Review: In Defence of Dogs

In Defence of Dogs, John BradshawOur little public library in London had a small shelf of dog books, and so I was pleased to find a copy of John Bradshaw’s book In Defence of Dogs, which was not available at my library in the US.

I had previously read and enjoyed Bradshaw’s book Dog Sense, and this book might be the same book as Dog Sense, just under a UK title. Ha. It’s been so long since I’ve read Dog Sense and the material is so similar that I’m actually not sure. Even if it’s the same, it was a pleasure to re-read and to reinforce what I have already learned about the development and history of canine science.

“Dogs have been adapted, or have adapted themselves, to all kinds of roles, in a way unmatched by any other domestic animal, and such flexibility must lie at the heart of the enduring power of the human–canine relationship.”

Bradshaw’s underlying message is clear: If dog owners knew a little more dog science, dogs and people would be better off. 

There is a trend, particularly in America, to mistrust “experts” and science. Dog training originated as more of a craft than a science, and that model persists today. Anyone can call himself a dog trainer. It is not a certified profession in the same way that law or medicine are. And thus dogs suffer from this lack of a scientific standard or professional code. Because the recent decades of canine research have shown us that most of what traditional trainers have assumed about dogs is flatly wrong.

For instance, dogs are not constantly seeking to undermine us and rule the household. Dogs do not behave like captive wolves, and so the old dominance models, which were fixated on “pack leadership” and who was the “alpha” are both completely passé and damaging to our relationships with our dogs. Bradshaw, a professor of anthrozoology at the University of Bristol, uses plentiful examples from the scientific literature to make his case. He writes:

“Personally, I am delighted that the most recent scientific evidence backs up an approach to managing dogs that I am comfortable with. As a scientist as well as a dog-lover, I am dedicated to assessing the best evidence available and then deciding on the most logical approach to adopt. If wild wolf packs had turned out to be as fraught with tension as their counterparts in zoos, I would have had to agree that the dominance approach had merit. I would still have been reluctant to adopt punishment rather than reward as my philosophy for training my dog, because for me the whole point of having a dog is the companionship it brings, and for me domination and companionship do not gel. As a dog owner, I was relieved by the discrediting of the wolf-pack idea, since I could then explain to myself and, more importantly, to others why routinely punishing a dog is not only unnecessary but also counterproductive.” (Emphasis added)

And this is what I also find so pleasing: Science confirms that gentleness and respect, not dominance and punishment, is the preferable approach to relating to our dogs.

Bradshaw also reviews the history of the domestication of the dog, dog training myths, and the perils of the purebred dog, among other topics.

Darwin's sketch of a submissive dog.
Darwin’s sketch of a submissive dog.

It’s a compelling and eminently readable book, and his chapters debunking the dominance myth should be required reading for all dog owners. I was pleased to refresh my memory of many of these studies, and In Defence of Dogs profoundly renewed my interest in canine science and general advocacy.

Have you read John Bradshaw before? 

Review: Citizen Canine

Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs
Citizen Canine, by David Grimm.

In the past few years, I have read at least 75 books about dogs, so when a new dog book comes out, I kind of assume that I’ve already read some iteration of it before. I’m sure many of you feel the same way.

But this has proven to be a false assumption with David Grimm’s new book, Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs.

Grimm explores the fast-paced and monumental success of American pets to become the most legally protected animals in the country. Given Americans’ deep love of their dogs and cats, and the billions of dollars a year we shell out on them, it is no longer surprising to hear that we consider our pets to be valid members of our families. But what does this mean for us as a culture? And what does it mean for the dogs and cats?

The author talks with scientists, canine researchers, animal shelters, law enforcement, inmates, and everyday pet lovers as he unpacks this significant modern conundrum. He presents us with an array of ponderous questions: What kind of emotions do animals feel? Should the punishments for animal abuse be equal to those of child abuse? How far do we take the “personhood” movement for pets? And what about all of the other animals, who aren’t lucky enough to live in our homes and sleep in our beds? What kind of obligations do we owe them? It’s dizzying to even begin to think about, but it’s an important consideration for those of us who willingly share our lives — and our pocketbooks — with these beloved, domesticated creatures.

Some of the researchers (such as Marc Bekoff, Brian Hare, and Alexandra Horowitz) and their opinions recounted in the book are already very familiar to me — as they may be to many of you — but they provide important context to Grimm’s exploration of the topic. His chapter on pit bull hysteria is also particularly excellent, providing a great deal of historical and contemporary context. It’s a well-researched and well-documented book, and Grimm does a superb job balancing a variety of perspectives here.

I heartily recommend this book to any US-based intellectual pet owner who has ever thought about the philosophical, legal, and cultural implications of pets as members of a human family.

Disclosure: I was NOT provided with a review copy; I checked this book out for myself at my local public library.

Review: A Wolf Called Romeo

A Wolf Called Romeo

After reading that Patricia McConnell — my dog lady hero — loved this book, I knew I had to add it to my reading docket. I was pleased to discover that my local library had a copy, and I tore through this book as quickly as McConnell promised I would.

Nick Jans tells a riveting story of a friendship that developed between a community of dog-lovers and a lone wolf. In the early 2000s, the community of Juneau, Alaska, started to notice this gorgeous male black wolf stalking around near their neighborhoods. Was he a threat? Was he dangerous? Where was his pack? The wolf’s background remained largely a mystery, but his purposes soon became clear: this wolf just loved dogs.

Yes. This enormous wild wolf was crazy about dogs, and all he wanted to do was play with them. He started to sit outside Jans’s house, waiting for him to come out with his dogs — including his true love, Dakotah the lab, who is pictured in that unbelievable cover photo above — earning him the moniker “Romeo.”

What follows is a riveting, well-told account of a three-way inter-species friendship between a wolf, dogs, and humans. Naturally, complications arise when the humans get more involved in Romeo’s story, and so you’ll have to read the book yourself to learn more. (Full disclosure: This book made me cry three times, and I am not one for sappy animal stories, as much as I love animals in the flesh. Jans doesn’t unfairly toy with one’s emotions. This is just a real, heart-rending story.)

My sole complaint of the book is that I wish that the photos had been reproduced in color; they are really beautiful, even in grayscale. I was able to find this color reproduction of Romeo, presumably taken by Jans, which appears in the book:

Romeo. (c) Nick Jans.
Romeo. (c) John Hyde.

He really sounded like a remarkable wolf, and he provided Jans with a remarkable story to tell. A highly recommended book to anyone who loves animals, especially wolves, and the mysteries of inter-species relationships.

Disclosure: I was NOT provided with a review copy or asked to write this review. I checked it out myself from the library.

 

Review: Chaser: Unlocking the Genius of the Dog Who Knows a Thousand Words

By now, I think the majority of us have heard about Chaser, the border collie with the BIG vocabulary. Even people who aren’t that into dogs have probably seen Chaser on TV, in a documentary, or read about her feats in the media. If you haven’t, here’s the summary: Chaser knows 1,022 words. Yes, that many.

Her human, Dr. John W. Pilley, a psychology professor at Wofford College, taught her these words (mostly proper nouns) in an effort to prove that dogs have an intelligence far greater than we generally expect. Pilley was also motivated by reports about Rico the border collie, who reportedly knew 200 words, and he thought, “I could teach Chaser to do that.”

And, boy, did he ever!

Chaser’s repertoire was confirmed with a battery of tests, which resulted in a paper, which then took the animal cognition world — and the rest of the world — by storm.

I was enamored with Chaser — and Dr. Pilley — when I first saw them in the NOVA documentary with Neil deGrasse Tyson. (I also feel this perhaps irrational fondness for Dr. Pilley, because his demeanor and mannerisms remind me so much of my grandfather, who, coincidentally, graduated from Wofford College, which is a TINY, almost unheard-of school in South Carolina. They both have a similar manner of speaking and moving, and they both seem to be animal whisperers. Random connection, but I had to share!)

I was delighted to win this book in Maggie’s giveaway on Oh My Dog! and certainly enjoyed reading it. I knew a little about how hard Pilley worked with Chaser, and it was illuminating to read about the hours and hours of training and work he did with Chaser — and still does. She is obviously a smart dog, but she sounds like she has a really lovely personality as well.

I also enjoyed reading about Pilley’s history with dogs, particularly his account of his former dog Yasha, a German shepherd/collie mix, who sounded like a real gem of a dog. Yasha was given free reign on the Wofford campus, and Pilley often used him in his classes, asking students to teach Yasha a command that he didn’t already know. (I also cried over my lunch when Yasha died.)

In short, it’s a sweet book about a devoted man’s relationship with his very bright dog — and a poignant reminder to never take our dog’s intelligence for granted. Even if we don’t have a dog with a Chaser-level intensity or working memory, we have a very bright, sentient being who watches us much more closely than we think.

Disclaimer: I won this book in an Oh My Dog! giveaway; I was not compensated for this review nor asked to write it. I just like to write about the dog books I read!

Review: Pukka’s Promise

Pukka's Promise: The Quest for Longer-Lived Dogs
Pukka’s Promise

I am surprised a book like this hasn’t been written yet. It’s about time we started talking about why our dogs are dying so young.

Ted Kerasote takes on that question in his newest book, Pukka’s Promise: The Quest for Longer-Lived Dogs. Kerasote, heartbroken by the death of his beloved dog Merle, sets out on a quest to investigate canine longevity. In the process, he brings home an athletic labrador retriever, Pukka (pronounced: puck-uh), who inspires his journey into dog health, diet, genetics, and environment.

Kerasote is based in the wilderness of Wyoming, but his research takes him all over the country. He interviews dozens of veterinarians, breeders, shelter workers, and just general dog people about their perspectives on how we can extend the lives of our canine companions.

I particularly enjoyed his chapters on breeding and genetics. I’ve become increasingly dismayed at the purebred breeding practices in the United States, and Kerasote shares my concern. He examines the recorded longevity of many purebreds and notes that most breed organizations add a handful of years to the breed’s estimated longevity; in reality, most purebred dogs die many years earlier than they are “supposed to,” according to breed standards. He shares findings from studies and anecdotes from breeders intent on improving genetic health. I was especially fascinated in his discussion of the silken windhound, a breed invented by geneticist Francie Stull. By selecting dogs for health and longevity, many of Stull’s windhounds lived into their upper teens and several into their twenties, which is remarkable for a dog of any size or breed.

In choosing his new dog (Pukka), Kerasote decides to go with a breeder instead of a rescue, despite citing research that mixed breeds tend to live, on average, a year longer than purebreds of similar sizes. He makes the choice based on reliability of information: you have a better idea of what you’re getting from a breeder than from a pound puppy. However, I thought it was a bit contradictory that he railed against dog fanciers for valuing looks so highly, because he repeatedly turns down puppies because they didn’t look just like Merle, his previous dog; they had to have that “rangy look” and that “rufuous coat” or he wouldn’t accept them.

His discussion on diet and vaccinations I also found to be helpful. Particularly, his approach to vaccinations struck me as level-headed and reasonable, not swinging too much to either party line (vaccinate all the time vs. never vaccinate). Instead, he vaccinates the minimum recommendations from his vet and then uses titers thereafter.

(As a side note, I was delighted that he spent a whole chapter about his visit to the Charlottesville-Albemarle SPCA [CASPCA], which is our local SPCA and the SPCA that I volunteered at for a year while waiting for Pyrrha! He uses CASPCA as a shining example of a successful no-kill shelter and a pleasant place for homeless animals. I felt a lot of hometown pride.)

My only critique of the book is that I wish Kerasote’s recommendations were more broadly applicable to the average dog owner. He lives on a plot of vast acreage in Wyoming. He feeds Pukka raw, wild game that he kills himself. Pukka gets hours of free-roaming adventure and play every day. Pukka does not wear a leash, ever. Kerasote is a single, childless person who also has a stay-at-home job, so he gets to be with Pukka all day long. This sounds like paradise to every dog-loving person, but I don’t think many of us could follow all of his doggy lifestyle recommendations. Most of us have full-time jobs, human families, budget constraints, and live in suburban or urban areas in which it would be both unsafe and unwise to let our dogs roam, leash-less and intact. It would have been nice to have made some more applicable advice or shared modifications on how we can incorporate these healthy living principles into our dogs’ lives.

All in all, it’s a great book. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to read general research on dog longevity and discover some broad principles to extend the life and well-being of one’s beloved canine.

Bonus: A video of Pukka by the author.

Disclaimer: I was provided with a review copy of this book, but all opinions expressed here are my own.