Laura's Reviews > Dog Sense: How the New Science of Dog Behavior Can Make You A Better Friend to Your Pet

Dog Sense by John W.S. Bradshaw
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's review
Apr 05, 16

really liked it
bookshelves: dogs, being-human, psychology
Recommended to Laura by: NPR
Read in July, 2011

This is in the class of books that I really enjoyed and don’t have the background to critically evaluate. It is also loosely in the category of books exploring the thesis of “yeah, that thing you were taught? That’s wrong.” Unlike many of those books (I’m lookin’ at you, Malcolm Gladwell), it also has a positive thesis. And it’s very positive. “Train dogs with positive feedback. Not just because it’s humane. Because it works, bitches.” Okay, he didn’t put it quite that way. He is English.

Dr. Bradshaw is a professor at the University of Bristol Veterinary School. He’s a specialist in anthrozoology, and has consulted with the US military on how to train dogs. He had the good fortune to have his book published just as lots of people were going – wait, we sent a dog in with Seal Team 6? Possibly with titanium teeth? Wwwhhhaaa? He was hilarious on the Colbert Report,, and fascinating on Fresh Air.

First, he suggests that the popular understanding of wolves at the time many dog training schools got systematized and written down was wrong, and wrong for a very good reason. It was based on observations of man made wolf packs, were unrelated adult wolves were put together and had to work it out. In the wild, he says, wolf packs are mostly family groups, made of a breeding pair and 2 or 3 litters, with the older children helping to raise their younger siblings before sexually maturing and moving on. They get along because they like each other, not because someone establishes dominance. When that sort of posturing starts, it’s time to move on.

He also points out something that I feel silly for not realizing – selection went both ways. Dogs are the descendants of wolves that could tolerate people. Wolves are the descendants of those who could not. Comparing them is a little like comparing chimps and bonobos, who are nearly alike genetically, but one settles disputes by fighting and dominance displays; the other with sex. Kinda different.

Next, dominance, he says, does not drive dogs the way we are trained to believe it does. He suggests a better model is the “resource holding potential” (RPH) (85). “According to this model, whenever a conflict of interests arise, each dog is thought to make its decision based on the answers to two questions: How much do I want this resource (food, toy, etc.) and, How likely is it that the other dog is going to beat me if we fight for it?”

Despite that, he says dogs aren’t rational the way we like to impute to them. They don’t build a model of the world and work out the causal connections. Instead, he says, their intelligence is much more associative. He doesn’t say magical thinking, but that’s what it reminds me of. That dogs remember connections between things and do what works. It’s not that they “know” they’ve done wrong when we find the poop on the carpet; it’s that they know from our body language we’re angry with them; they feel bad and/or are afraid of punishment and are expressing that fear – plus, perhaps, some behavior that seems to have deflected punishment – as a result.

He talked about a great experiment where they put a dog in a room, had the dog’s person tell the dog not to eat the treat, then leave. (219). Then in half the rooms, another person gave the dog the treat, in half the person took the treat away. Rotate 90% (so to speak) and half the people were told, incorrectly, their dog had eaten the treat; half were told a person and taken it. All the humans were asked to go back in and do what they would do if their dog had done such a thing.

There was no correlation between whether the dog had eaten the treat and how “guilty” the dog acted. And the three dogs that had been physically disciplined by their owners acted the most guilty.

I heard an interview on NPR with a guy who took in a wolf puppy, and he had an observation that really stuck with me. He said that dogs are superstitious. They don’t understand the world on a causal level; they just know that there’s these associations. But wolves aren’t superstitious. They don’t believe that humans are miracle workers. I don’t know enough to judge that, I wouldn’t mind if that was true.

He says there’s no reason we couldn’t breed dogs to be better pets; we just aren’t doing that. These days, most people who want dogs as pets neuter them; breeding is largely unplanned or designed for the show ring. That’s sad. Especially since the genetic diversity in many dog breeds is appallingly thin (like, every dog is essentially a first cousin or closer), and many of those dogs have preventable genetic ailments.

Bottom line: dogs are dogs. They aren’t wolves; they’re not people. But they’re awesome.
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04/05 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Momoselli (last edited Jul 07, 2011 08:58PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Momoselli I haven't checked your reading list, but I definitely suggest you read:

You recall in your review studies that are nicely portrayed in the suggested reading. If you're serious in animal behavior beyond just dogs (dogs included too), then this is another fascinating entrance

Obviously you're both interested and passionate on the subject. Dog Sense shows us that most of the "noise" isn't getting to the place that matters... the care of our dogs. It's not a call to Paris Hilton purse animals, it's somewhere between that and the outdoor dog house - and a scientific reason for why that's right.

Laura Thanks! I'll look into them. My reading list is long.

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