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.


Breed Love: German shepherd

Gorgeous German shepherd. Source: Flickr, user tobiasaustli

I love almost all of the dogs from the herding group. I think I’d be perfectly happy to own almost any of those dogs (even though border collies and Australian cattle dogs could drive me batty with their laser-like intensity). When my husband, Guion, announced that he wanted a German shepherd dog (GSD), I found myself taking quickly to the idea, even though I’d never considered getting a German shepherd for myself. Guion spent a lot of time on a farm in Ireland with a venerable GSD named Reuben. Guion loved Reuben so much that he put his wolfish face on the cover of his first demo album. Then we ended up getting a betta fish, which Guion promptly christened Reuben, after the beautiful dog we could not yet get.

Clearly, Guion had a lot of love for this dog and thus, an attraction to the breed. As per my inclination, I started studying up on GSDs. The more I read about German shepherds, the more impressed I am with them. I think a lot of people feel this way about the breed. They’re one of the most popular dog breeds in America today and they’re often the top choice of police forces, guide dog agencies, and the U.S. military. I like to think of GSDs as the super-athletes of the dog world. They are extremely intelligent, strong, loyal, and athletic and you could probably train them to do anything you wanted them to do. Like make you pancakes in the morning. I bet your GSD could do it.

German shepherd puppy. Source: Flickr, user Ollie3003

My dear friend Anna has a sweet, small female GSD named Heidi. We spent an afternoon romping with Heidi in the Rivanna River and the fields around Pen Park and had the best time with her. Heidi possessed seemingly tireless energy. You could not possibly throw enough sticks in the river for her to retrieve. After we got tired of that, she jumped out of the river, followed us up the trail and quickly found a felled TREE to carry around. Seriously. This was a 10-foot log she was toting around. Girl had brawn! (The photo of Heidi and her portable tree is actually the background of my phone right now. It’s amazing.) Even though I haven’t spent much time with other GSDs, I felt like Heidi was a good example of one aspect of this breed: They do not get tired easily. This is an aspect that both attracts and worries me about this breed. But then again, most herding dogs fit this description.

I really would love to get a German shepherd one day. I’m also trawling the many excellent GSD rescue groups in Virginia from time to time and often see a dog that catches my eye. It’s hard not to be enchanted by these smart and noble dogs!

From what little I know now, here is my rudimentary pro and con list for the German shepherd:

GSD pros:

  • Extremely intelligent and highly trainable.
  • Can do just about anything.
  • Great watchdogs.
  • Loyal.
  • Good with kids, when socialized with them.
  • Athletic.

GSD cons:

  • Extremely intelligent and strong. This isn’t a con, but it does mean that I can be easily intimidated by them, which is not a great way to be with your dog.
  • Aggression issues, if poorly bred and poorly socialized.
  • Litany of serious and tragic health issues. A healthy purebred GSD is regrettably rare these days and you’ll pay a pretty penny for a well-bred puppy ($1,500 and up).

Tell me about German shepherds. Should we get one? Is it risky to try to adopt one from a rescue group? I think about this a lot but I often wonder if it is a bad idea for someone who is inexperienced with GSDs.

Meanwhile, you can keep up with the other breeds that strike my fancy through my other Breed Love posts. More to come!

German shepherd links: