August 16, 1993 12:00 PM

by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

The tail-wagging, slipper-fetching “man’s best friend” of myth is not the canine we meet in this absorbing and unusual memoir. Thomas did not attempt to train or housebreak the 11 dogs she cared for in the 30-year period she describes in this fetching little volume. “I didn’t need to,” she writes. “The young dogs copied the old dogs, which in their case resulted in perfect housebreaking…”

Thomas, a novelist and anthropologist whose books include a study of the !Kung Bushmen of Southwest Africa, asks, “What do dogs want most?” Her answer: “They want to belong, and they want each other.” Through exceptional powers of observation, Thomas captures dog society in all its orderliness and pragmatism. Like the wolves she also describes, groups of dogs are as stratified as the Army. Top dog is no idle term. There are usually two: one male, one female. They’re the ones who get to breed, and woe unto any pups born to a lower-ranking female, as Thomas relates in one chilling episode. Yet dogs are not cruel; their strict internal ranking serves only to ensure survival and group harmony. Neither are they automatons. Thomas describes love between dogs, strong maternal behavior and unusual actions she convincingly interprets as, respectively, a moral reprimand, a pining following a death, a rape. Even readers who are not inclined toward canines are likely to finish this book with a deeper respect for Bowser. (Houghton Mifflin, $18.95)

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