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? 

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Pup links!

The collies are listening. Click for source.

The big news of the day is that we have now officially submitted our applications to the Virginia German Shepherd Rescue and Southeast German Shepherd Rescue! Even though we won’t move until May, I wanted to go ahead and send our applications so the vetting and approval process could get underway. It goes without saying that I am so excited.

Here are some dog-related links from around the web this past week:

Social Dominance Is Not a Myth: Wolves, Dogs, and Other Animals. Marc Bekoff addresses the other side of the dominance coin and points out that we shouldn’t throw it out entirely. Wolves do exhibit dominance and the research is perhaps more nuanced than we formerly thought. Interesting. (The Bark Blog)

Sidetracked by Grammar. As a copy editor and a dog lover, I definitely appreciated this vet’s list of grammatical pet peeves. The one that really gets under my skin? People who write about “German shepards.” Nope. Not a thing. Learn how to spell. (Pawcurious)

Pocket Petunia’s Big Adventure. A sweet post about therapy dogs visiting a local school and teaching kids about kindness and mercy toward others. (Love and a Six-Foot Leash)

Color-Coded Dogs. Fun photos of dogs playing in groups arranged by fur color. (Ours for a Year)

Canine Pregnancy Detector. Dogs really can smell everything… (Fido & Wino)

Day Twenty-One. A little girl and her dog: Big frown and then a big laugh! (Emily Corey Photography)

Review: Surviving Your Dog’s Adolescence

Surviving Your Dog's Adolescence.

Carol Lea Benjamin is a name you will see a lot in dog books, especially in dog books written in the late 1980s or in the early 1990s. She was a big name trainer at the time. Benjamin has now retired from dog training, but she still writes a blog and works with her own dogs. I was excited to find her book Surviving Your Dog’s Adolescence, because it sounded like an interesting and relevant focus on a particularly trying time in a dog’s life. I also thought it might be pertinent for us, since we’re aiming to adopt a young adult dog.

After having read this brief and snappy little book, however, I found myself confused by the book’s subtitle, which says it’s “A Positive Training Program.” This was surprising to me, because the book relies heavily on physical punishments and lots of “leash pops” to get your teenage dog in line. Not much of Benjamin’s recommendations fit with the guidelines of positive reinforcement trainers like Pat Miller, Patricia McConnell, or Karen Pryor.

Rather, Benjamin’s book focuses primarily on the outmoded and damaging concepts of dominance and “alpha” leadership models. Her book assumes that your job as a trainer is to never let your dog get the upper hand, something which he is continually trying to do, because he’s like a wolf. This line of thinking, as we now well know, is false and based on inappropriately applied research, but it’s a philosophy that is still extremely prevalent among modern American dog owners (thanks to the damage done by popular trainers like Cesar Millan).

This book was published in 1993, so I can’t really fault Benjamin for not knowing this at the time. She was clearly doing what she thought was best for the dogs. Compared to other training manuals, this book isn’t nearly as harsh as some of the others I have read, and Benjamin does have some good overall advice for people with adolescent dogs. It’s just not a book that I would necessarily recommend to anyone as a training manual.

Review: Dog Sense

Dog Sense, by John Bradshaw

John Bradshaw’s new book, Dog Sense, is one of the most heavily academic and scientific dog books I’ve read so far–and I loved it.

The book came highly recommended by my dog training hero, Patricia McConnell, and so I knew I had to read it at some point. (She also provides a much more thorough and interesting review of the book on her blog.) I was excited when I saw that it was coming in at our local library and quickly put it on hold.

Dog Sense is a sizable tome, but it’s well worth wading through all of the research to get to Bradshaw’s arguments. I think a lot of the strength of this book is his strong and profound statements debunking many widely believed myths about dog psychology and behavior.

I’ve already quoted his important statement on the popular misapplication of “guilt” onto our dogs. His other significant contribution is his thorough debunking of the old “dominance” model of approaching dog behavior and training. Many other respected dog trainers, like McConnell herself, have written about how this model needs to be rejected, but I don’t think I’ve read a case as strong as Bradshaw’s for why we need to stop talking about and treating our dogs as if they behaved like captive wolves.

In a nutshell, here’s Bradshaw’s case for why the old “dominance” model of behavior is based on three false concepts:

  1. It’s derived from the way that wolves behave when they are living unnaturally in captivity.
  2. Feral dogs, when allowed to establish family groups, don’t behave like wolves at all. Feral dogs “are much more tolerant of one another than any other modern canid would be if it lived at such high density.”
  3. Dogs kept in similar captive circumstances do not develop hierarchies of dominance, based around competition and aggression.

It was helpful reading such a heavily researched opinion on why the dominance model is outdated and, frankly, wrong. What’s daunting is how many people still believe it. The majority of dog owners, at least in America, talk about their dogs as if the dogs were sneaky tyrants, just waiting for a moment to usurp their human’s power. It’s a sad and limiting way to think about our dogs and I’m grateful for Bradshaw’s fresh perspective on this issue.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who lives with or around dogs. If you’re not already familiar with the new movements in dog psychology and research, this book will undoubtedly revolutionize the way you consider and communicate with your dog.

Review: The Well Dog Book

The Well Dog Book, by Terri McGinnis

Continuing in my vein of reading dog health books, I found a copy of the second edition (1992) of The Well Dog Book, by Terri McGinnis, DVM. It’s a bit old, but I reasoned that the field of caring for dogs hasn’t changed all that much.

I think I was wrong.

While the book is primarily about canine medicine and preventative care, I was utterly appalled at Dr. McGinnis’ recommended training techniques. Since the book was initially written in the 1980s, it is not surprising that she follows the now outdated dominance philosophy with regard to dog psychology. What was surprising to me is her strong statements that physical punishment is always necessary to establish “dominance” and “pack leadership.” The book even includes these horrible diagrams about how to push a dog’s head to the ground when it disobeys and how to pick you dog up by the scruff of its neck and give it a good shake. I was, clearly, mortified.

After reading that chapter, I’ll admit that it was difficult to take the rest of the book seriously. I don’t doubt that Dr. McGinnis is probably a reliable veterinarian. I imagine I’ll be returning to this book if I have any basic medical questions about our future dog, but I certainly won’t be looking to it for any behavioral advice.