A Story Like the Wind and A Far-Off Place

A Story Like the Wind is not strictly a dog book, but, since one of the central characters is a magnificent Rhodesian ridgeback, Hintza, the book belongs on this barkshelf. A Far-Off Place is the sequel

A Story Like the Wind is beautifully written and evokes a long-gone era in southern Africa. Francois is growing up in a remote part of the bush, the only “European” child for miles around. His parents have unconventional views of the white man’s role in Africa, and their large, successful farm is a collaborative effort where the African workers are also part-owners; they are also family to Francois. A typical coming-of-age narrative, the book builds to a shocking, and rather abrupt, end. Throughout, Hintza plays a key role, often protecting Francois, always the first to notice anything unusual or dangerous, and always a loyal and loving companion. Francois and Hintza have similar romantic taste as well, both developing crushes on the same girl!

It’s a slow read, loaded with elegant descriptive detail, but worth the effort.

A Far-Off Place continues the tale, with Hintza playing a crucial role. The communication between Francois and Hintza is even more remarkable in the sequel. They share such an intimate connection that they expertly read each other’s body language; in addition, Francios speaks to Hintza in complex sentences, using a combination of African languages. Their understanding of each other is nuanced and sophisticated, evidence of a close bond.

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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.

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.

Your Dog Is Your Mirror

The marketing and jacket copy for Your Dog Is Your Mirror, by Kevin Behan talk about the human-dog connection and tout the author’s rejection of the dominance-focused training model he learned from his father. They also swoon over the author’s amazing insights. Sadly, the book does not live up to its marketing.

While Behan says he has rejected a dominance-focused force training approach (except for Schutzhund training), he does not propose an alternate method of training or address training methodology much at all. The bulk of the book is given over to a novel and bizarre theory that Behan devised at the age of 23, having (according to him) read and rejected everything that biology and behavioral science — and his father, a leading dog trainer of the time — had to say about dog behavior and training. One morning, as he was letting the dogs his father boarded out of their kennels, he had the epiphany that “None of the dogs were entertaining any intention whatsoever, even though many looked as if they had the specific intent and goal of getting outside, and some appeared to understand what I expected of them … I now knew there was no intention in anything a dog might do.”

Instead, he posits, everything a dog does is a reflection of the owner’s emotions, both present and past, conscious and unconscious, and in fact, could be a reaction to any experience the owner has ever had. He even explains away the idea that a dog could ever feel aggression toward him (or anyone), stating instead that “when a dog went to bite me, I could see that the dog didn’t intend to hurt me, dominate me, or defend himself or his territory … there was something positive about me the dog was attracted to. The dog had no goal: he was simply attracted to me with a force of desire that for some reason was blocked, hence the aggression.” He does not, however, tell readers what he might have been feeling that could have triggered the dog’s behavior.

Behan rejects any notion that a dog can form intentions or even think. In fact, he utterly rejects the idea of dogs as individuals. Therefore, the canine perspective is completely absent from this book; Behan simply denies that it exists. A dog is “not an individuated consciousness, endowed with her own will that’s empowered by personal volition and informed by a self-contained sense of self or ego,” he writes. He adds that no animals can think, claiming instead that their entire consciousness is formed by something he calls a “networked intelligence,” defined as “a higher faculty of intelligence that in animal consciousness completely supersedes the brain.” Bizarrely, that would appear to rule out instinct, too, as a driver of canine behavior. Behan explains any dog’s behavior, no matter how complex, as a function of what its owner is feeling

Despite having worked with, in his own estimation, several thousand dogs, Behan provides few examples to illustrate his theories. The anecdotes he does give are “as told to him” by training clients, not behaviors he personally witnessed. Nonetheless, he feels confident enough in his theories to determine that one client’s dog reportedly habitually left a bit of food in his bowl because the dog’s owner always leaves some food on her plate; the dog is connecting with whatever emotional issue causes the owner to do so. Another client’s dog is aggressive toward children because, Behan discovers, the owner feels lasting pain and guilt over having “not been there” for her daughters when they were young, many years earlier.

Much of the book is a sort of memoir and retelling of his “discoveries” about dog consciousness; there is also considerable psycho-analysis of the humans who own the dogs he trains. The book does not address multiple-dog households where each dog has a very different personality and behaviors, nor does it explain how to apply Behan’s theory to dogs who live and interact with multiple humans. There is no index and no references, making it hard to find specific information.

While I agree with the author that emotion is a primary driver of dog (as well as human) behavior, I strongly disagree that it is the dog owner’s emotion that is solely responsible for the dog’s behavior. I also completely reject any notion of dogs that denies their considerable cognitive abilities, including thinking and planning and, yes, forming intentions. Dogs are separate beings from us, not merely empty vessels that reflect the worst of our emotional pasts back to us. They are brilliant and intuitive beings who deserve to be loved and valued for the individuals they are. Regarding them as our “mirrors” — as extensions of ourselves — is arrogant and egocentric and a terrible disservice to all dogs.

Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know

A longtime New York Times bestseller, Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz clearly has mainstream appeal; it is thoroughly enough referenced and indexed to appeal to canine professionals as well. The author, a psychologist and animal behaviorist, is no stranger to scientific research, and is a lifelong dog owner and dog lover.

The book is informative and entertaining, and it offers insights that will promote greater human understanding of dogs. It concludes with a strong chapter that suggests ways humans can relate better to the dogs in their households. The book also does an outstanding job of describing dogs’ sensory experience of the world, devoting nearly 100 pages to the subject.

But in its claim to present the canine perspective, the book gets a mixed review. Horowitz does decode some situations according to a canine point of view — her discussion of doggy raincoats and the way that their tight embrace might make dogs feel “subdued” rather than protected is an amusing example. But in other examples, a strong anthropomorphic bias comes through. For instance, after lengthy and well-done sections describing dogs’ vision and how it differs from humans’ and explaining that smell is dogs’ primary source of information, Horowitz attributes her dog’s hesitance to enter an elevator to age-related deterioration of her vision or difficulty adjusting to low light after being outside. These are both reasons a human might hesitate. Possible reasons that consider dogs’ experience of the world — that the crevice between the floor and the elevator harbors many strange smells or an unpleasant memory of the moving floor (though this is unlikely in the case of Horowitz’s apartment-dwelling dog) — are not mentioned.

Horowitz displays her scientist roots in her reliance on research studies to draw conclusions, even when the studies are poorly designed, and even when real-life experience points to different conclusions. A study of dogs’ reactions to “emergency” situations is a prime example. In this study, humans set up a highly contrived scenario, first having owners introduce their dogs to a “friendly stranger” and then having the owners feign an emergency — a heart attack, for example. None of the dogs who were tested did what the humans wanted them to do (seek help from the “stranger”). Calling this a “clever” experiment, Horowitz draws the conclusion that dogs “simply do not naturally recognize or react to an emergency situation.” A more obvious conclusion, and one that gives more credit to the dogs’ intelligence, is that the dogs could tell that the people were faking — none of the scents and signals that indicate true alarm or physical dysfunction would have been present in the “actors.” Some dogs do, in fact, react to emergency situations, even when they have not been specifically trained to do so.

Horowitz relies exclusively on some studies that dogs “failed,” such as the mirror test for self-awareness and a test of whether dogs felt “guilt” if they “stole” a treat, in arriving at her limited conclusions about doggy consciousness and self-awareness. She fails to acknowledge (or notice?) that the tests cited are anthropocentric in design — that is, they test things that are relevant to people but not to dogs — and were conducted in unfamiliar, highly controlled environments where the dogs’ behavior would be far from natural. Other research showing strong evidence of dog self-awareness is not mentioned. Finally, and despite a section at the beginning of the book chiding scientists’ tendency to see one animal as representative of a species, she makes many broad statements about dog behavior that seem to be based on her observations of her one dog.

Overall, the book provides an excellent description of dogs’ sensory perceptions of the world and a wonderful guide to improving our treatment of dogs, but I think that its conclusions about dog behavior, consciousness, and self-awareness are questionable.

How the Dog Became the Dog

I am torn about recommending this book. On the one hand, there is a lot of information in this book, much of it firmly backed up with the latest scientific research. On the other hand, it is poorly organized and the editors seem to have been asleep at the keyboard. The same facts, anecdotes, and theories appear over and over again, making the book hard to follow and repetitive. Having been a student of Mark Derr’s in a graduate-level class on the history of dog breeds, I know that he has a lot of knowledge but is often disorganized in presenting it. This book reflects all of that.

What I like most about Derr’s presentation of the history of the dog’s evolution is the way he juxtaposes the various theories and points out where they overlap, where they contradict, and where they must obviously be incorrect. He does say that the theories are only scientists’ best guesses based on the archaeological and anthropological evidence available at the time they were generated — and offers his own interpretations and conjectures as to what might have happened.

I also enjoy Derr’s attempts to look at domestication from the dog/wolf’s viewpoint. As humans, we tend to look at things in the way that is most beneficial or complimentary to humans, but anyone who’s spent time with dogs knows that dogs are just as good at (or better at) “training” humans to behave in ways that benefit them as humans are at training dogs. Derr points out that domestication was a choice made by both parties and that benefits both — a partnership view of the human-dog relationship that seems more fair and honest than looking only at what humans can and do gain from living and working with the dog.

Much of the information in this book can be found in other books, but this book pulls it together and critically analyzes it in a new and interesting way. I recommend it as a resource for anyone who is seriously interested in studying and understanding dogs.

The Dog Who Danced

I am usually skeptical of books where the author speaks in the dog’s voice, but from its title, The Dog Who Danced, by Susan Wilson already had points in its favor. A book called The Dog That Danced might have languished, unread, on the shelf. And Wilson seems to get it. The dog, Mack / Buddy, is a Sheltie with a strong personality and viewpoint all his own. He’s believable. The  human characters are real, too.

During a cross-country drive, Mack gets separated from Justine, his person. The two have a very strong bond and are talented Canine Freestyle dancers. Their relationship is well-developed, explained well, and rings true. Mack is found by a couple, Alice and Ed, who have never quite gotten over the loss of their teenage daughter. Their initial hesitancy to get attached, and their growing, separate relationships with the dog, whom they call Buddy, also ring true. These are real people. They have all made poor decisions, lived with their mistakes and their regrets, and are trying in their oh-so-human way to move on and do better.

Mack / Buddy helps Ed and Alice work through their grief and anger with one another and move into a new beginning. He helps Justine cope with her dysfunctional family — her estranged son, her cold and selfish stepmother, her dying father. But he remains a real dog, though perhaps a better-behaved dog than most. His doggy thoughts and wants are plausible; he doesn’t have the cloying or idealized character of so many human-voiced dogs.

While there are certainly elements of the story and details that seem contrived, and it is a lightweight read, The Dog Who Danced is enjoyable and fun. I don’t want to give too much away, but I would unhesitatingly recommend this book to dog lovers and “non-dog” people alike.