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: Animals Make Us Human

Animals Make Us Human, by Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson

I LOVED this book. I was excited to see it on the shelf at my local library and tore through it. I’d heard of Temple Grandin before and some of her pioneering work with livestock, but I had never read any of her work. I found Animals Make Us Human to be a delightful and educational introduction to Dr. Grandin’s mission: Creating the best life for animals.

Although dogs are my primary obsession, I’m enchanted by all animals. As Isabella Rosselini’s film says, “Animals distract me.” I love interacting with animals. I have to point out every living thing I see whenever I’m walking or driving around, much to the chagrin of my patient husband. We don’t have cable, but if we did, Animal Planet is the only channel I’d watch (preferring shows about dogs, wolves, and dolphins).

Grandin’s book spoke to every fiber of my animal-loving soul. The premise of the book is that animals have a series of instinctual drives–seeking, play, fear, rage, to name a few–but that animals also experience emotions in a way that we have not previously thought. The mental health of an animal is often highly dependent on its environment. That’s why we, as humans, have a responsibility to create the best possible environments for animals.

The book spends a chapter on each primary group of animals that humans have domesticated or brought into close human contact. Grandin devotes her time to dogs, cats, horses, pigs, cows, poultry, wildlife, and animals who live in zoos. I especially learned a lot about horses and livestock and was fascinated to hear Grandin’s intimate accounts of her interactions with and research about these animals that I previously assumed to be dumb or insensitive. Far from it.

Naturally, the most interesting chapter to me was her chapter on dogs. Grandin has a pack of golden retrievers herself and writes with feeling and affection about the canine life. What surprised and disturbed me, though, was Grandin’s implication throughout that 21st-century dogs are more mentally unstable than previous generations of dogs. She attributes this to the fact that dogs today spend almost all of their lives indoors in crates, separated from their humans. Grandin is not surprised by the rising numbers of reported dog bites and dogs with behavioral and psychological issues. In several instances, she almost claims that dogs would be better off being allowed to roam around the neighborhood by themselves, like they did up until about 1980.

My perspective on this is that it is unwise to treat dogs like they’re living in another generation. Like it or not, it’s 2011 and the way we think about dogs in society has changed. Dog owners have to obey leash laws and pick up poop from the sidewalk; dogs have to be vaccinated and spayed and neutered if they are going to live in modern America. And yet, the sad fact of the seemingly eternal work week does mean that many people should not get dogs. If you work 12 hours a day, Grandin will give you a sober reality check of how truly inhumane it would be to adopt a dog. Animals Make Us Human did make me seriously evaluate my priorities and my schedule. It would be wrong to try to care for a dog if I did not think I could devote enough time to him or her.

The main message I received from this book is that we ought to treat all animals with respect, no matter how “dumb” or “unfeeling” we think they may be. People treat chickens like they can’t feel anything at all, like they wouldn’t be mentally and physically affected by living in pitch-black warehouses. Grandin’s compelling research shows otherwise. Cows actually get upset when people yell at them. Horses need to be physically and visually reassured that they are safe. Dogs watch our every move and are incredibly attuned to our emotional registers. So, Grandin implores, treat animals with respect; they depend on us for everything.