My wife and I have been talking about getting a dog for quite some time now and it is a 2013 goal to welcome a new puppy into our family. The trouble is that we’ve been hesitant towards selecting the “right” dog because we had a pretty rough experience in 2010 with a rescue that we brought home. Thelma was an adorable beagle/dachshund mix that we fell in love with. She was 7 years old, extremely obedient and calm, but (and of course there was a but) she had a severe case of separation anxiety. This wasn’t a surprise to us: the shelter was very open about Thelma’s separation anxiety. They gave us a month’s supply of her doggy-dose of Prozac and provided us with a regimen to train her so that she could be left alone for short periods. Thelma latched on to us quickly (and we to her) and we patiently tried our best to give her the training she needed. My wife was able to take Thelma to the office and when I wasn’t working I’d spend time with her at home. However things started to fall apart when she went crazy over Thanksgiving and my wife had difficulty with her at work because Thelma would uncontrollably bark at other dogs in the office. It became a tough situation because we couldn’t leave her alone and we couldn’t bring her to social situations because she was only comfortable in calm, quiet environments. Eventually, we had to make the heartbreaking decision to surrender her back to the shelter.
I wish that I had been a little more educated prior to the Thelma experience and therefore, going into this year I decided to read up a bit on dogs before making the leap towards getting another one. Dog Sense is a very thorough and thought provoking book about the human/dog relationship and it was just the right book for my needs.
John Bradshaw is a scientist and dog lover with a background in anthrozoology. Bradshaw’s scientific background and passion for canine friends provided an engaging exploration into the history of the dog/man relationship, an evaluation of the dogs behaviors, and cautions about the health issues associated with pedigrees.
Dog Sense begins with an extended argument that debunks the paradigm that dogs behave like wolves and therefore training should be focused on an alpha dog perspective, with the owner being the alpha dog that maintains order in the “pack.” This system of training is based on observations of behaviors of captive wolves where the dominant wolf will overpower the other wolves in the pack and non-dominant wolves will display submissive behavior. However, as Bradshaw argues, there are many troubles with the application of wolf behaviors onto domesticated dogs. First, the captive wolves are not in their natural element and therefore the confines of space affects the animal’s behavior. Second, although it has been genetically proven that dogs are descendants of domesticated wolves, the species of captive wolves are not the same as the original species of domesticated wolf. Second, several thousand years of domestication has been ongoing at the same time that natural evolution has been ongoing in wild wolves: as time has progressed the wolves of present day are not comparable to the wolves of several thousand years ago. It is akin to observing chimpanzee behavior to learn about training humans, which we know is implausible and non-applicable.
Bradshaw goes into a lot of detail about theories of wolf/dog domestication, so much so that the first few chapters of Dog Sense are a bit boring and repetitive. I almost gave up on the book and I’d advise anyone who picks up this book to simply skim the first three chapters and dive right into the fourth chapter titled “Sticks or Carrots? The Science of Dog Training.” From this section and on Dog Sense is an engaging and thought provoking read. Bradshaw evaluates the methods for dog training by pointing out that although dogs have well developed spatial and familiarity memories, their temporal event memory is short lived. Therefore, training techniques that include punishment tend to confuse rather than benefit the dog. For instance, if an owner were to come home to a mess on the floor or a chewed up shoe, the punishment for such a “crime” would be wasted because the dog wouldn’t be associating the punishment with the past action. In the dog’s mind the punishment would be associated with the arrival of the owner, thus increasing their anxiety and confusion about their owner’s departure from the home: sometimes the owner comes home happy and sometimes the owner arrives angry, inflicting punishment.
Dogs have been bred to be inherently social animals and it is argued that they actually have an emotional need for their owner’s presence. Brain chemistry shows that dogs exhibit high levels of the chemical oxytocin when they are in the presence of their owner or receiving affection, such as petting and playtime. Bradshaw even goes so far as to claim that dogs may actually love their owners. The anxiety of detachment is based upon the need to be in the presence of their owners. In fact, all dogs exhibit some detachment anxiety. Traumatized dogs, like our rescue Thelma, may display extreme forms of separation anxiety due to a variety of possible causes in their early training period. Puppies have a critically sensitive period during the first 3-12 weeks of life when they are malleable to new experiences. Those puppies that are raised in an attentive family that sets proper boundary limits during their puppy training may grow up to be well behaved dogs. But puppies that spend too much time with their owner, or conversely are left alone for too long an extended period will develop unhealthy attachment issues. Additionally, exposure of puppies to other dogs, children, cats, and loud noises during their sensitive period will help acclimate them to these stimuli. A dog that barks uncontrollably at children or other dogs was likely a dog that had little exposure during their puppy life, or worse, had a negative exposure that wasn’t balanced with positive exposure experiences.
Raising a puppy is tougher than I thought!
Another interesting subject covered in Dog Sense covers the science of understanding how dogs experience the world. Humans are primarily visually oriented but dogs live in a world that is focused on scent as much as vision. When a person and a dog go for a walk they are taking in entirely different perspectives of their surrounding environment. We have all been amused by the peculiar behavior of a dog greeting that inevitably leads to a mutual sniffing of each dog’s behind. And I’m sure we’ve all been embarrassed when a dog greets a human guest with a sniff of the crotch. These behaviors aren’t consider crass or embarrassing by the dog because the bounty of aroma found in the crotch and perianal areas provide a lot more information about the guest than the person’s face ever would. In fact, one of the key reasons dogs like to chew on underwear or shoes when the owner is away is because these clothing items house the strong aroma of the owner and the oral fixation of chewing provides the dog with a sense of relaxation that brings them closer to the feelings of love they have for their owner.
Dog owners may already know much of what I talked about above – or maybe not. Dog Sense is a uniquely enlightening book that provides a lot to think about. I feel that it is a valuable book for soon-to-be owners and dog lovers alike because much of it is based on scientific studies and not conjecture. For instance, with a better understanding that dogs need to pick up cues about the world through smell provides me with an expanded perspective and I think that I’ll be a more patient dog walker when the leash is inevitably paused to sniff unusual spots. Dog Sense is a valuable book because it provides a thoughtful evaluation of the human/dog relationship and the approaches to training and lifelong companionship.