Two years ago, when I was walking my dog in Fulham Palace Gardens, we overtook an old woman who was wheeling a baby carriage. She was chatting cheerfully to the occupant of it, and it was therefore, perhaps, not unreasonable of me to be surprised to find, when I caught up with her, that this too was a dog.
My Dog Tulip by J.R. Ackerley is a love story. It’s also a dog story, but it’s not like other dog stories, nor is it like other love stories. Mr. Ackerley, who came to own Tulip, an Alsatian Shepard, late in life, found in her an emotional bond deeper than anything he ever had with friend, family or lover. She was instantly and completely devoted to him; he soon became devoted to her. Mr. Ackerley’s friends have said that the two were inseparable, much to everyone’s consternation. Tulip was a difficult dog, but he insisted on taking her everywhere he went. Soon, his friends stopped inviting him round. Then they stopped coming round. But Mr. Ackerley never wavered in his devotion to Tulip, nor did she in her devotion to him.
My Dog Tulip, his memoir of their time together, is about love but it is not romantic. I have never read a less unvarnished account of what it’s like to own a dog. No one tells you this, I can assure you no one told me, but once you have a dog you will soon become obsessed with “liquids and solids.” In fact, Mr. Ackerley gives his second chapter this exact title. He lives in a London flat, so finding a suitable place for Tulip to do her business without disturbing the sidewalks and doorways of local shops is not exactly easy. Even his offers to scrub down the sidewalk afterwards do not quell the anger of some store owners. Because dogs cannot talk, how well a dog urinates and the condition of its bowel movements are two of the few ways a dog owner can tell how healthy their dog is, but Mr. Ackerley’s is the only dog story I’ve ever read that goes into this topic. He goes into detail and while the details may make the reader squirm they bring laughter in their wake. They are also very true to life; I can assure you.
Most of My Dog Tulip is about Mr. Ackerley’s attempts to successfully breed Tulip. He wants her to have a full life which includes the experience of motherhood, in Mr. Ackerley’s opinion. (The events in the book cover several years in late 1940’s well before the time when having your dog fixed became more the accepted norm.) Again, Mr. Ackerley is unromantically frank in his portrayal of how difficult it was to find a mate for Tulip and what it was like for her to go through heat. He tries many times to find a suitable male Alsatian Shepard for her, but she rejects them all only to end up with a neighborhood mutt. Keeping a litter of pups in a small London flat is not easy, nor is finding them all homes when the time comes, so Mr. Ackerley does not repeat the experience.
What I like most about My Dog Tulip is that throughout the memoir Tulip remains a dog. At no point does Mr. Ackerely anthropomorphize her. She never rescues anyone from a burning building or does something so wonderful that it brings a broken family back together. Her pups are not a troop of Keystone Cop comedians; they are difficult and demanding. Tulip never thinks human thoughts; her affection is never compared to that of a child or a lover. She acts like a dog and Mr. Ackerley deals with her as a dog. He is not a man who would ever put a dog in a baby carriage. Tulip is devoted to Mr. Ackerley as only a dog can be. It’s not at all like a human to human bond. It’s a human to dog bond. It’s different. And it’s nice to see it celebrated for the wonderful thing it is in My Dog Tulip.
In the years since 2009 when I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., my own dog has come and gone. I remember how Mr. Ackerley describes the end of Tulip’s life. When he has to make the decision, he’s very British about it. I think “British” is an adjective American’s probably use more than actual British people do, but you know what I mean wherever you are reading this. I tried to be British about Dakota but largely failed. I’m from California.