Review: The Dog’s Mind

The Dog's Mind.

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problems with writing about canine psychology is that the field is so young and so rapidly changing that books become outdated just a year or two after publication. So, in the case of The Dog’s Mind, it’s already rather outdated, as it was published in 1992.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.

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: Inside of a Dog

Inside of a Dog, by Alexandra Horowitz

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.

Pup links!

An Afghan hound and her lady in Paris. Source: The Paris Apartment

Fascinating dog-related links from around the Web this week…

Concerns about Unleashed Dogs. Karen London reflects on how we, as a community, should respond to this ever-growing social issue. Even though I’m always tempted myself to take a well-behaved dog off leash, I know I shouldn’t if it means that people with aggressive or untrained dogs can do the same. (The Bark blog)

The Evolution of Barking. Why did domestic dogs start barking? Here’s a summary of recent research on the topic, which I find quite interesting. Part of this research was briefly discussed in “Dogs Decoded.” (The Bark blog)

10 Things You Must Know about German Shepherd Dogs. A brief collection of the background and personality of this beautiful breed, which I am more and more leaning toward. (In Style Dog)

When Internet Memes Collide. Inter-species friends! That is one adorable and tolerant sheltie, to play so well with that squalling–but evidently delighted–infant. (Pawesome)

Polar Bear Befriends Dog. More inter-species friends! This blog should be proof enough that nothing delights me as much as YouTube videos of creatures from different species playing together. (The Premium Pet Blog)

To Barney’s New Family. A touching letter from a popular mommy blogger to her Scottish terrier’s new family. She made the wise decision to surrender the dog after determining that he did not fit well with their family and that she could no longer adequately care for him. It’s a heart-wrenching decision, but it happens so often, especially among young families with babies and poorly trained dogs. (Nat the Fat Rat)

Cousin. Famous blogger Heather Armstrong snaps a photo of a dog in Bangladesh, who accurately displays the prototype of the ancestral domestic dog. (Dooce)

Spay, Neuter Programs Are Paying Off. This year, fewer than 4 million dogs and cats will be euthanized, down from nearly 20 million in the 1970s. Let’s keep up that decline! (Ohmidog!)

Drunk People Are Buying Adorable Puppies They Won’t Want in Five Hours. Now this is a really terrible phenomenon, but at least the pet shops–unethical as they are to be selling puppy mill puppies–are creating an ordinance against it. (Daily Intel)

Teach a Dog to “Hold”: The Consequences. A totally precious–and obedient–Newfoundland proves how good he is at this command. (NewfandHound)

Can My Dog Make Me Healthier? All dog lovers can already answer this with a resounding, “YES!” Stanley Coren presents some evidence. (Psychology Today)

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.