Kirsten'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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Feb 06, 12

bookshelves: from-library, non-fiction
Recommended for: dog lovers
Read from January 29 to February 06, 2012, read count: 1

This is an engaging book that explains what we know about how dogs evolved, how their social structures function, how they interact with the world, and how this might be applied to the way we live with our dogs.

The biggest focus of this book is to finally put to bed the notion that 1) dogs act just like wolves, and 2) wolves have strictly hierarchical pack structures, and thus dogs do, too. The idea of the "alpha wolf" has been by and large debunked; new research into wolves shows that most packs operate in a family structure. While there will tend to be a male and a female wolf who lead the pack, they also tend to be the mother and father to most of the animals within the pack, and the pack members' roles are more fluid. It's about time people stopped drawing conclusions based on old research.

What is more important, however, is the knowledge that dogs are very far removed from wolves in their social behaviors. They are much, much more affable toward strangers than any wolf will ever be, they are domesticated, and they have the (astonishing, when you think about it) ability to easily interact both with humans and with other dogs. Bradshaw emphasizes the differences by sharing his research on feral and semi-feral dog populations in cities around the world. Many cities, particularly in India and in some African countries, have colonies of "village dogs" that live alongside humans without actually belonging to anyone. These packs of dogs interact entirely differently than wolf packs in adjacent territories would. Their packs are permeable, allowing individuals to come and go, and loosely organized. They bear much more resemblence to coyotes than to wolves, socially speaking.

All of this is to say that the popular conception of a dog as an animal in the house that wants to be "pack leader" and will fight its owners unless it is taught not to be "dominant" is based on erroneous science. The basic idea is that most dogs act in ways that are labeled "dominant" because... they want things. They do want the best spot on the couch, the food from the counter, and to win at tug-of-war. And they do need leadership to know when that's not appropriate, because otherwise they will be untrained hellions. But everything is not related to "dominance," it's related to wanting the good stuff. In a lot of cases, this is functionally not that different. The difference is in how we think about the dog's behaviors (plotting to gain control vs. "I like sleeping on the bed") and in how we react to them. People who buy into the dominance theory of training tend to also believe that dogs expect to be physically cowed. This is not always the case, and more importantly, even if physical methods often work, they are very easy to screw up. Performing an "alpha roll" or another kind of physical correction is a good way to frighten or anger a dog into biting.

By and large, Bradshaw does a good job of explaining all this. For me, the most compelling discussion was of the village dog pack structure, because that's a very clear indication that dogs, even dogs who've reverted to a feral state, do not function the way wolves do.

There's a lot of other really interesting information in this book, such as how scent expands a dog's world, and how dogs with exaggerated and/or artificial features (such as docked tails) may have trouble communicating with other dogs. Ultimately, it won't change how I interact much with my dog, because I was already pretty much doing the right thing, but it really emphasized to me how AMAZING dogs are in the way that they have adapted to people.
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