Reviewed by Sara Hodon
The Wrong Dog
An Unlikely Tale of Unconditional Love
by David Elliot Cohen
Yellow Pear Press
ISBN-13: 978-0997066418, Hardcover: 264 pages, December 13, 2016
Anyone who’s ever owned a dog will tell you just how deeply these four-legged creatures imbed themselves into our lives. When a pet gets sick, it’s as devastating as any human family member developing an illness. This enduring bond between a beloved dog and his family is the basis for David Elliot Cohen’s memoir, The Wrong Dog: An Unlikely Tale of Unconditional Love.
Part Marley and Me, part Bucket List, part travel memoir, Cohen’s book tells the story of Simba, a larger-than-life Labrador retriever whose physical size is matched only by his love of people. Cohen’s wife, Laureen, was technically Simba’s owner (he was bought by her first husband), but as is the case with blended families, when Cohen and Laureen married, their five children and the dog quickly became a cohesive unit. Cohen, an author and book designer, worked from home and his flexible schedule meant that he and Simba spent eight hours a day together, every day, which helped them become very close buddies. Like all of us, Simba developed a growing list of maladies as he got older. By the time he reaches his fourteenth year (which is ancient for a Lab), the Cohen family is just grateful for every day they have with him.
Then a series of events occur that change the course of Simba’s life and provide the impetus for the book. First, Simba contracts a snout infection that affects his balance and he starts falling down occasionally. Second, Laureen is offered—and eventually accepts—a job as a corporate attorney at a major company. The job is in New York—clear across the country from the family’s homestead in San Francisco. Third, Simba’s is diagnosed with laryngeal paralysis, a condition in which the larynx constricts and makes breathing increasingly difficult. (The snout infection clears up but sets the stage for his eventual demise.) Surgery could correct the problem, but it was risky for a dog as old as Simba. After some discussion, Cohen and his wife decide that Laureen and her two daughters would fly to New York and set up housekeeping there, and Cohen would drive cross-country with Simba and arrive later. Cohen enlists his friend Erick Steinberg to go along for the ride (literally), and soon the “guys’ road trip” across the US is underway.
Cohen’s book brings to light a few important points. One is that the United States’ diversity—its people, culture, and natural resources—is truly what makes it great. It’s a country whose small towns, especially those that aren’t much bigger than the dot they occupy on a map or are difficult for a GPS to locate, are just as interesting as its large cities, if not more. Cohen and Steinberg plan out a flexible itinerary for their journey, with a mix of must-see and “sounds interesting, let’s check it out” stops along the way (the best kind of traveling, in my opinion). Of course, the road trip is really for the dog’s benefit, but unfortunately, most of the tourist attractions the pair visits aren’t exactly pet-friendly, although they encounter plenty of dog lovers along the way. They quickly learn to accommodate their four-legged traveling companion as necessary—for instance, the extreme heat of the desert isn’t exactly conducive to a geriatric Labrador (or any dog, really) For Simba’s bathroom breaks, “…we handed it like an Indy pit stop” (89), with Simba’s unloading out of the back of the car—he can’t jump in and out without assistance—taking care of his business, and loading back into the car all occurring in a matter of minutes.
Cohen is perhaps marginally aware of how beloved dogs are, but he is hit with the realization full-force when they make their first stop in Las Vegas—oddly fitting in a city not exactly known for its restraint. He writes: “…so few people actually bring their dogs to the Las Vegas Strip that the few intrepid mutts who do turn up tend to attract the sort of attention normally reserved for yetis and unicorns…in a setting otherwise rife with artifice and illusion, scruffy-faced young men with their shirttails hanging out, twenty-something women in platform shoes and spandex minidresses, and grizzled old duffers in sandals and baseball caps were all delighted to meet a big, tail-wagging reminder of the humdrum life they came here to escape” (94-95). He notes that if there is ever any doubt as to the importance of dogs in our lives, take one to the Las Vegas Strip “walk him down South Las Vegas Boulevard, and let the love flow” (95).
Other stops include Cadillac Ranch, a quirky art installation consisting of a number of 1950’s-era Cadillacs essentially planted in the hot desert sand near Amarillo, Texas, the tail-end of each car pointing upward, the bodies covered in graffiti; the world’s tallest thermometer in Baker, California; Winslow, Arizona (the town famously name-checked in the Eagles’ song “Take It Easy”), Petrified Forest National Park, and Elvis’ beloved Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee, an experience that Cohen finds unexpectedly moving. It’s an enjoyable trip to be sure, but Simba has a few scares along the way which serve as painful reminders of the real reason for the journey and the urgent need to get him to his new home as quickly as possible. Coincidentally, Simba wasn’t the only family member of Cohen’s facing imminent death. Cohen’s mother was also in a steady decline, and as their cross-country journey reached its end, Cohen made it a point to stop in Pittsburgh to see his parents for what could very well be the last time.
The second point Cohen emphasizes is the inherent goodness of people. Besides the star treatment Simba receives in Las Vegas, he and his family encounter an even greater show of compassion from total strangers when they are finally together in New York and crisis strikes. He writes: “…to those of you who say New York is a cold, hard city full of heartless people who only care about themselves, I say fuhgeddaboutit. Because the very first group of New Yorkers we encountered on a hot Sunday afternoon in Central Park, well, they all pitched in when we really needed it. Those are the New York values we saw. And now we couldn’t be prouder to call ourselves New Yorkers” (220).
Spoiler alert: Despite the decidedly grim subject matter, The Wrong Dog is not a sad book, and I think that’s because the reader basically knows how the story will end early on—it’s just a matter of seeing it through to the conclusion. I, for one, was both surprised and heartened by both how and where Simba passed. Cohen fulfilled his promise, and really, that’s all anyone could ask for, especially for an elderly canine in such poor health. Cohen is understandably distraught about Simba’s demise, but does not seem overly sentimental. I bawled my eyes out at the end of Marley and Me, but was completely dry-eyed at the end of this book—I think because Cohen prepares the reader for what’s going to happen. Again, even he doesn’t know when or how the end will come, but because he knows that it will come—sooner rather than later—it’s a little easier to prepare. It’s a sad book in that the reader knows early on how it will end, but overall, the tone of the book is not sad. Simba is shown great kindness and dignity in his final moments, which I think is all any of us can ask, really.
Cohen includes a good amount of backstory about each of their stops, so the book really reads like more of a travel memoir than anything. His writing style is friendly and conversational; as if he’s recounting the tales of his cross-country adventure with friends at the neighborhood pub rather than in the 200+ pages of his book. The title of the book refers to the fact that when Cohen’s wife Laureen and her first husband were thinking of buying a dog, Laureen had found a small, docile dog; when the family went to pick it up, her husband chose the gregarious, fun-loving Simba instead—thus, he originally chose the “wrong” dog.
In The Wrong Dog: An Unlikely Tale of Unconditional Love, writer David Elliot Cohen shows that sometimes a situation that seems so wrong actually turns out all right, for better or worse, in the end.
About the reviewer: Sara Hodon is a Pennsylvania-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in over two dozen print and online publications.