Dog Sense

Dog Sense begins with an excellent discussion on the evolution of the dog as a domestic companion to humans and a thorough description of canine and wolf social structure. Along the way, the author, John Bradshaw, thoroughly dissects  and discredits force-based and behavioral training approaches as well as effectively demolishing the myths that “dogs are cute wolves” and that humans must establish dominance over dogs. But many readers are likely to be turned off by the heavy, overly scientific tone.

Although the subtitle of Dog Sense is “How the new science of dog behavior can make you a better friend to your pet,” it is misleading. Dog Sense will teach you a lot about where dogs came from and about their social structure, but it really won’t teach you much about how to enhance your friendship with your dog. Despite the marketing copy (and the subtitle), there is little about the dog-human relationship other than a convincing (if obvious) statement that force-based training could damage that relationship.

While Bradshaw provides an excellent discussion of association, habituation, and sensitization and emphasizes the need for early, positive socialization, he fails to connect these ideas with how to best teach dogs. In fact, he denies that dogs can build associations from previous experiences or even remember those experiences (key elements of learning) — even though he provides several examples that show that they do display those skills.

Again contradicting the marketing copy, the book does not present a dog’s perspective. Instead, Bradshaw falls into the familiar anthropocentric habit of denying that dogs can feel complex emotions because they lack spoken language, going so far as to state that it is “unethical (his emphasis) to make” the assumption that dogs experience the same array of emotions that we do. His anthropocentric bias is humorously illustrated in Bradshaw’s comment that dogs never evolved the ability to see colors because it wasn’t necessary: the example he provides is that carnivorous wolves wouldn’t have needed the ability to choose the ripest berries. Wolves are opportunistic omnivores who do, indeed, eat berries. More to the point, though, neither dogs nor wolves need to rely on sight to choose ripe berries; they simply follow their far more sensitive noses to the choicest of fruits, as many a domestic dog has been known to do.

Despite a too-common reliance on old myths and a too-anthropocentric focus, there is much solid information in Dog Sense and it is a valuable addition to any dog professional’s library, especially for those who seek a detailed analysis of the science of the evolution, domestication, and social history of dogs.

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