drugs really turn the tide for him, a black Labrador puppy does. About half-way through the book, Bruce rather abruptly decides he needs a puppy, and despite the challenges of dog-ownership (house-training being only one of them) he starts feeling better at day one of his new cross-species relationship. This is not only because of the dog in itself, but also because of stranger’s, especially women’s, reactions to what he calls the "little black magnet": Standing on a Manhattan sidewalk with his puppy, people keep coming up to Bruce Goldstein, not only commenting on, but also reacting emotionally to his cute companion, and by this, somewhat bonding to the dog-owner himself.

In his book published only eleven years after the events he describes, Goldstein does gives a vivid description of what bipolarity is like from the inside. Though compelling and engaging, he somehow still manages to write a "feel good" kind of book on this tough issue. This might be of interest and even of help for readers struggling with similar difficulties -- as numerous thank-you notes on the web illustrate. By this, he gives a personal and touching account on coping with mental illness.

While his language is in parts a bit strong, his book is definitely a fast read and easy to access.

What Goldstein leaves out is a reflection on how and why buying a dog changed his life in a way that therapy and drugs could not. Where explanations are missing, the question whether dogs are in general  "furry antidepressants", as he calls it, remains unanswered. But the idea of thousands of manic-depressive people rushing to the Pet Shops and dogbreeders to get their very own puppy is certainly an unsettling one, both in terms of human mental health and the dog’s wellbeing. "We each need to find our Ozzy", says Bruce’s dog’s breeder (at Amazon.com), i.e. we each need our personal therapy dog. The joy of dog-ownership, described vividly in Goldstein’s book, and known to any dog lover out there, is out of question. While dogs have assisted humans in hunting and herding and fighting in former times, they now not only guide the blind or the deaf, but therapists more and more realize that dogs have a calming, soothing and delighting effect for various psychiatric patients.

There are several aspects of dogs helping humans, among them very concrete ones, as the responsibility of pet ownership and the obvious canine dependence that gets people going,  the structure a dog and his needs can add to a lonesome life, the necessity to get outside the house in regular intervals, or the chance to play and have fun with your dog in a way that most adults would not do without a dog (or a kid, for that matter). Plus, it is far easier to meet other people if you are accompanied by a good-looking dog, and having a dog means less time to sit and think about your own troubles.

This last point is something Goldstein illustrates nicely, but although he never pretends to be a primer on mental health or animal assisted therapy issues, the complete absence of reflections on that matter constitute a peculiar blind spot of his story. So the cliché of the dog’s "unconditional love" has to stand in for a vast collection of helpful details that would have been worth to be spelled out.

So this book is not -- as you could have guessed from the catchy title (on a beautiful glossy cover) -- a contribution to the consideration of animal assisted interventions in psychiatric patients. It is still an interesting and engaging individual story, and honest enough to be of help for bipolar persons considering getting a dog. That not any dog in any case will work wonders and that not any severely mentally ill person will be able to care for a puppy, should still be printed on the back as a warning sign.

© 2008 Miriam Gabriel

Miriam Gabriel earned a Master's degree in philosophy in Berlin, Germany. She is preparing a PhD thesis on Embodied Intersubjectivity.