Through a Dog’s Eyes

Through a Dog’s Eyes is the title of both a book and a companion DVD, which features a documentary about the placement of service dogs, focusing on twin boys with cerebral palsy. The book is written by the founder and director of the service dog organization that placed the dogs; the book describes several closely bonded human-dog teams. The author, Jennifer Arnold, does a wonderful job of weaving delightful anecdotes into her book and drawing lessons about dogs from them. Though it is not a training manual, Arnold does describe some common dog behavior problems — from the dog’s perspective. She does so in a helpful and dog-friendly way that will help owners see why the traditional methods of “correcting” these behaviors don’t work.

Arnold’s view of dogs might be astounding to some readers, however: Arnold states, for example, that dogs demonstrate “theory of mind,” providing several examples. In this, she’s willing to go farther toward recognizing dogs as thinking decision makers than most dogs experts. Even so, I don’t think she goes far enough. She clings to a common but, I think, incorrect view of dogs that dismisses the idea that dogs can “know better,” that is, that a dog can make “the right” choice, even if it goes against his training, instinct, or even self-interest. She cites as one example dogs who take food from counter-tops, stating that “nothing that hunts for a living will leave available food untouched unless they are not hungry, and even then they may take what’s available.” This not only echoes the familiar, if incorrect and outdated, view of “dogs as wolves” (after all, how many domestic dogs hunt for a living?) — it’s simply not true.

Dogs can be taught not to take what’s not theirs; all of the dogs I have trained have learned that lesson in early puppyhood.

Another area where I hesitantly venture to disagree with Arnold is that I think she over-idealizes dogs, sometimes making them sound too much like the “good wives” described in 1950s marriage manuals: eager to please, living only to serve, selfless, and heroic. I do not mean to detract from dogs’ many good qualities — I find dogs to be the most interesting and pleasant companions around — but I have certainly encountered in all dogs individual preferences and agendas that don’t always mesh with the ideas of the humans around them. Their individuality and complexity is what makes them interesting to be with, and I think that painting them broadly as helpful and eager to do our bidding shortchanges them.

Arnold and her organization (Canine Assistants, a top service dog organization located in Georgia) are strongly opposed to the use of force in training and she presents her viewpoint articulately. Since she and I studied with the same mentor (Bonnie Bergin), we advocate nearly identical approaches to educating dogs. Arnold strongly emphasizes the bond between the human and the dog in her methods of raising and educating dogs, and this comes across strongly in her book.

Overall, the book is a fun and heartwarming read and will give readers not only a new appreciation for the wonderful abilities of dogs but a great insight into the ways service dogs transform people’s lives as well.

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