Martin Kihn’s dog Hola is an absolute mess. She’s a Bernese Mountain dog: 90 pounds of unbridled canine enthusiasm, unable to sit on command, heel on a walk around the neighborhood or even look at a friendly-looking human sideways without bounding into them with violent gusto. She’s what most would describe as a “bad dog.”
In his new memoir, “Bad Dog,” Kihn describes his complicated relationship with the aggravating but lovable Hola and their long, difficult journey to attain the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen award, a benchmark of canine obedience.
There’s a reason Kihn is so determined to mold Hola into the picture of obedience, other than the desire to take Hola for a walk without having his arm ripped off. Marty, as he’s called, is a high-functioning alcoholic. His work as an Internet consultant is suffering, he’s deeply in debt and his wife has left their apartment, unable to deal with Marty’s constant drunkenness.
While recovering in a 12-step program, Marty replaces his destructive habit with a constructive one: competitive canine obedience training. Hola presents an immense challenge: 5 years old, naturally uncontrollable and without any previous training, Marty has enough to keep his hands full and his mind off drinking.
As Marty and Hola train for their Canine Good Citizen test with each passing day, Marty begins to associate the goal with his own redemption. He hopes that with their success, his estranged wife will recognize his dedication to recovery and they will be able to pick up their relationship where they left off.
The premise of Marty and Hola’s story could have easily veered into overwrought, sickly-sweet sentimentality. Kihn’s dry, sharp wit and stark descriptions of his own struggle with addiction keep “Bad Dog” fittingly touching without getting sappy.
A scene in which Hola lashes out at Marty’s wife and catalyzes the couple’s separation is particularly representative of Kihn’s ability to slip from fond, heartwarming descriptions of life with Hola into bleak solemnity with ease.
Kihn makes Hola the true hero of the story, emphasizing the vital role she plays in his life more than Kihn’s addiction. It’s the special relationship between man and animal that form the heart of the memoir. Especially endearing are Kihn’s pitch-perfect imagined conversations with Hola, whom Kihn gives the voice of an adorable, playful child who just wants her mom and dad to get back together (and maybe a hot dog, too).
Any dog lover is bound to tear up over the love and trust that can exist between a person and their dog, which Kihn captures perfectly with a blend of earnest emotional catharsis and wry humor.
For those who like: “Dry” by Augusten Burroughs, “Life” by Keith Richards and James Fox