The bond we have with dogs

Marie-Thérèse Walter, Pablo Picasso's muse,  © Gérard Blot/Réunion de Musées Nationaux/Art Resource, NY, Acquavella Galleries.
Marie-Thérèse Walter and a shepherd. © Gérard Blot.

There is definitely something special about the bond we have with dogs. Their ability to read our communicative gestures makes them seem “in tune” with us. And their attentiveness to our every move can’t help but make us feel special. There is one study that shows that dogs would prefer to spend time with humans than their own species, which is unusual for an animal. Every dog owner is familiar with that rise in spirits as a thumping tail greets you at the door, and from the enthusiasm dogs have for us, it’s hard to believe the feeling isn’t mutual.

— Canine behavioral scientist Dr. Brian Hare, in a recent interview featured in Scientific American.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

I love this: Science backing what we already know to be true about our dogs.

Happy weekend, everyone!

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problems with writing about canine psychology is that the field is so young and so rapidly changing that books become outdated just a year or two after publication. So, in the case of The Dog’s Mind, it’s already rather outdated, as it was published in 1992.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

Pup links!

Casey, who belongs to designer Betsy Maddox. Source: Design*Sponge

Dog-related links from around the Web this week!

Tips for the First 30 Days of Dog Adoption. Practical and accessible advice for that first month with a new dog. This is a list I’ll certainly be returning to. (Petfinder)

Best Advice I Can Possibly Give. Thoughts on what it means to be an advocate for your dog. (Success Just Clicks)

5 Rainy-Day Workouts for Dogs. A few ideas for how to keep your dog busy in the house. (Exceptional Canine)

Nail Clipper Desensitization. A step-by-step process of trying to get an anxious GSD to reduce her fear the dreaded nail clippers. This is one aspect of dog grooming that I am not looking forward to, so I appreciate articles like this one! (Peaceful Dog)

Guess the Genotype: Breakdown of Alleles. A scientist’s cleverly organized explanation of the genes that make our dogs look the way they do. (Musings of a Biologist and a Dog Lover)

Creative Peeps 03: Carole + Chai. An interview with the designer of beautiful martingale collars from Huggable Hound. (Pawsh)

Friday Under Fifty. Trendy dog products, hand-picked by Dooce herself. (Dooce)

Zara’s Dog Love. Cute and yet understated canine-centric T-shirts from Zara. (A.G. Out Loud)

The Dogs of Occupy Wall Street. Even the pooches are getting in on the protesting! Some of these signs are hilarious. (The Hydrant)

Pup links!

The much-maligned Wallis Simpson, aka Duchess of Windsor, with a cairn terrier. Source: bettyswallow.blogspot.com

A lot of interesting and thought-provoking dog-related links around the Web this week…

Pet-Friendly Apartments Are Lucrative. Are you hearing this, landlords of my town?? Listen closely! (The Bark blog)

“Dog People” Are from Pluto and “Cat People” Are from Jupiter? The summary of a very interesting study on the personalities of professed “dog people” and “cat people.” I was surprised at how many more people are self-professed “dog people” than “cat people.” What do you think? Does the study’s results accurately reflect your side? (Dog Spies)

Investigating Canine Research: Are Our Dogs Spying on Us? A fascinating study from Alexandra Horowitz‘s Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College. The study looks at the ways in which are dogs are watching us–reading our facial cues and listening to the tones of our voices–to get what they want. (Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab)

I Am a Clicker Convert. In a simple video, Kristine and Shiva demonstrate why a clicker really works. (Rescued Insanity)

Conflict Regarding Greeting People. I wonder about this, too. Is it better to let a dog get overexcited when meeting people in public? Or should we avoid those meetings altogether? (A Frame of Mind)

Exercises to Keep Dogs Off of Counters and Tables. I’ve always imagined that this would be a rather difficult behavior to fix. Here are some practical and helpful tips on how to address “counter surfing.” (A Frame of Mind)

Preventing Aggression Over Food. Karen London provides a fresh and helpful perspective on how to avoid food aggression. (The Bark blog)

A Canine Stress Dictionary. A list of common signs and symptoms that may indicate that your dog is totally stressed out. (Whole Dog Journal)

Fruits & Veggies, Oh My! A List of Dog-Friendly Foods. A helpful list of the healthy foods that are safe for dogs to eat. A carrot does sound like a great alternative to a fatty, calorie-packed treat. (The Hydrant)

They’re Leaving Home… I don’t think I’ll ever get over the feeling that Aussie puppies are the most adorable creatures on the planet. Deep down, my heart will always belong to this breed. (Inkwell Aussie News)

Yet More Quteness. A precious litter of GSD puppies at a nearby Virginia kennel. So hard to have self-control… (Blackthorn Working GSDs)

New Hounds in Town. A photo essay on the arrival of 10 recently retired greyhounds getting prepped for adoption. (ShutterHounds)

On the Street: Mulberry St., New York. Every outfit looks better with a dog! (The Sartorialist)

There’s A Dog In the House. Add this to my coffee-table-book wish list! (Dog Milk)

Summer Reading: Top Ten Favorite Dog Books. Some of my favorite dog books are on this list, too! A fun and easy guide to great books about dogs. (City Dog/Country Dog)

Up and Over. So funny. Such gleeful effort! Such hilariously tragic results. (Animals Being Di*ks)

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.

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: 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.