10 best books for dog owners

I have read a lot of books about dogs. I read about 60 books about dog behavior, training, and psychology before we adopted our first dog, Pyrrha, and I still love to read dog books today.

I get asked from time to time by new dog owners about what they should read. Following are the top 10 books I’d recommend to people with dogs, covering everything from training to behavior to history. I link to the reviews I’ve written of these books, and if not available, I provide a link to the book’s Goodreads page.

Dog lovers, read away!

  1. The Other End of the Leash, Patricia McConnell
  2. The Power of Positive Dog Training, Pat Miller
  3. Bones Would Rain from the Sky, Suzanne Clothier
  4. For the Love of a Dog, Patricia McConnell
  5. Inside of a Dog, Alexandra Horowitz
  6. Dog Sense, John Bradshaw
  7. On Talking Terms with Dogs, Turid Rugaas
  8. Love Has No Age Limit, Patricia McConnell
  9. Control Unleashed, Leslie McDevitt
  10. The Adopted Dog Bible, Kim Saunders

(As you can see, my general opinions is that if you read anyone on dogs, start with Patricia McConnell. I think she’s the gold standard for modern writing on dogs. Her blog, The Other End of the Leash, is predictably fantastic as well.)

Honorable mentions

What are your favorite books about dogs? What would you add to these lists?

The trigger becomes the bell (Week 1, Reactivity Class)

Notes from Week 1 of the Feisty Fidos class
Deven Gaston, Canine Campus

Put herself in time out. #pyrrha #gsd
Our feisty fido, looking demure.

Our first class, as with most of Deven’s first classes, was dog-less. She gave us an overview of her training philosophy, the goals for this class, and particularly focused on getting us humans in the right mindset. Her teaching style reminds me a lot of what I’ve seen of Suzanne Clothier; she’s very frank and funny and clear. Deven always tells it like it is.

The phrase that’s stuck in my mind after our first class is: The trigger becomes the bell.

We’re going back to classic Pavlov in this reactivity class (the “bell” referring to the sound in the classic experiment, signaling that the reward was coming). This means that this is going to be a long, slow behavior-modification process. We don’t have labs where we can knock this thing out and create new neural pathways and associations. We have to practice this in real life, with real-life interruptions and mistakes and uncontrollable variables.

Training dogs out of reactive behaviors will take weeks and months, maybe even years. “This is not an exciting class,” Deven told us. “You are going to need tons and tons of patience and repetition and consistency. But it will work. If you stick with it.”

Key takeaways

  • Distance is always the biggest factor in intensifying fear. Dogs get into the fight/flight zone when they are too close to their triggers. The leash keeps them from flight, which is why so many dogs have on-leash reactivity; they don’t have the option of running away, so they decide to put on a “fight” display.
  • Distraction training (“look at me”) doesn’t really work. It doesn’t change the dog’s feelings toward the trigger, and in many cases, it can often make it worse.
  • Before implementing a new technique, always ask yourself, “Would this work for ME?” If this was how someone was trying to modify my behavior toward a fear trigger, would this tactic help or hurt?
  • With reactive behavior, be aware of the “audience effect.” Reactive dogs are embarrassing. We tend to treat them differently than we know we should when people are watching (e.g., a smack on the head, a jerk on the collar). Be mindful of this. It’s just making your dog more scared and confused.
  • Reactive aggression is NOT a character trait, and it’s NOT a choice: It’s a REFLEX. This is just the primitive part of the brain firing in the fight zone; the frontal cortex is not even engaged. Decision making is too slow for a dog confronted with a fear trigger, so they just react.
  • Remember that dogs start learning these displays over time. They will begin to generalize eventually. A man with a baseball cap scared me once? OK, I’m just going to react to all men with baseball caps from now on, just to cover my bases.
  • In classical conditioning, always remember that food is NOT a reward here; it’s a way to form an association. Remember with Pavlov: The dogs didn’t do anything to get food. The bell rang, regardless of what the dogs were doing, and out came the food. With this training, your dog’s fear trigger becomes the bell.
  • In this class, you are blazing a new path of associations. The old path (reactive behavior) has to grow over and become unused for the new path to remain intact.

As Deven reminded us, “The goal of this class: Your dog is comfortable in the presence of her triggers. This does not mean that she is comfortable interacting with her triggers but that she can remain in their presence without a display.”

It’s a lot to take in, but, wow, I am already really thankful for this class, and I am committed to the long road ahead!

Pup links!

At the end of the fence. By Flickr user meeganz.

Dog-related links from around the Web this past week:

The Search-and-Rescue Dogs of 9/11. As we remember the tragedy of 11 September 2001 today, I was very moved to reflect on these series of beautiful portraits of rescue dogs from Ground Zero, shot by photographer Charlotte Dumas. (The Hydrant)

DIY Physical Exam: An “Owner’s Manual” for Your Dog. Have any of you been following The Bark’s DIY physical exam guides? I’ve found them to be extremely helpful and informative. I confess that I really should know more about how my dog’s body actually works and how to read concerning signs. This is part two of a four-part series. (The Bark blog)

Scent Games: Educating Your Dog’s Nose. Lots of interesting links featured on The Hydrant, apparently! I loved this article by John Rice and Suzanne Clothier about games to play with your dog that utilize her nose. Pyrrha is extremely nose-oriented and I’m looking forward to playing some of these scent games with her. (The Hydrant)

Do You Just Love Dogs? Or Do You Respect Them? This post by Pamela really caught my attention. I know a lot of people who profess to just LOVE dogs, and I don’t doubt that they do, but they don’t seem to have any grasp on reading dog body language, or recognizing when a dog is too tired, too scared, too what-have-you to engage. Props for this post. Her question is a good one, too: How do we encourage more dog lovers to actually respect dogs, too? (Something Wagging This Way Comes)

7 Years After Katrina, New Orleans Is Overrun by Wild Dogs. It is easy to forget cities struck by natural disasters, particularly once the disaster has faded into distant memory. The devastating consequences of Hurricane Katrina on literally thousands and thousands of domestic animals was apparent from the outset, but seven years later, stray dogs are continuing to multiply and spread across the city. An eye-opening account of the difficult situation of abandoned dogs in New Orleans. (The Atlantic Monthly)

Ian Healy: Dog Portraits. This is the style of a dog portrait I can really get behind: Modern and fun, but accurate and talented. Now I’m kind of wanting one of Pyrrha for our sea-foam green walls… Have you had a work of art commissioned of your dog? Would you? (The Hydrant)

The Reverse Romney. As many of you in the United States, I am sure, I am getting sick to death of hearing about the November election. I’m ready for it to be over! But this did make me chuckle. (Maddie the Coonhound)

Also, just for kicks: Pyrrha was featured on F-Yeah German Shepherds. ♥

Pyrrha’s first day of school

First day of school at Canine Campus
Canine Campus: Trainer Deven working with Anka.

Last night, Pyrrha attended her first “day” at school!

We have enrolled her in a general obedience class at Canine Campus and I’ve been really grateful and pleased with everything we’ve been taught so far. Deven (shown above), the head trainer, studied with Pat Miller and Suzanne Clothier, so she won me over from the start. Speakin’ my language, you know?

Deven is also very experienced with shy dogs, and that also put me at ease. On the first night of class, people attend without their dogs (since dog training is really just human training in disguise). We talked with Deven about Pyrrha’s various issues and fears. She said that the goal for this class might just be to get Pyrrha comfortable in a new and distracting environment. The training facility has several break-out rooms with dutch doors, so we could move into those rooms and still hear the lesson, but Pyrrha could be essentially removed from visual distractions.

First day of school at Canine Campus
Distracted.

Last night, we showed up about 15 minutes early, because I wanted Pyrrha to be able to scope out the place before everyone else arrived. She acted with her typical vigilance and extreme alertness–and looked a bit on edge whenever a new dog came into the room–but Deven instructed us all to not let any of the dogs meet each other. After Pyrrha understood that none of these dogs could come up to her, she started calming down–and even looked somewhat happy and eager (lying on the ground with her tail swishing, mouth open, playful expression).

First day of school at Canine Campus
Sorry for the poor photo quality. Weird lighting in there.

We have a class full of fun characters: A handsome Welsh springer spaniel named Rufus; a sassy JRT mix named Hannah; a very bright shih-tzu named Tsunami; an older merle border collie; an adoptable mix named Buster (seen in the background of the photo below); and Anka, an all-black German shepherd mix puppy, whom Deven is working with in the first photo. It was SO tempting not to snap all their leashes off and watch them romp around and play. But, that’s not why we were there…

First day of school at Canine Campus
I’m trying to get her attention. It’s kind of working!

Once class began, we moved Pyrrha into one of the break-out rooms, since it was clear that she could not focus on us when she was out in the big room with all the other people and dogs. This seemed to work quite well. We practiced some basic cues, like our “look” cue, targeting, “give,” and some loose-leash walking. I’m always amazed at how much I learn from just hearing Deven talk about these principles. I’ve read too many dog training books, but I’ve learned far more in two classes with Deven than I did in a year’s worth of reading. I know all of these things, these various theories, even how to teach these cues, but seeing Deven put it in practice and actually trying it with Pyrrha has made such a world of a difference.

First day of school at Canine Campus
Over-exposed Guion, working with Pyr in the break-out room.

The other big thing I learned last night is that my husband is a GREAT trainer. He might be naturally better at it than I am. This is extremely hard for me to admit. I am supposed to be the “dog lover”! The amateur “expert” on training! I read 60 books! He read 0! But, no. Guion is just inherently good at this. His timing is better than mine is; he doesn’t repeat cues; he waits for her to figure it out before jumping to the next thing. Ugh! Haha. I am proud of him. I really am. Just a little envious, that’s all.

Pyrrha came to class hungry, so she was VERY eager to learn. It was exciting to see her so engaged and focused on us–but I think that was mainly the hunger speaking. Still. It was nice to see her aptitude to pick up new cues and behaviors. I think she might be pretty smart after all. 🙂

First day of school at Canine Campus
Getting some praise from Dad.

We learned more than I think she did. But I guess that’s the point? Very much looking forward to our next class!

Dogs with bad manners

Dogs in flight. Click for source.

(So, I couldn’t find a photo illustrating dogs with bad manners. These two are just REALLY excited to go outside…)

On Tuesday, I read the article “He Just Wants to Say ‘Hi’!” by Suzanne Clothier, who wrote one of my favorite books about human-dog relationships. Clothier’s basic premise is that we, as dog guardians, often misinterpret canine behavior and are frequently slow to recognize dogs with bad manners–especially if it’s our dog who is the rude one.

As Clothier says:

It never fails to amaze me how willing humans are to excuse and rationalize a dog’s rude behavior instead of teaching them good manners. Part of developing appropriate social behavior is learning that no matter how excited you may be, there are other folks in the world and certain basic rules of politeness still apply no matter how excited you may be.

I realized I had totally seen this in action when I was walking Bo at the park some months ago–and I was definitely the one at fault. While we were walking in the park, we passed a big cluster of dogs on leashes with their people. Bo happily bounded up to the group and was wagging all over the place. A woman with a pair of greyhounds walked over to let her dogs join the circle. Bo went over to greet the pair, and the senior male greyhound growled and snapped at him. His woman instantly jerked the dog’s collar and reprimanded him, saying to me, apologetically, “Sorry, he’s just a grumpy old man.”

But after reading Clothier’s article, I realized that I was the one who should have been apologizing. The old grey was just trying to teach the over-exuberant Bo some manners. Instead, we humans interpreted the greyhound as reacting “aggressively,” where it was Bo who was at fault. Bo listened closely to the greyhound’s reprimand, however, and immediately backed off. It was just us humans who didn’t understand what was going on. I wish I could see that woman again and tell her that her genteel old boy wasn’t the one to be scolded.

Clothier suggests that we need to pay more careful attention to the ways that our dogs interact with other dogs. We should be able to recognize when our own dogs are being rude AND when other dogs are approaching our own with impoliteness. While we can’t control other people’s dogs, we can be advocates for our own–and that sometimes involves physical action. Clothier writes:

I encourage handlers to be quite active in protecting their dog – whether that means quietly walking away to a safer area, or, when that’s not possible, literally stepping in physically to present the first line of defense. Stepping in between two dogs is a classic act of leadership. Dogs do it with other dogs all the time, so this same gesture coming from a human leader is understood and appreciated.

This simple act of stepping between an approaching rude dog can do a lot to defuse the situation, if you know your dog isn’t one to tolerate impoliteness. Finally, as she says, we have to remember that we are responsible for our dogs and we cannot expect perfection:

We cannot expect our dogs to be saints – at least not until we can rise to that level of tolerance ourselves. And that’s unlikely to happen any time soon. We can expect our dogs to be tolerant to the degree that we educate them, socialize them and protect them – with respect to their individual needs and boundaries.

I’m glad I read Clothier’s article and glad to have had my eyes opened to a particular aspect of canine behavior that I had previously misinterpreted.

How about you? How does your dog handle rudeness? Do you feel like you’re able to detect when your dog is being the impolite one? How do you defuse building tension between dogs?

Review: Bones Would Rain from the Sky

Bones Would Rain from the Sky, by Suzanne Clothier

Suzanne Clothier is a dog trainer, but Bones Would Rain from the Sky is not a dog-training manual. Rather, this book is Clothier’s lovely and heartfelt guide about how to have a more intimate relationship with your dog.

The book’s title and premise of “deepening our relationships with dogs” sounds hokey, but Clothier does provide some very practical and hands-on advice about communicating and living with canines. Her stories are insightful and her calm, holistic approach to training is refreshing to read. She doesn’t get hung up on doing the exact right thing; she doesn’t seem to fret about all of the things we might be missing. Instead, the constant mantra of this book is to slow down, listen, and try to understand your dog a little bit better.

I was most struck my Clothier’s gentle and extremely humble tone. I’ve found that dog trainers, like most self-proclaimed “experts,” almost never admit to making mistakes. So many dog trainers would never share their errors with you–or even admit that they were capable of making mistakes (cough, cough, Cesar Millan). It’s easy to think that these great dog trainers don’t ever mess up. Clothier is quick to point out that this is not the case. She graciously shares the times she lost her temper with foster dogs or made a hasty decision based on incorrect information. Rather than diminishing her credibility as a trainer, these disclosures strengthened my trust in Clothier as a wise dog parent.

Overall, I really enjoyed this thorough and philosophical approach to human-canine relationships. I would recommend this book to people who were already solid in their knowledge of positive training techniques and didn’t really need a step-by-step training manual. I think it would be a fantastic addition to the more knowledgeable dog parent’s repertoire of canine reading.

Clothier is a graceful and wise trainer and caretaker and her dogs are very lucky animals. I hope that I will be able to eventually exude the same peace and confidence with my future dogs.

A few nights with Zoe

Zoe on the kitchen floor. Source: Me

This past weekend, my husband and I house/dog-sat for some friends of ours. Kendra and Ehren have a 7-year-old black lab/border collie mix named Zoe. Guion was excited that they had a piano in the house; I, naturally, was way more excited that they had a dog.

I’d met Zoe once before at a crawfish boil that Kendra and Ehren hosted. I was extremely impressed by her calmness and tolerance. She patiently submitted to having a grabby 10-month-old baby stick his hands into her mouth and ears. I was anxious about it, but Kendra was right there and assured me that Zoe would be fine. And she was. Zoe rolled her eyes up to look at Kendra, as if to say, “Look how patient I am. This baby is trying to gag me and I am letting him. Because I am a very good dog.”

And she is.

Zoe in her chair. Source: Me

Understandably, Zoe was pretty anxious about what we were doing in her house on Saturday night. She is extremely submissive and doesn’t really have much desire to protect anything. She rolled over on her back continuously until we were able to calm her down. We spoke softly to her, slipped her a treat, and soon she seemed much more at ease about our brief residence in her home.

On Sunday mid-morning, I took Zoe on a long walk around a circle of pretty residential streets. She pulled a lot at first, but once she figured out that we weren’t going to move until there was some slack in the line, she calmed down and was an excellent walking partner.

Going on daily walks is actually one of the things that I am most looking forward to about getting a dog. (I may not say this after we have the dog, especially in brutal January, but still!) I eat well, but I do not make time for much physical activity, and I am looking forward to having to care for an animal who requires a good amount of daily motion.

There is also something very soothing and meditative about walking with a dog. There is no need for conversation; you merely listen to each other, observing nature and feeling your bodies relax and refocus. I love walking dogs and I wish I could do it all day long.

The other thing that Zoe reminded me of is the calmness of touch. I’m reading Suzanne Clothier’s book Bones Would Rain from the Sky right now, and in it she talks about how she was impressed by famed horse trainer Linda Tellington-Jones’ injunction to always use “soft hands” when working with animals. Remembering this charge is a great way to prevent yourself from lashing out in anger or impatience.

While Guion was out grabbing lunch, I sat on the living room floor with Zoe. She crawled over to me and put her muzzle up against my leg. I started slowly massaging her back and neck. She seemed to like it, and so she rolled over, inviting me to do her underside. If I paused for a second, she urged me on with her nose, as if to say, “Don’t stop now!” We continued this session for a good 15 minutes and it was very peaceful. I was reminded of a scene in the documentary “Dogs Decoded” that talked about how petting a dog releases a similar burst of the “happiness/bonding” hormone oxytocin in both the dog and the human.

It made me wonder about dog massage. In April, the New York Times ran an article about dog massage that sparked my interest: Dog Massage? Isn’t Petting Enough? I saw that Modern Dog Magazine also ran a short, illustrated piece about how to massage your dog. I’d like to learn more. Has anyone ever tried this before? Do you practice it regularly with your own pooches?

Overall, the long weekend with Zoe just increased my already burgeoning desire to have a dog. It was a good exercise in canine parenting and Zoe was a wonderful and patient teacher. I look forward to getting to see her again soon.