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Dog Sense by John Bradshaw

Out of the books that I read to get ready for Reeses, this book is definitely my favorite!  I found it absolutely fascinating (and I may have annoyed my husband and mother by constantly spouting facts I had just read…)  It was written by an anthrozoologist and draws on scientific research and studies from a variety of other disciplines, such as evolutionary biology and behavioral science.  The full title is Dog Sense: How the New Science of Dog Behavior Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet.  That was too long to put in the title of this post, but it definitely gives you a sense of the author’s goal.  In my opinion, this book really succeeds at helping dog lovers better understand dog behavior and also shows how we can use this understanding to benefit our pets.

The first point that Bradshaw makes is that dogs are not wolves, and studies of wolf behavior should not be used as the basis for dog training.  He summarizes new scientific evidence to show that our ideas of wolf packs as a strict hierarchy were actually misinformed.  This is important because many dog training techniques assume that dogs will try to become the dominant “alpha” member of their “pack.”  Bradshaw argues that both dogs and wolves are far more cooperative than we previously believed, so to interpret a dog’s misbehavior as an attempt to dominate its family is unfair.

Maggie was the original Of Print and Prose dog.  Sometimes she got a little tired of our reading!

Maggie was the original Of Print and Prose dog. Sometimes she got a little tired of our reading!

Here’s an example from our Of Print and Prose family.  Becca and Mom had been reading, then they got up and left their books on the floor.  Maggie (the dog we had growing up), laid on one book and covered the other with her leg.  Was she trying to assert her dominance in the pack?  Bradshaw would say that sitting on the book that Becca had been reading (instead of paying attention to her) probably seemed like a good way to get some attention.  Seems reasonable to me!

The second main argument of the book is that dogs are not as human as we like to think.  They understand time much differently than we do, and they don’t understand spoken language very well at all.  We all know that dogs can learn to recognize some words, but most humans consistently overestimate what their dog can understand.  For example, Bradshaw wrote that his dog knows the command “sit,” but will also sit if his owner says “jet” in the right tone.  The dog was mainly focused on his owner’s tone and had only learned the final “t” sound in “sit.”  This section resonated with me as I made plans to train a puppy to be a good neighbor in an apartment building.  We place such high expectations on dogs in our society-we want them to be silent, friendly, unobtrusive, etc, etc.  Sometimes we need to remember that our ancestors actually wanted their dogs to bark at strangers, chase rodents, and so on.  Training is important, but it isn’t going to completely undo hundreds of years of selective breeding and a dog’s natural instincts!

Although this book is not a manual on how to train your dog, it was extremely helpful and interesting.  Bradshaw explains the science behind his book in a way that is easy to understand and enjoyable to read.  I found his arguments very persuasive, and I think it has made me a more informed, thoughtful consumer of all the advice currently available to dog owners.  I am very glad that I read this book, and I would recommend it to anyone that is interested in dogs, whether or not they are currently training one.  It is filled with interesting facts about “man’s best friend!” ★★★★

-Elizabeth

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