I have read a lot of books about dogs. I read about 60 books about dog behavior, training, and psychology before we adopted our first dog, Pyrrha, and I still love to read dog books today.
I get asked from time to time by new dog owners about what they should read. Following are the top 10 books I’d recommend to people with dogs, covering everything from training to behavior to history. I link to the reviews I’ve written of these books, and if not available, I provide a link to the book’s Goodreads page.
(As you can see, my general opinions is that if you read anyone on dogs, start with Patricia McConnell. I think she’s the gold standard for modern writing on dogs. Her blog, The Other End of the Leash, is predictably fantastic as well.)
The Dog’s Mind, by widely known and respected English veterinarian Bruce Fogle, is probably the most scientific canine cognition book I’ve read so far (excepting maybe the excellent Dog Sense, by John Bradshaw).
One of the problems with writing about canine psychology is that the field is so young and so rapidly changing that books become outdated just a year or two after publication. So, in the case of The Dog’s Mind, it’s already rather outdated, as it was published in 1992. Fogle doesn’t seem that far off with many of his observations, but it’s always a nagging concern to read a book when you know that there is much more recent data available.
Still, I appreciated his thoroughly scientific approach and his basic explanations of the actual anatomy of a dog’s brain and neurological and hormonal implications on a dog’s behavior. (I also liked that he already knew enough at the time to debunk the popular “puppy temperament testing” that so many people believe in. Apparently, even back in the early 1990s, scientists knew that there was no true merit to “temperament testing” in 7-week-old puppies and that it was never a reliable predictor of adult personality.)
So, I don’t have anything negative to say about this book, and I did enjoy reading it, but there are unfortunately more current and relevant books about this subject now. If you are interested in the way a dog’s mind works, I’d recommend Dog Sense (mentioned above), Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz, or just about anything by Patricia McConnell.
“Dog People” Are from Pluto and “Cat People” Are from Jupiter? The summary of a very interesting study on the personalities of professed “dog people” and “cat people.” I was surprised at how many more people are self-professed “dog people” than “cat people.” What do you think? Does the study’s results accurately reflect your side? (Dog Spies)
They’re Leaving Home… I don’t think I’ll ever get over the feeling that Aussie puppies are the most adorable creatures on the planet. Deep down, my heart will always belong to this breed. (Inkwell Aussie News)
Yet More Quteness. A precious litter of GSD puppies at a nearby Virginia kennel. So hard to have self-control… (Blackthorn Working GSDs)
New Hounds in Town. A photo essay on the arrival of 10 recently retired greyhounds getting prepped for adoption. (ShutterHounds)
I’m an avid reader of book reviews, and I first heard of this wonderful book in the New York Times Book Review. Critic Cathleen Schine gives a fair and warm review of the book, writing that author Alexandra Horowitz is keen on dropping “some lovely observation, some unlikely study, some odd detail that causes one’s dog-loving heart to flutter with astonishment and gratitude.” You could hardly find a more fitting description of what this book did to me.
Alexandra Horowitz is a psychology professor at Barnard College, Columbia University, and an increasingly renowned animal cognitive scientist, now specializing in the minds and lives of dogs.
Inside of a Dog is almost like a book-length version of Temple Grandin’s chapter on dogs in Animals Make Us Human. It’s a thoughtfully presented review of the behavior and body of a dog, without muddling the information with overly cutesy asides or peremptory training tips. It’s just straight science, simplified for your average dog owner.
Appropriately, I learned a lot about dogs from this book. By this stage in my dog reading, I feel like I’ve already learned most of what I could learn about canine psychology and behavior. It’s not a very old science and most of the reputable research has been widely disseminated throughout the seminal training texts. But Horowitz drops a lot of knowledge on you in this hefty book. And I enjoyed every second of it. For instance, you know why dogs are so good at catching Frisbees? Horowitz explains, in more scientific terms than I am capable of, that it’s because dogs see things about a millisecond faster than we do. Because of this ability and motion sensitivity, dogs are much better at predicting the path of a flying disc than mere humans.
Little facts like this are a large part of the appeal of this book, but I liked it more for Horowitz’s detail-oriented and almost narrative style. She gives you the scientific evidence that you crave, but she also gives you the gentle lightheartedness of a fellow dog lover. Her anecdotes about her beloved mixed breed Pumpernickel are heartwarming without being overly saccharine.
Horowitz is clearly a great researcher, but she’s also a great writer. She has written previously for the New Yorker and it shows. Girl knows what she’s doing. I appreciated this book that much more because of her skill with a pen. Dog people are not necessarily also word people (and often for good reason), and so it’s a special bonus when you find someone who is both, like Horowitz (and like Patricia McConnell, I’d wager).
All that to say, I highly recommend this book. I’m inclined to give a copy to the other dog owners in my life, because there’s no doubt in my mind that they’d enjoy this book as much as I did.
Anthrozoologist John Bradshaw, author of the new book Dog Sense, recently posted a thought-provoking “Bill of Rights for Dogs” on The Bark blog. I quite enjoyed reading it this afternoon.
Bradshaw joins the likes of Patricia McConnell, Temple Grandin, and Alexandra Horowitz, who are actively promoting their important research on the relatively new science of canine behavior and psychology.
Much of what we are learning about dogs is that they are far more intelligent and attuned to the human world than we previously thought. Many widely perpetuated myths about dogs are also being broken down, like the repeated assertion by people like Elizabeth Marshall Thomas that we should think of and treat our dogs as wolves.
Bradshaw has this to say on the topic:
Wolves, which have generally been portrayed as vicious animals, constantly striving for dominance over every other member of their own kind, have been held up as the only credible model for understanding the behavior of dogs. This supposition leads inevitably to the misconception that every dog is constantly trying to control its owner—unless its owner is relentless in keeping it in check. The conflation of dog and wolf behavior is still widely promoted in books and on television programs, but recent research on both dogs and wolves has shown not only that it is simply unfounded but also that dogs who do come into conflict with their owners are usually motivated by anxiety, not a surfeit of ambition. Since this fundamental misunderstanding has crept into almost every theory of dog behavior, it will be the first to be addressed in this book.
Like this debunking of the wolf construct, I presume that these canine Bill of Rights emphasize some of these key points from Bradshaw’s book. I found them interesting and encouraging. Here are a few of the points that I particularly liked:
2. We assert the right to have our perceptions of the world taken into account, especially where our senses are superior to yours.
I think this is a fascinating assertion, especially for its wording. I often forget how much keener a dog’s sense of smell and sound are than mine. As an example of this, I was once walking Bo and we were working on heeling on the downtown mall. I had left a small liver treat in my closed left hand and had forgotten it was there. Bo, however, clearly had not. A few minutes later, he startled me by biting at my fingers. I recoiled and was about to reprimand him when I remembered that he was simply wondering what I was doing, constantly waving that camouflaged treat in front of his highly sensitive nose. “Is this for me?” I can only imagine him thinking. “You keep waving it in front of me while you walk. I assume it’s for me. That’s usually where the food comes from.”
This assertion helps me remember one of the primary things I’ve learned about dogs this year: If a dog does something “wrong,” it’s MY fault for not properly training or guiding him. Which leads me into the next point…
6. Our language is rich and sophisticated. We assert the right to be comprehended, in the same way that we attempt to comprehend you.
The best books I’ve read about dogs have been ones that emphasize new research on canine communication and behavior. I enjoyed every minute of the books by McConnell, Grandin, and Horowitz, and I look forward to reading more from these three eloquent and respected scientists. I learned so much about the basic ways that dogs communicate with each other and with humans and I feel like this new knowledge has dramatically improved the way that I interact with dogs.
Having acquired this knowledge only makes me wish more dog owners had read these books. I cringe when I see people shouting at dogs for something the dog did an hour ago. I heard a shaken shelter volunteer complain about a shepherd mix named Shakespeare who had attacked another dog that she was walking past him. Half an hour later, she walked by the run where Shakespeare was kept and stood there and yelled at him for what he did. “Bad dog! You’re a very BAD dog, Shakespeare!” The poor dog cowered, totally confused as to why this human was verbally attacking him out of the blue. I feel sorry for the dogs whose people get frustrated because the dog can’t understand their babbling, confusing commands (“Here boy, hey, Max, come here, Max, no, over here, Max, sit. Max! Stay. Why aren’t you paying attention to me? Max, bad dog…”) My heart sinks when I hear people talking about jerking their dogs around or wrestling them to the floor to “show them who’s boss” and establish “pack leader dominance.” It makes me want to carry around copies of The Other End of the Leashand Inside of a Dog to give to every dog owner I meet on the street.
9. We are individuals, each dog with its own personality. We therefore assert the right to be judged on our own merits, and not according to the reputation of breed or type.
The distinct personalities of dogs are one of the features that make them so deeply appealing to me. Like people, no two dogs are exactly alike. Yet we forget this from time to time. I even admit that I’m prone to stereotyping dogs based on their breeds. Volunteering at the SPCA has taught me a lot about this particular point. For example, I’ve worked with some extremely gentle pit bulls and some fearful, snappish hounds. I’ve met beagles who are unusually attentive to people (instead of SMELLS, smells, OMG, smells!). Every dog is different. They all have their quirks.
Understanding this helps wean me off my specific breed biases. I loved our Aussie Emma, but that doesn’t mean that I will love all Australian shepherds. I’ve met some Aussies that are nightmarish. The reason my husband wants a German shepherd is because he fell in love with a wonderful one in Ireland named Reuben. Reuben was an exceptional dog, but that doesn’t mean that all GSDs are going to be exactly like him. They may share some fundamental GSD traits, but their personalities will be very different.
I like to think that there’s a dog out there for me, whether a puppy who hasn’t been born yet or a young dog who is being regrettably shuffled from place to place. I hope I will do him or her justice, respecting these rights of dogkind. Clearly, I can’t wait.