Monday, August 29, 2011

Book Review: Dog Sense by John Bradshaw

This excellent new non-fiction pick surveys the latest animal behavior research and makes recommendations for the future of dogs as companion animals.

First Bradshaw debunks the conventional wisdom that dogs are "little wolves" that seek to control their "packs" (households) through dominance. He attributes this misinterpretation to earlier wolf research that studied captive packs in zoos, where groups of unrelated wolves struggle to establish workable relationships and dominance and submission play important roles. Natural packs in the wild that are basically family units whose behavior is characterized by affiliation and cooperation.

After setting the record straight about how wolves actually behave, Bradshaw draws clear distinctions between dogs and their wild ancestors. He chronicles the way in which the domestication of dogs may have occurred, illustrating the many ways in which dogs endear themselves to us by providing not only practical services like guarding, herding, hunting and hauling, but affection, companionship and play.

Nevertheless, Bradshaw observes, just as dogs are not "little wolves", they're also not "little people" and most probably do not experience the range of emotions we are tempted to project onto them, such a guilt or revenge. Treating a dog like a child can put the dog in a baffling and frightening situation: Fifi almost certainly will not recognize a cause and effect relationship between the trash container she overturned and spread throughout the house earlier in the day and her owner's anger upon returning home.

Finally, the book explores how we should manage our relationship with dogs going forward. After all, inviting our furry pals into our houses and bedrooms raises expectations about their behavior that are increasingly hard for dogs to achieve. Such natural doggie pursuits as digging, barking, rolling in dead things and scavenging food are discouraged in household pets; dogs labeled as "wild" or "destructive" often find their way into rescue organizations where they face a lonely life or, considering the oversupply of dogs, eventual destruction.

Six do's and don'ts:

• Don't be an alpha: Trying to control dogs by acting dominant will just frighten them.

• Understand your dog's emotional limitations: The latest research suggests that dogs can feel love but not guilt.

• Avoid punishment: As a general rule, positive reinforcement is the best way to control a dog's behavior.

• Respect your dog's senses: Dogs have been extremely sensitive ears and noses, and intense stimuli can make them miserable.

• Look beyond breed: Personality and trainability should be the priorities when selecting a pet.

• Teach your dog to cope with being left alone. Dogs are emotionally dependent upon humans and can become distressed without us.

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