Review: In Defence of Dogs

In Defence of Dogs, John BradshawOur little public library in London had a small shelf of dog books, and so I was pleased to find a copy of John Bradshaw’s book In Defence of Dogs, which was not available at my library in the US.

I had previously read and enjoyed Bradshaw’s book Dog Sense, and this book might be the same book as Dog Sense, just under a UK title. Ha. It’s been so long since I’ve read Dog Sense and the material is so similar that I’m actually not sure. Even if it’s the same, it was a pleasure to re-read and to reinforce what I have already learned about the development and history of canine science.

“Dogs have been adapted, or have adapted themselves, to all kinds of roles, in a way unmatched by any other domestic animal, and such flexibility must lie at the heart of the enduring power of the human–canine relationship.”

Bradshaw’s underlying message is clear: If dog owners knew a little more dog science, dogs and people would be better off. 

There is a trend, particularly in America, to mistrust “experts” and science. Dog training originated as more of a craft than a science, and that model persists today. Anyone can call himself a dog trainer. It is not a certified profession in the same way that law or medicine are. And thus dogs suffer from this lack of a scientific standard or professional code. Because the recent decades of canine research have shown us that most of what traditional trainers have assumed about dogs is flatly wrong.

For instance, dogs are not constantly seeking to undermine us and rule the household. Dogs do not behave like captive wolves, and so the old dominance models, which were fixated on “pack leadership” and who was the “alpha” are both completely passé and damaging to our relationships with our dogs. Bradshaw, a professor of anthrozoology at the University of Bristol, uses plentiful examples from the scientific literature to make his case. He writes:

“Personally, I am delighted that the most recent scientific evidence backs up an approach to managing dogs that I am comfortable with. As a scientist as well as a dog-lover, I am dedicated to assessing the best evidence available and then deciding on the most logical approach to adopt. If wild wolf packs had turned out to be as fraught with tension as their counterparts in zoos, I would have had to agree that the dominance approach had merit. I would still have been reluctant to adopt punishment rather than reward as my philosophy for training my dog, because for me the whole point of having a dog is the companionship it brings, and for me domination and companionship do not gel. As a dog owner, I was relieved by the discrediting of the wolf-pack idea, since I could then explain to myself and, more importantly, to others why routinely punishing a dog is not only unnecessary but also counterproductive.” (Emphasis added)

And this is what I also find so pleasing: Science confirms that gentleness and respect, not dominance and punishment, is the preferable approach to relating to our dogs.

Bradshaw also reviews the history of the domestication of the dog, dog training myths, and the perils of the purebred dog, among other topics.

Darwin's sketch of a submissive dog.
Darwin’s sketch of a submissive dog.

It’s a compelling and eminently readable book, and his chapters debunking the dominance myth should be required reading for all dog owners. I was pleased to refresh my memory of many of these studies, and In Defence of Dogs profoundly renewed my interest in canine science and general advocacy.

Have you read John Bradshaw before? 

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Pup links!

The collies are listening. Click for source.

The big news of the day is that we have now officially submitted our applications to the Virginia German Shepherd Rescue and Southeast German Shepherd Rescue! Even though we won’t move until May, I wanted to go ahead and send our applications so the vetting and approval process could get underway. It goes without saying that I am so excited.

Here are some dog-related links from around the web this past week:

Social Dominance Is Not a Myth: Wolves, Dogs, and Other Animals. Marc Bekoff addresses the other side of the dominance coin and points out that we shouldn’t throw it out entirely. Wolves do exhibit dominance and the research is perhaps more nuanced than we formerly thought. Interesting. (The Bark Blog)

Sidetracked by Grammar. As a copy editor and a dog lover, I definitely appreciated this vet’s list of grammatical pet peeves. The one that really gets under my skin? People who write about “German shepards.” Nope. Not a thing. Learn how to spell. (Pawcurious)

Pocket Petunia’s Big Adventure. A sweet post about therapy dogs visiting a local school and teaching kids about kindness and mercy toward others. (Love and a Six-Foot Leash)

Color-Coded Dogs. Fun photos of dogs playing in groups arranged by fur color. (Ours for a Year)

Canine Pregnancy Detector. Dogs really can smell everything… (Fido & Wino)

Day Twenty-One. A little girl and her dog: Big frown and then a big laugh! (Emily Corey Photography)

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.

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: The Hidden Life of Dogs

The Hidden Life of Dogs, by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

I recognized Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s name from the many book blurbs she wrote for the other dog books I was reading. I’d heard The Hidden Life of Dogs mentioned as a “much-loved” text, one woman’s insight into the “mysterious” lives of canines. It was short and so I thought, what the heck, I’ll read it.

The book is written in a memoir-like style and covers Thomas’s years of life with a large pack of Siberian huskies and one dingo (where this dingo came from, I don’t know, since Thomas lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and made no mention of ever visiting the Australian bush). Thomas spent time on Baffin Island observing wolves and her admiration for wolves comes through in her interactions with her dogs. Throughout the book, she constantly uses “wolf language” to describe how her dogs interact: They’re operating in a pack, there’s a hierarchy, there’s general suspicion toward humans, etc. Even her attraction to the husky breed indicates this desire of hers to keep wolves as pets.

Early on, we are introduced to the stud-bolt husky Misha. Misha is the celebrated wandering warrior, the Aragorn, if you will, of this story. Misha comes to live with Thomas and quickly makes it clear that he doesn’t want to stay in her fence. He nimbly scales the 6-foot wall and disappears. He escapes and wanders for hours and is often gone for days. Thomas says she would get calls from people six miles away saying they’d found her husky.

Though she lived in busy, urban Cambridge, Thomas made no efforts to curtail Misha’s adventures and instead decided to follow him on his treks. What she discovered was that Misha had an unusually excellent internal GPS system. He could always find his way home. He never got lost. He navigated Cambridge traffic like a seasoned pro and was never hit by a car (which seems a miracle in itself). Her time tracking Misha led her to bring other huskies into her home and within a few years, she had a veritable pack on her hands.

The part about following Misha intrigued me, but after those journeys, Thomas’s narrative and observations failed to maintain my interest and my respect. Thomas doesn’t seem to think that her dogs required any training or obedience–she prefers that they live according to their natural instincts. This is a nice idea–if you’re the type of person who can put up with 10 unruly dogs in your house. Thankfully for her sanity, Thomas appears to have been this type of person.

But that’s not even what bothered me the most. What really irked me was Thomas’s lack of care and concern for her dogs’ sexual health. None of her 10 dogs get neutered or spayed, not even the two pugs who lived indoors. So, naturally, puppies happen. Thomas writes about at least four litters that her unsupervised female dogs endure.

The most upsetting story that Thomas includes is an afternoon spent walking the neighborhood with her little dingo, Viva. Viva is only a few months old at the time and had just entered her first heat. Thomas says she was walking slowly with Viva when, out of nowhere, an English springer spaniel comes bounding over the fence and attaches himself to Viva. Viva is scared, Thomas writes, cries through the whole experience and never indicated that she wanted this dog’s amorous attention. “I realized dogs could rape,” Thomas concludes after this little anecdote–as if she was free of blame from the entire incident. On the contrary, Thomas is the only one who should feel guilty here. First, she never spayed her dog. Second, she had the idiocy to take her dog, unleashed, on a walk around the neighborhood while the dog was in her first heat. Third, she just stood there and watched while her dog got raped. The springer, though aggressive, was just doing what dogs do. Thomas, who should have had some foresight as the rational animal in this situation, appears neglectful, irresponsible, and downright stupid.

Viva has her puppies when she is just a puppy herself, just over 8 months old, and suffers through labor, as Thomas depicts it. Viva does not seem to be an instinctively competent mother, something which Thomas pities her for. Another bitch in the house, Koki, gets impregnated by another one of Thomas’s huskies around this same time. Koki is more confident, Thomas asserts, and a higher-ranking female in the household. One day, Thomas comes home and finds the house eerily still. None of the dogs will greet her. She goes upstairs and she finds Koki in Viva’s litter, holding one of Viva’s pups in her mouth. All but one of Viva’s pups are dead. Koki, apparently, is responsible for the deaths of these puppies. This is a horrific incident–and again, one that could have been avoided if Thomas had been a responsible dog owner. Instead, she justifies Koki’s infanticide with Koki’s belief that these lower-ranking puppies had to die so that her own puppies could succeed. I don’t know how I’d characterize Koki’s motives in killing another dog’s puppies, but I feel like this is a stretch without any evidence.

In a related point, my other big issue with this book is Thomas’s gross anthropomorphism of her dogs. I suppose this can only be expected, since Thomas is herself a respected anthropologist. But the motives and emotions she assigns to her dogs are almost always human motives and emotions and impossible to prove. She rarely gives any supporting behavioral or physical evidence that this emotion is, conclusively, what the dog was thinking or planning; rather, she just “knows.” I find this highly suspect.

Toward the end of the book, Thomas and her family move to a spacious property in Virginia where she builds a large, fenced enclosure for her remaining pack to live outdoors. She begins to lose daily contact with her dogs and, unsurprisingly, they become increasingly wild and wolf-like.

Thomas’s conclusion is that dogs don’t want or even necessarily need people in their lives. I think this is a ridiculous notion. The only reason Thomas reached this conclusion is because she was letting her dogs live like wolves by the end of the book. Of course they weren’t acting like dogs; dogs, as we know them, are defined by their dependence upon and relationship with humans. Not so for wolves–or, apparently, for Thomas’s wolf-like pack of huskies. Wolves don’t need people just like Thomas’s dogs didn’t need people. These animals were not acting like dogs. They dug an enormous den and tunnel system for their private use, bred as they pleased, and generally ignored Thomas’s existence.

She turned her dogs back into wolves and then somehow claims to have mystic insight into the lives of dogs. Hardly. The only thing Thomas uncovered was that, if left to their own devices, a pack of 10 huskies will devolve into animals with wolf-like natures and behaviors. They will be barely recognizable as dogs, because, for all intensive purposes, they’re not really dogs anymore.

If it’s not already clear, I have little respect for Thomas as a dog owner and as an observer of canine behavior. I think she ran an interesting experiment with her dogs and drew some misapplied conclusions from that experiment. Were her dogs happy? Yes, I think so. But they weren’t really dogs. For Thomas to claim to have some hidden insight into the lives of dogs is woefully inaccurate. But to have insight into the lives of dogs turned back into wolves? Well, then maybe. If that’s what you’re interested in, then this is the book for you. If you’re actually interested in dogs, save your time.