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?

Review: The Animal Manifesto

The Animal Manifesto.

Marc Bekoff’s The Animal Manifesto: Six Reasons for Expanding Our Compassion Footprint isn’t exactly a dog book, but there are dogs featured in it. Furthermore, much of this slim book’s premise aligns with how I think we could all approach dogs: Compassionately.

Bekoff is a reasonably well-known ethologist and a prolific writer about animal rights and animal behavior. This book is his humble and clear attempt to provide animals with a manifesto of their own, a treatise for their innate rights as fellow citizens of Earth. It is an easy and accessible book and it’s one that I wish all Americans, especially, would read.

Here are Bekoff’s six reasons for showing animals more compassion than we show them now:

  1. All animals share the Earth and we must coexist.
  2. Animals think and feel.
  3. Animals have and deserve compassion.
  4. Connection breeds caring, alienation breeds disrespect.
  5. Our world is not compassionate to animals.
  6. Acting compassionately helps all beings and our world.

He expands on each of these reasons in separate chapters, citing numerous studies, scientific surveys, and media anecdotes to prove each of these points. One of the book’s gimmicks is providing several pages of news excerpts about animals showing compassion to one another or humans showing injustice to animals. I appreciated reading these clips, but I occasionally felt like he could have trimmed them down a bit.

This book further reinforced a lot of epiphanies about animal rights and compassion toward animals that I first discovered in Animals Make Us Human. Again, it’s simple and small and it takes no time at all to read, but it could totally revolutionize the way you look at animals–even, or perhaps especially, the ones that don’t live in your house with you. It’s a compelling plea for reverence and awe toward the created world and for widespread justice for the voiceless, the creatures who share our planet and are often left at our mercy. I’d recommend it to you, if only as a refresher for all the important reasons to be gentle, compassionate, and respectful toward animals.

Review: Animals in Translation

Animals in Translation

After reading and loving Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson’s Animals Make Us Human, I was especially eager to read that book’s predecessor, Animals in Translation. Animals in Translation has a more direct focus on the relationship between autism and the animal mind, which was very fascinating.

Grandin herself is a remarkable individual and it is difficult to read the book without wishing you had her intuition toward animals. Her ability to decipher animal behavior is enviable, to say the least. She is especially passionate about horses and cows, and this book, like Animals Make Us Human, taught me a lot about these animals that I didn’t previously know.

For me, one of Grandin’s most valuable insights is passing on the knowledge that all animals are far more perceptive and sensitive than we think. I’m attuned to thinking that dogs are highly intelligent, but I don’t ever think of horses, cows, chickens, or pigeons as possessing any special intelligence. Grandin convincingly shows that this is not the case, and that we should all be far more conscientious about the way we approach, handle, and communicate with all animals.

While I was interested in her arguments about livestock, I found her points and paragraphs on dogs to be far less convincing. Grandin knows a ton about livestock, but I don’t think she knows very much about dogs. For one thing, she still believes in and advocates the dominance model of behavior for dogs and the debunked “alpha dog” theory. She says you should never let your dogs up on your bed or couch and never let them look you in the eye, because then they’ll control the house, etc. A lot of people think like this about their dogs, but we now know that it’s a pretty big leap–and it’s all based on outmoded research about captive wolves.

Secondly, she dislikes purebred dogs–in some ways, for very good reasons (unethical breeding leading to genetic defects), but in others, in very questionable reasons. She tries to make the point that purebred dogs are worse than mixed breeds. Her evidence? ONE anecdote from ONE friend she had. This friend had two mixed breeds and one purebred lab and the purebred tore up the house while the mixes were no trouble at all. From this one story, Grandin concludes that mixed breeds are better than purebreds. This might be true, but even if it is, Grandin should know better than use one friend’s story–based on ONE dog’s behavior!–as evidence that all purebreds are behavioral nightmares.

For those reasons, I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone looking for thoughtful and well-researched information about dogs. But if you’re interested in the broader perspectives on animal intelligence and its relationship with autism, then it may be an enjoyable book for you.

Thoughts about Cesar Millan

Cesar's Way, by Cesar Millan and Melissa Jo Peltier

Self-proclaimed “dog whisperer” Cesar Millan is arguably America’s most well-known dog trainer, thanks in large part to his TV show, “The Dog Whisperer,” on the National Geographic Channel. I have watched his show many times myself, interested in seeing how this well-known man was purportedly rehabilitating problem dogs.

When I started my project of researching dogs, many people told me that I should read Cesar Millan’s books and watch his show. I see dog owners making that “pssh” sound and poking their dogs in the side like Millan does on his show. The general dog-owning public seems very fond of Millan and his methods.

But I’ll be honest. Based on what I had seen from his show, I was reluctant to read his books. This is because I didn’t really see Millan as a trainer. I couldn’t divine what his actual training techniques were, apart from physical corrections and murky statements about “calm, assertive energy.”

Having started my dog research among other positive training books, I quickly realized that Millan is not held in high regard among behaviorists and positive trainers. The more I watched his show, the more I realized that they were right. Millan, while well intentioned, advocates negative reinforcement and physical punishment techniques to an untrained general public.

I decided to read Cesar’s Way because I felt that I should at least read what he had to say before I completely dismissed him. My friend Liz gave me a copy of his book. I read it quickly, as it was not difficult to get through.

On the whole, I was impressed with Millan’s rags-to-riches story. He came to America as an undocumented immigrant and worked his way up from a car washer to a dog trainer. He got his big break when he was picked up by Jada Pinkett Smith, who sought his help in rehabilitating the family rottweilers. It is a nice story and as the reader, you are pulling for him to succeed and beat the odds. He certainly did.

The one other thing I liked about this book was Millan’s emphasis on exercise. Americans themselves don’t exercise nearly enough, and so it’s a no-brainer that our dogs probably aren’t getting any exercise, either. Cesar’s Way devotes a whole chapter to the importance of “The Walk” and the daily communion with your dog outdoors. I am a huge proponent of this idea and the notion of walking your dog being a time of companionship and communication certainly resonated with me.

Cesar Millan and Tony Cardenas at the League of CA Cities 2010 Conference & CA Latino Caucus
Source: Flickr, user gocardenas

But my admiration for Millan’s training recommendations ended there.

One of my main issues with Millan’s philosophy is that he is constantly comparing dogs in America to dogs in Mexico. Dogs in Mexico roamed free in packs, leash-less, without any training. I don’t deny that that sounds like an ideal life for any dog, but that kind of lifestyle is simply not feasible for canines in 21st-century America. We have leash laws. Dogs need to be neutered. They need to be trained how to walk on streets and greet people in public. Millan’s Dog Psychology Center in California is a nice idea, but it is thoroughly unhelpful to anyone who doesn’t live with a roaming pack of 30 dogs (which I imagine is most people). It’s nice that he’s able to make the dogs get along in a massive pack, but that is not how those dogs will be living on a daily basis when they get back home. Trying to make American dogs into Mexican dogs is not the solution. But that is what it seems that Millan keeps trying to do.

My second issue with Millan is his unabashed use and promotion of negative reinforcement training and physical punishments. In Cesar’s Way, he acknowledges that he is unpopular among positive trainers for his reliance on these dated methods, but he insists that they are effective. He even devotes a section of the book that recommends doing an “alpha roll” on a dominant dog, which absolutely floored me. I thought this medieval form of punishment had disappeared in the dark ages of dog training, but apparently not. This is one of the real dangers of Millan’s popularity, in my opinion. I’m not the only one who thinks so. Dr. Nicholas Dodman, famed veterinarian and writer, had this to say about Cesar Millan:

Cesar Millan’s methods are based on flooding and punishment. The results, though immediate, will be only transitory. His methods are misguided, outmoded, in some cases dangerous, and often inhumane. You would not want to be a dog under his sphere of influence. The sad thing is that the public does not recognize the error of his ways. My college thinks it is a travesty. We’ve written to National Geographic Channel and told them they have put dog training back 20 years.

Dr. Nicholas Dodman, director of the Behavioral Clinic at Tufts University, Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine

Another issue I have with Millan is his reliance on the old-fashioned paradigm of dominance and pack mentality. Millan would have us believe that our dogs are out to get us and always looking for an opportunity to usurp us. I simply don’t believe this is true, and I’m not the only one. Cognitive researcher and animal behaviorist Temple Grandin wrote directly about how Millan’s techniques are outdated and simply wrong in her book Animals Make Us Human. Dogs do not live in packs, Grandin points out, and it’s a misinformed way to think about a dog’s social unit. Rather, like wolves, dogs live in families where parents care for the pups in a partnership. Treating dogs like they are obsessed with dominance is a grave injustice to our canine companions. For more on this, I highly recommend an article published in 2006 in the New York Times by author Mark Derr, “Pack of Lies.”

The good thing I will say about Millan is that he has been successful in raising awareness of how we have failed our dogs in training and teaching. The bad thing is that the methods he advocates are archaic, cruel, and generally unhelpful to most people. But don’t just take my word for it: See a collection of qualified opinions about how we need to move away from this “Dog Whisperer” at the website Beyond Cesar Millan.

What do you think about Cesar Millan? Is he awesome? Overrated? Misunderstood?

6 types of people who shouldn’t get dogs

Being friends
Pyrrha and our friend.

In all of my reading and all of my hours spent volunteering at the SPCA, I think one of the main lessons I’ve learned about dogs is this: Many people should not get a dog.

That sounds like an extreme statement. Let me qualify it.

The more I learn about dogs, the more I take them seriously. I used to think dogs were easy pets to have. Just grab a puppy anywhere, bring it home, and it’s your best friend for life! Turns out it’s not that simple. Dogs are complex animals who require a great deal of love, attention, and training. Temple Grandin’s book Animals Make Us Human even made me seriously question whether I should get a dog. Her recommendations for dog ownership are somewhat extreme in this modern age. Grandin seems to wish that all dogs could roam free around the neighborhood, like they used to do a few decades ago. Otherwise, she asserts, dogs are not enjoying a joyful life as they are locked up in a crate for 12 hours a day. She has a point.

A cultural misunderstanding of a dog’s complexity is why we have so many truly incredible dogs waiting in the emotional wastelands of our shelters and humane societies. Granted, the shelters are doing the best job they can with the resources that they have–but not even the best shelter can provide a dog with all of its emotional needs. Only a human family can do that.

But what kind of human family should get a dog?

It’s a difficult question to answer, and clearly, everyone has to make that decision for themselves, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. I’m always dismayed by the number of people I meet who seem fundamentally unsuited to caring for a dog–the people who abandon that briefly loved dog a few months later. I probably see a disproportionate number of these people because I’m a part-time shelter volunteer, but I still think it’s an important issue to address.

It always breaks my heart when I hear about people giving up their dogs. I understand that, in this economic climate, many people can no longer handle the financial burden of a dog (or cat, or gerbil, or what have you). In this respect, it is wise to give up one’s dog to someone who may be better equipped to care for him. However, I am generally appalled by the pet ads on Craigslist from people who are abandoning their animals. These are common excuses that I see:

  • “We don’t have room in our apartment anymore for our Great Pyrenees.” No, duh. Maybe you should have considered that before you brought that white fluff ball home. That sweet, cuddly pup that looks like a stuffed animal is going to turn into a 130-pound yeti in a matter of weeks.
  • “We have to get rid of our dog because I’m allergic.” I understand that some people may not know they’re allergic to dogs before they bring them home, but test this one out a bit. Ever stayed at someone’s house and felt congested from their pet’s dander? Maybe dog ownership is not for you. Spend some quality time with some dogs before you commit to bringing one home.
  • “The puppy is nipping at my children.” Yep. That’s what puppies do.
  • “We’re moving and so we have to get rid of our dog.” I understand that there may be extenuating economic circumstances, but in general, I think it’s cruel to abandon your dog because you’re moving. I myself wouldn’t dream of moving into a place that wouldn’t allow me to bring my dog with me.
  • Or, the most infuriating: “We just don’t have time for her anymore.”

Frustrating Craigslist posts aside, here’s my amateur’s vision of the types of people who shouldn’t get dogs:

  1. People with young children who want a dog–or worse, a puppy–to be a playmate/guardian for their children. These people really make me the most anxious. I see them come into the shelter with their little kids and ask if we have any puppies available. My guard goes up instantly. There is nothing wrong with getting a dog so your kids can enjoy canine companionship. However, many young parents seem to underestimate the commitment that a puppy demands. It’s kind of like having an infant all over again. And your kids are not going to raise and train that dog for you, no matter how much they beg and plead (trust me. I was that kid once! My mom was the primary caretaker for our dog, and she wasn’t really keen on having that job in the first place). Parents buy a puppy for their kids and then realize a week later, “Oh, crap. This creature needs a lot of attention that I’m not willing or able to give it.” And the dog or the puppy ends up at the shelter, confused and bewildered.
  2. People who travel a lot for work or are never home. A dog will not have a high-quality life if she lives the majority of it in a crate. Dogs are social animals. They need our daily companionship and interaction.
  3. People who don’t have a clue about a dog’s emotional, physical, and mental needs.
  4. People who won’t take the time to train their dog or think that training is “cruel” or somehow makes the dog less happy. Nothing could be further from the truth. A well-trained dog is a happy dog, because she knows where she belongs in the family order. A well-trained dog is mentally balanced, content, and a respectable member of society.
  5. People who will neglect the physical health of their dog. The more reading I do about dog food, the more I am appalled at what we’ve been feeding our pets.
  6. People who won’t spay or neuter their dogs because they think it’s unkind or depriving. Unless your full-time job is a reputable breeder, please, please spay and neuter your dog. The world is filled with unwanted dogs who are the result of irresponsible humans. I see their sweet faces every day at the shelter. Think of them before you hesitate to spay or neuter.

I hope this doesn’t come across as judgmental or cynical, even though it probably does. This post stems from my deep wish that people took dog adoption more seriously. I think dogs in America would be so much better off if their humans took the time to do a little more research. I’m always very encouraged when I do meet other dog owners–like many of the incredible dog bloggers that I link to on my site (on the right sidebar)–who understand, even better than I do, the tremendous commitment we must make to our dogs. I hope I will carefully and judiciously consider all of these elements before my husband and I bring a dog into our home. It’s not a decision to be made lightly. And that’s the main thing I’ve learned.

How about you? What kind of people make the best dog owners, in your opinion?

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.

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.