Dogs in the “good old days”

When I hear my parents and grandparents talk about how they lived with their dogs, I am sometimes filled with a sense of envy and even nostalgia for a lifestyle I never experienced.

Dogs back then, in the “good old days,” seemed to live in such freedom and off-leash harmony with human society.

Source: Boston Public Library.
Source: Boston Public Library.

According to all the stories and books and records I’ve heard, the common traits of dogs, back then were that:

  • Dogs never wear leashes. Unless these dogs are living in Manhattan, leashes are rarely, if ever, used. You take walks with your leashless dog at your side. (Sigh. This one makes me especially envious. Pyrrha could be such a different dog, I think, in a leashless world.)
  • Dogs usually run free throughout the neighborhoods, sometimes in friendly packs. I recall Temple Grandin describing this in her book Animals Make Us Human. Grandin recalls seeing packs of neighborhood dogs roam around daily, and she still longs for dogs to be able to live in this way.
  • Dogs often take on larger-than-life qualities, in the form of family fables, and are often very human-like in their abilities and powers of reasoning. Maybe everyone was watching too much “Lassie” or “Rin-Tin-Tin,” but we all know stories of dogs who played tricks on their humans, saved babies from drowning, rang doorbells, and begged for food at the neighborhood butcher. My dad regaled us with dozens of stories about his childhood dogs and their antics. I can’t imagine my dogs doing any of these things, and so I wonder if it’s because we don’t give them the opportunity to act in these ways, or if these dogs have acquired these mythic qualities as the stories get told and re-told, in the form of hyperbolic legend.
  • Training seemed to be more organic, rather than formal or structured. Dogs learned how to behave in households in a natural, unstructured way and often learned a repertoire of party tricks. But I get the sense that if a dog went to obedience school, it was much more rigid and discipline oriented than we are accustomed to today.
1934 - 1956: Dog drinking from water fountain
Source: Leslie Jones.

I wonder if reactivity was far less common in those days. Perhaps without much containment, dogs had less opportunity to practice reactivity. Pyrrha interacts with dogs in a totally different way when she’s off leash. One of my happiest days with her was this past Christmas, when we took her to a big farm/park. She was on a 30-ft. drag lead, and there were tons of off-leash dogs there. She was just delighted to see everyone, and all of the dogs interacted with each other in this beautiful, peaceful, harmonious way. There wasn’t a bit of anxiety or reactivity in her that day.

The downsides of the way dogs lived in the “good old days” are, of course, also rather considerable. Dogs died fairly frequently in traffic accidents or other suburban misfortunes, merely because they were rarely contained. Dogs probably rarely went to the vet and were infrequently spayed or neutered. Thus, if you had a bitch, she likely got pregnant a few times, and then you had to figure out what to do with those puppies (pawn them off on the neighbor kids). I also don’t know of any data, but I imagine that dog bites (especially to children) were much more frequent, also because dogs were not contained or monitored. Knowledge of dog behavior and canine psychology was scant, and dog behavior was often misunderstood and grossly misinterpreted (hence the old “rub their noses in their poo” strategy of house-training, among others).

Source: Boston Public Library.
Source: Boston Public Library.

I don’t think it’s possible anymore, of course, to return to this way of dog-rearing in urban or suburban America. We have leash laws, vaccination requirements, and the encouragement to spay and neuter for good reasons.

This is why I disliked Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s book so much. I felt like she was forcing her dogs into a “wild” lifestyle, which was not coherent with the fact that she lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The scenes of her following her off-leash husky weaving through Cambridge traffic and watching her spaniel get “raped” (her term) by a wayward dog were just awful to me. As much as I may love and yearn for the off-leash lifestyle, that is not a life I want for my dogs. I know it’s not possible (or even legal) in my town, and so the girls wear leashes and we have a sturdy fence.

Some rural dogs may still experience this “good old dog days” lifestyle, and I love that for them. For example, our former foster Laszlo has an idyllic existence; he goes to work every day with his human at a winery in the foothills and lives his whole life off-leash, running around the giant, gorgeous property.

So, here’s my question. Do you think we can incorporate the good aspects of the old way of dog-rearing into modern society? For most of us, our dogs can’t go out without leashes or travel with you by running behind your truck. But is there a way that we can reduce reactivity and promote freer, more harmonious interactions with our dogs and our communities? Is that even possible with modern legislation?

Source: Leslie Jones.
Source: Leslie Jones.

I don’t know. But it’s something I like to think about. I think about that day for Pyrrha at Fisher Farms, which might have been her happiest day ever, and I long to capture some part of that in our everyday life.

Curious to hear your thoughts!

Review: My Dog Tulip

My Dog Tulip.

At least in the Western world, the English are somewhat famous for their undying love of dogs. James Herriott is the father of all modern country dog legends. The stereotype of the “stiff upper lip” does not apply to the national English feeling toward canines. Indeed, as J.R. Ackerley himself says in the beginning of this book, My Dog Tulip: “Unable to love each other, the English turn to dogs.”

All that to say, I was excited to read his memoir, which I have often heard about. I love dog memoirs (great ones like Dog Years and Pack of Two come to mind) and this one was about a proper Englishman, J.R. Ackerley, and his love affair with his Alsatian (aka German shepherd), Tulip. (Tulip’s actual name was “Queenie,” but Ackerley’s publishers made him change her name in the book, because they were worried that the dog’s name might become a derogatory, if oblique, reference to Ackerley’s sexual orientation.)

Instead of a charming memoir, though, this little book is really just the record of one Englishman’s positive MANIA to pimp out his dog. The poor girl. Aside from one chapter about the social difficulties of your dog defecating on the sidewalk, the rest of the book is about Tulip’s heat cycles, her vulva, and her long parade of unsuccessful suitors, including the long and tiresome descriptions of her failure to copulate.

As a side note, I am not surprised that Elizabeth Marshall Thomas wrote the introduction to my edition and that she loved the book. (She would.) As you may recall, I have a rather low opinion of Thomas’s methods of dog rearing and it therefore was not surprising to me that she adored this book about one man’s unscrupulous treatment of his dog, her behavior, and her reproductive faculties.

Supposedly, this memoir was made into an animated film, but wow, that is not one film that I would ever want to see.

Thoughts on “Dogs Decoded”

Dogs Decoded, PBS Nova documentary

The other night, Guion was out for a poetry gathering and I didn’t really feel like reading Muriel Spark, so I decided to watch the PBS Nova documentary, “Dogs Decoded,” which is conveniently on Netflix instant view.

Because I’ve done so much reading about recent dog research, I’d already heard about many of the studies and stories included in this 53-minute documentary (like Betsy the border collie, the fox breeding program in Siberia, and the research of Duke University professor Brian Hare). But it was really exciting to get to see some of these dogs in action, meet the Siberian foxes, and watch Hare and other researchers demonstrate how dogs followed humans’ visual cues–in a way that chimpanzees couldn’t.

In short, I LOVED this documentary. I want to watch it again right now and I especially want Guion to watch it with me. There were four stories in particular that grabbed my interest.

First, the discovery that dogs look to the left side of our faces. This seems like an uninteresting detail. Yet, scientists have found this to be incredibly significant. By studying the facial expressions of humans, researchers concluded that we do not show our feelings symmetrically on our faces. Rather, the left side of our face tends to show a more accurate depiction of our emotion. (Sounds really odd, but the film shows composite photographs that demonstrates how this is true.) The connection that is fascinating is that when dogs look at a human’s face, they almost always tend to look at our left side first. What’s so unusual about this is that dogs don’t do this with other dogs, other animals, or objects: it’s just with people. This indicates that dogs have developed a unique ability to read the emotions of humans–an ability that surely advanced the dog’s ascent as one of the oldest and most trusted domesticated animals.

Second, Betsy, OMG, Betsy. Betsy the unbelievable Austrian border collie. Betsy got worldwide attention before Chaser, the South Carolina border collie who was trained to recognize an astounding 1,000 words. Betsy’s verbal repetoire is perhaps not as advanced as Chaser’s, but we found her first. “Dogs Decoded” visits Betsy’s home in Austria where her owner, a woman who prefers to remain anonymous, shows us Betsy’s ability. Like Chaser, Betsy can correctly identify objects by name–much like a 2-year-old human child–without any verbal or physical cues from her handler. I’ve seen dogs do this before and it still blows my mind every time–but what absolutely knocked my socks off was what the visiting researcher asked Betsy to do. The researcher wanted to know if, like a toddler, Betsy had the ability to understand that a photograph of an object was a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional thing. Betsy’s owner said she’d never tried this before with Betsy and didn’t think it would work. The researcher holds up a picture of a black-and-white chew toy to Betsy and the dog looks at it intently. She gives her a command to find it and off Betsy goes–and brings back the object from the picture. That’s amazing. I think I cursed out loud when I saw it; that’s how impressed I was.

Third, I was fascinated by the study done by eastern European (Hungarian?) researchers who raised puppies and wolves from infancy. Drawing from the premise that dogs and wolves are 99.98% genetically similar, the scientists wanted to know if you raised a baby wolf as a dog if it would then become like a dog, i.e., domestic. First, the scientists hand-raised puppies. The puppies lived in their homes, slept in their beds, etc. After they raised a litter of puppies this way, the researchers raised a litter of wolf cubs in the same way. At first, the wolves didn’t seem much different from the puppies. The wolves snuggled up to them when they took them outside, their play seemed to resemble the play of puppies, and so forth. But by the time they hit seven or eight weeks, it became clear that these wolves were not going to magically become dogs.

One of the most striking examples of this difference was a test with puppies and wolf cubs of the same age in a controlled environment. In separate rooms, the puppy and the wolf cub are both introduced to a foreign object (a robotic toy dog that barks). The puppy is curious and goes up to sniff it; the wolf cubs shrink back in fear and try to claw their way out of the room. Next, the researchers test to see if the puppy and wolf cub will respond to a human’s physical cues. The puppies make eye contact with the humans and seem to easily follow the human’s hand signal to a cup on the floor. The wolves, however, never make eye contact with the humans and try to run away. Later, the film jumps to one of the researchers with an adolescent wolf in her home. This animal is a total menace–leaping on counters, trying to knock her over, totally unresponsive to her correction–and can hardly be trusted indoors, even though he was raised in the home with this woman. Wolves are not dogs and dogs are not wolves; don’t try to treat one like the other (ahem, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas!).

Fourth, I’ve read many times about the decades-old silver fox breeding program in Siberia. I loved being able to actually see these foxes and the dramatic changes in their appearance over time. I think this is one of the most fascinating studies ever. When the program started, researchers decided to selectively breed foxes for friendliness toward humans. In the first few litters, only 1% of the fox cubs didn’t react aggressively or fearfully toward humans. This 1% became the foundation of the “tame” breeding program. Tame foxes were bred to other tame foxes and so on.

By the eighth generation of tame foxes, some very interesting changes started to occur. Coat colors began to change dramatically. The originally black and dark gray foxes started developing white patches, spots, and stripes. Some cub’s ears never perked up but stayed floppy. Limbs were shortened. The foxes were physically adapting to domestication; they were evolving to be cuter, more appealing to humans–just like the domesticated dog. This totally blows my mind. If you’re interested, you can now apparently order your own tame fox from this Russian breeding program for a mere $6,950.

I loved this film and I highly recommend it to anyone with even a basic interest in dogs. It will make you look at your dog in a totally different and appreciative way. If you don’t have Netflix and you want to watch this film, mark your calendar for November 15, 2011, when it’s airing on PBS.

A dog’s bill of rights

A majestic collie. Source: Flickr, user KerrieT

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 Leash and 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.

Review: The Hidden Life of Dogs

The Hidden Life of Dogs, by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

I recognized Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s name from the many book blurbs she wrote for the other dog books I was reading. I’d heard The Hidden Life of Dogs mentioned as a “much-loved” text, one woman’s insight into the “mysterious” lives of canines. It was short and so I thought, what the heck, I’ll read it.

The book is written in a memoir-like style and covers Thomas’s years of life with a large pack of Siberian huskies and one dingo (where this dingo came from, I don’t know, since Thomas lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and made no mention of ever visiting the Australian bush). Thomas spent time on Baffin Island observing wolves and her admiration for wolves comes through in her interactions with her dogs. Throughout the book, she constantly uses “wolf language” to describe how her dogs interact: They’re operating in a pack, there’s a hierarchy, there’s general suspicion toward humans, etc. Even her attraction to the husky breed indicates this desire of hers to keep wolves as pets.

Early on, we are introduced to the stud-bolt husky Misha. Misha is the celebrated wandering warrior, the Aragorn, if you will, of this story. Misha comes to live with Thomas and quickly makes it clear that he doesn’t want to stay in her fence. He nimbly scales the 6-foot wall and disappears. He escapes and wanders for hours and is often gone for days. Thomas says she would get calls from people six miles away saying they’d found her husky.

Though she lived in busy, urban Cambridge, Thomas made no efforts to curtail Misha’s adventures and instead decided to follow him on his treks. What she discovered was that Misha had an unusually excellent internal GPS system. He could always find his way home. He never got lost. He navigated Cambridge traffic like a seasoned pro and was never hit by a car (which seems a miracle in itself). Her time tracking Misha led her to bring other huskies into her home and within a few years, she had a veritable pack on her hands.

The part about following Misha intrigued me, but after those journeys, Thomas’s narrative and observations failed to maintain my interest and my respect. Thomas doesn’t seem to think that her dogs required any training or obedience–she prefers that they live according to their natural instincts. This is a nice idea–if you’re the type of person who can put up with 10 unruly dogs in your house. Thankfully for her sanity, Thomas appears to have been this type of person.

But that’s not even what bothered me the most. What really irked me was Thomas’s lack of care and concern for her dogs’ sexual health. None of her 10 dogs get neutered or spayed, not even the two pugs who lived indoors. So, naturally, puppies happen. Thomas writes about at least four litters that her unsupervised female dogs endure.

The most upsetting story that Thomas includes is an afternoon spent walking the neighborhood with her little dingo, Viva. Viva is only a few months old at the time and had just entered her first heat. Thomas says she was walking slowly with Viva when, out of nowhere, an English springer spaniel comes bounding over the fence and attaches himself to Viva. Viva is scared, Thomas writes, cries through the whole experience and never indicated that she wanted this dog’s amorous attention. “I realized dogs could rape,” Thomas concludes after this little anecdote–as if she was free of blame from the entire incident. On the contrary, Thomas is the only one who should feel guilty here. First, she never spayed her dog. Second, she had the idiocy to take her dog, unleashed, on a walk around the neighborhood while the dog was in her first heat. Third, she just stood there and watched while her dog got raped. The springer, though aggressive, was just doing what dogs do. Thomas, who should have had some foresight as the rational animal in this situation, appears neglectful, irresponsible, and downright stupid.

Viva has her puppies when she is just a puppy herself, just over 8 months old, and suffers through labor, as Thomas depicts it. Viva does not seem to be an instinctively competent mother, something which Thomas pities her for. Another bitch in the house, Koki, gets impregnated by another one of Thomas’s huskies around this same time. Koki is more confident, Thomas asserts, and a higher-ranking female in the household. One day, Thomas comes home and finds the house eerily still. None of the dogs will greet her. She goes upstairs and she finds Koki in Viva’s litter, holding one of Viva’s pups in her mouth. All but one of Viva’s pups are dead. Koki, apparently, is responsible for the deaths of these puppies. This is a horrific incident–and again, one that could have been avoided if Thomas had been a responsible dog owner. Instead, she justifies Koki’s infanticide with Koki’s belief that these lower-ranking puppies had to die so that her own puppies could succeed. I don’t know how I’d characterize Koki’s motives in killing another dog’s puppies, but I feel like this is a stretch without any evidence.

In a related point, my other big issue with this book is Thomas’s gross anthropomorphism of her dogs. I suppose this can only be expected, since Thomas is herself a respected anthropologist. But the motives and emotions she assigns to her dogs are almost always human motives and emotions and impossible to prove. She rarely gives any supporting behavioral or physical evidence that this emotion is, conclusively, what the dog was thinking or planning; rather, she just “knows.” I find this highly suspect.

Toward the end of the book, Thomas and her family move to a spacious property in Virginia where she builds a large, fenced enclosure for her remaining pack to live outdoors. She begins to lose daily contact with her dogs and, unsurprisingly, they become increasingly wild and wolf-like.

Thomas’s conclusion is that dogs don’t want or even necessarily need people in their lives. I think this is a ridiculous notion. The only reason Thomas reached this conclusion is because she was letting her dogs live like wolves by the end of the book. Of course they weren’t acting like dogs; dogs, as we know them, are defined by their dependence upon and relationship with humans. Not so for wolves–or, apparently, for Thomas’s wolf-like pack of huskies. Wolves don’t need people just like Thomas’s dogs didn’t need people. These animals were not acting like dogs. They dug an enormous den and tunnel system for their private use, bred as they pleased, and generally ignored Thomas’s existence.

She turned her dogs back into wolves and then somehow claims to have mystic insight into the lives of dogs. Hardly. The only thing Thomas uncovered was that, if left to their own devices, a pack of 10 huskies will devolve into animals with wolf-like natures and behaviors. They will be barely recognizable as dogs, because, for all intensive purposes, they’re not really dogs anymore.

If it’s not already clear, I have little respect for Thomas as a dog owner and as an observer of canine behavior. I think she ran an interesting experiment with her dogs and drew some misapplied conclusions from that experiment. Were her dogs happy? Yes, I think so. But they weren’t really dogs. For Thomas to claim to have some hidden insight into the lives of dogs is woefully inaccurate. But to have insight into the lives of dogs turned back into wolves? Well, then maybe. If that’s what you’re interested in, then this is the book for you. If you’re actually interested in dogs, save your time.