Winnie & Bingo, akita littermates

Word of the Month, February 2018: Cynophilist

A friend recently sent me an email in which she referred to me as a cynophilist. I had no idea if she was complimenting or insulting me, so off I scurried to my trusty dictionary. Here’s what I discovered:

noun cy·noph·i·list \ sə̇ˈnäfələ̇st , sīˈ- \
: a dog fancier : one that is favorably disposed toward dogs

The word has Greek roots: cyn-, meaning dog, and phil-, meaning to love.

Cynophilist seems like an especially suitable choice for February 2018’s word of the month: Not only is February the month of love—Valentine’s Day falls, as always, on February 14—but this year, February 16 (today!) also marks the start of the Chinese Year of the Dog.

My life as a cynophilist

Emma the border collie pouncing on her ball

Emma & her surrogate sheep

My friend was right: Cynophilist describes me pretty well. I’m a longtime lover of dogs and have shared my life with several over the years. These days, my husband and I are owned by a manic border collie named Emma. She keeps us on our toes and entertains us with her antics—especially her insistence that all balls are really sheep in disguise and must be vigilantly herded.

All humor aside, I’m immensely grateful for how profoundly dogs have enriched my life. In my younger years, I struggled with depression. Then, when I was in my late twenties, Winnie—an akita with a gentle soul and generous heart—unexpectedly came into my life. Her steadiness grounded me, and with her help, I found my way clear of the emotional fog.

Blossom, a black mixed-breed dog, wearing a flower collar

Blossom, wise teacher

A couple of years later, I adopted an adolescent mixed-breed who was afraid of almost everything. I gave her the hopeful name of Blossom and began researching positive, force-free training methods that would build her confidence. Somewhere along the way, I got bitten by the training bug and soaked up as much knowledge as I could through attending classes and seminars, reading books, and watching videos. I learned not only how to train a dog, but how to treat everyone with more tolerance and kindness.

But the most valuable lesson Blossom taught me was to love the dog I had and to not try to make her into the dog I wanted. In time, she did live up to her name and blossom into an amazing companion—just not in the way I had envisioned. She was the wisest of teachers, and for that I will always be thankful.

Cynophilists everywhere

I’m not alone in appreciating the company of dogs. Studies have shown that the human-canine bond provides a myriad of health benefits, from helping you exercise and lose weight to improving heart health to boosting your immune system. There are mental and emotional benefits, too: less depression and loneliness, increased self-esteem, a greater sense of happiness.

But if, like me, you’re a cynophilist, you don’t need a study to tell you how dogs can make your life infinitely richer. Like me, you already know.

Akiko and Winnie, an Akita, at wedding ceremony

Winnie, Dog of Honor at our wedding

The many kinds of love

Since this blog is ultimately about words, let’s circle back now to the root word phil- (to love). Humanity has long been enthralled by the idea of love, so it’s no wonder English has sprouted a multitude of words that share this root. Here are just a few:

philosophy: love of wisdom
philhippic: fond of horses
philodendron: a type of plant that loves to twine and climb around trees
Philadelphia: city in Pennsylvania whose name means brotherly love

And, of course, there is bibliophile, meaning book lover—another essential piece of my core identity.

Book recommendations for cynophilists

As both a cynophilist and bibliophile, I can’t resist combining my two loves and sharing a few of my favorite books about dogs. I hope you enjoy these as much as I did.

Winterdance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod
by Gary Paulsen

Paulsen is best known for his books for young people: Dogsong, Hatchet, and The Winter Room were all awarded Newbery Honors. But this memoir about the author’s experiences training for and running the Iditarod—the long-distance (roughly 1,000-mile) sled-dog race held annually in Alaska—is not to be missed. His writing is engaging, and the descriptions of his hilarious missteps as a novice racer had me laughing out loud.

Pack of Two: The Intricate Bond Between People and Dogs
by Caroline Knapp

Books about people and their dogs litter the literary world, but this one is a cut above the rest. It’s a beautifully written memoir about the author’s relationship with her mixed-breed dog, Lucille. In the opening chapter, titled “The Color of Joy,” she describes Lucille as

unremarkable . . . but no matter. When you study a dog you love, you find beauty in every small detail, and so it is with Lucille: I have become enchanted by the small asymmetrical whorls of white fur on either side of her chest, and by her tail, which she carries in a high confident curve, and by her eyes, which are watchful and intelligent, the color of chestnuts. I am in love with the dog’s belly, where the fur is fine and soft and tan, and I am charmed by her jet black toenails, which stand out against the white of her front paws as though they’ve been lacquered, and I am deeply admiring of her demeanor, which is elegant and focused and restrained. I seem to spend a great deal of time just staring at the dog, struck by how mysterious and beautiful she is to me and by how much my world has changed since she came along.

This passage brought tears to my eyes—it so perfectly captures how I felt about Blossom, my own unremarkable-looking mixed breed. Although I read this book a long time ago, Knapp’s thoughtful reflections about what it means to share a bond with a dog have stayed with me over the years.

Shaggy Muses: The Dogs Who Inspired Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Edith Wharton, and Emily Brontë
by Maureen Adams

These mini biographies explore the relationships between five celebrated female writers and their canine companions. The author, a clinical psychologist and former English professor, writes knowledgeably and sympathetically about the meaningful role the dogs played in these women’s personal and literary lives—not only did the dogs appear in the writers’ work, they also provided emotional support and security, a stronger connection to nature, and encouragement to cultivate playfulness and creativity. If you, like these women, have ever had a beloved dog that enabled you to become a better version of yourself than you thought possible, these stories will resonate with you.


Posted by Akiko Tamano