When Louise Bernikow, a single New York career woman, went for her usual jog in the park, a most unusual thing happened: She ended up with a dog. Not just any dog, but an abandoned, starving brown boxer with a gimpy leg and a mysterious past, who was helpless in the back of a police car.
She was also on the brink of changing her life completely, thanks to a dog she never new she wanted.
"That was the day that changed my life," recalled Bernikow, who has chronicled her relationship with the boxer in a book, Bark If You Love Me, published by Algonquin Books. "I never even especially liked dogs or any animals, and the last thing I thought about was keeping this one. But I found something familiar in this dog's eyes. He didn't seem alien, but more like a lost relative. I guess you could say we just clicked."
Least Likely to Have a Dog
By her reckoning, Bernikow was the "least likely" candidate to become a dog owner, having never owned a pet of any kind in her life, when she passed the police car that day three years ago.
"Growing up in the Bronx and Queens, we never had pets, because my mother told me I was allergic to them," she said, adding that she had grown used to an orderly, carefree, independent life as a freelance writer that did not include an animal. Still, she took the dog home, named him Libro, which means book in Spanish, and a special bond began to grow.
Somehow, she writes, Libro let her know what he needed, and, helped by friends, veterinarians, doormen and shopkeepers, she gradually learned the ins and outs of dog ownership. That included how a dog can broaden your life and help build new human relationships.
"Libro Opened Up My World"
"Libro really opened up my world, introducing me to dog parks, dog owners, and about 300 new people, right around my neighborhood, who I'd never known," said Bernikow. "He made friends with so many people and dogs. After about a month, it was such a staggering change in my life, I knew I had to write about Libro."
That first year, she published an article in "Self" magazine, called, "The Dog Who Made A Woman Out of Me." Reader response led Bernikow to write the Bark If You Love Me, her seventh book.
Bernikow's new relationships included a romantic involvement with a man she met through Libro. He was a musical composer. As told in the book, Libro began playing with the man's dog and things took off from there - until one day months later when Bernikow spotted him in a restaurant with another woman and discovered that he'd had a girlfriend all along. The relationship ended, and Bernikow left it feeling an even stronger bond with Libro, an ever loyal, ever faithful companion.
A graduate of Columbia University and an expert on women's studies, Bernikow's previous works focused on women's history and issues, including, "Among Women," on women's friendships, and "The World Split Open," on female poets. She also started two women's studies programs at Hunter College and at Jersey City State College.
Never Thought She Would Write About Dogs
Bernikow said that she never intended to write about dogs. "I probably had a sort of contempt for dog literature," she said. "But living with Libro has made me so much more sensitive to how wise and sensitive animals can be."
Her book is candid, funny and heart-warming, as she shows a knack for poking fun at herself and giving the reader an inside view of the real "dog world" of New York City.
"You know what? Libro is a survivor, and in New York you have to be a survivor, so I figured he could teach me a thing or two," she laughed. "I really admire that nothing stops him - he just goes on, despite his injury. And his innate curiosity has opened up my own."
When Bernikow's book came out, in October 2000, she held a book-signing at an outdoor cafe in Riverside Park, attended by 250 people and their dogs, a band named "Alpha Dog," and, of course, Libro himself, as the guest of honor.
"When people read this book, they want to meet Libro," she smiled. "And he loves all the attention."