Culture: Stories & Lit
Book reviews of Do As I Do and Canine Play Behavior
Two excellent new books from Dogwise Publishing, Claudia Fugazza’s Do As I Do and Mechtild Käufer’s Canine Play Behavior, are invaluable resources for those who are serious about understanding and communicating with their dogs.
Fugazza, who is completing her PhD research in canine social learning at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest (renowned for its canine study programs), burst on the training scene with the hypothesis that dogs can and do imitate people. As we know, dogs are keen observers of humans; what they do with this knowledge is part of their social learning repertoire.
When comparing wolf and dog learning, researchers at Eötvös have found that when both species are faced with an insolvable task, the wolves—even those who have been hand-reared—are more “dogged” in trying to sort out the problem for themselves, whereas the dogs actually turn and “look in the direction of their owners as if they were asking for help.” (Miklósi, et al. 2003) As Fugazza notes, “this predisposition to look at humans paved the way” for the special bond we have with our dogs.
Taking dogs’ natural inclination to observe us to the next step, she developed a groundbreaking training protocol (detailed in the book/DVD combination) that taps into our dogs’ “copy cat” skill set. The exercises are definitely fun to do, but also will have practical application in training service dogs and canine athletes. Though rather simple, these training exercises demonstrate dogs’ complex cognitive skills and involve motivation, attention, memorization and replication.
So, when you set up your first training lesson, you need to know what motivates your dog (treats, play or praise). The action you choose must be replicable by the dog, who may use her mouth as we do our hands. The process itself is straightforward. It starts by asking the dog to stay still and observe you; you then demonstrate the behavior (say, walking around a table), return to the initial position and give the cue, “Do it” (which your dog has learned in the first phase of the training). When your dog offers the right behavior—i.e., mirrors your action— you reward her. This certainly makes for an entertaining game (and one that can be done inside or outside), but more importantly, it also enriches our relationship with our dogs and, Fugazza says, allows both “dog and human to achieve a deep and reciprocal level of understanding.” Brava, Claudia Fugazza!
As Marc Bekoff notes in the foreword to Mechtild Käufer’s Canine Play Behavior, “play is the most natural way for dogs to learn.” We have often reported on this in The Bark, both for the reason Bekoff notes and because it is such a vital part of their behavior throughout their lives. Käufer collects findings and analyses on the subject from many leading scientific researchers in this fascinating volume.
There are numerous reasons why dogs as a species are so playful, including the fact that play stimulates their endogenous reward system. It not only feels good while they play, according to Bekoff, it also causes them to feel relaxed, excited and happy all the same time. This complex emotional state only occurs during play.
We also learn that play behavior is not “an immature form of adult behavior but rather, a separate behavioral category drawing on its own neural structure.” There certainly is science behind it, and learning to follow their rules will help us direct their play behaviors in a fun and safe way. Along with marvelous photos illustrating all facets of play, this book provides a valuable reference, one that will help the reader better understand one of the most important aspects of dog behavior.
Another dog named Dash surfaces in the new addition to the “Dog Diaries” historical fiction series. This one, Dog Diaries #5: Dash by Kate Klimo (illustrated by Tim Jessell), is about an English Springer Spaniel who joins the Pilgrims on their Mayflower voyage to the New World. Dash and his Mastiff friend, Mercy, have front row “seats” for all the action, from the arduous ocean journey to the settlers’ first harvest with the Wampanoag Indians, whom they had befriended. An ideal Thanksgiving read. (Ages 7 to 10)
Norman, Speak! by Caroline Adderson (illustrated by Qin Leng) is a lovely picture book. Norman is adopted by a family who wants to give a home to the dog who has been in the shelter the longest. This is the first important lesson offered in this insightful book. Though the family loves Norman, they think he might not be the brightest because he doesn’t seem to understand them. But one day at the dog park, an Asian man calls to his dog in Chinese, and Norman runs up to him, too, listening intently to what the man has to say. Mystery solved! Norman “speaks” Chinese. Inspired by the need to communicate with Norman, the family signs up for Chinese lessons. They find the language difficult to learn, which helps them understand Norman’s difficulties with English—another valuable lesson. (Ages 4 to 7)
For the DIY set of all ages, we highly recommend Pop-Out & Paint Dogs & Cats by Cindy Littlefield. Thi s fun-packed book provides blank animal templates —13 breeds of dogs and 5 of cats— with ample painting/coloring instructions. You pop out these heavy-paper templates, paint them and then, if you like, trace them onto other paper for even more paper dogs (great idea for tree decorations). The dogs can also stand on their own with the help of paper clips. There are even directions about how to make other items, like a dog house, an agility course, collars and leashes, all for your new paper pups. This clever book packs hours’—maybe days’—worth of creative, artistic endeavors between its covers.
(Simon and Schuster)
Not long ago, Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, MD, looked at the connections between human ailments and those suffered by other animals. In the process, she coined a new word, zoobiquity, to describe that nascent field of study. The 2012 publication of her book of the same name marked an awakening interest in exploring the “animal-human overlap.”
Now, as an apt complement to that work, comes Animal Madness by Laurel Braitman, a science historian with a PhD from MIT. In her book, Braitman explores the ways in which the human mind and its disorders are inextricably linked with those of other social animals. She was launched into this line of study by her struggle to understand and heal Oliver, her compulsive, phobia- and anxiety-plagued Bernese Mountain Dog. Through caring for Oliver, Braitman experienced firsthand the challenges that animals with extreme mental illness present to themselves and to the people who love them.
Oliver’s trauma began when he was pushed aside by his first family after the birth of a child, an event that severely affected his mental and emotional life; Braitman and her then-husband only learned about this after adopting him as a four-year-old from his breeder. When the dog’s intense separation anxiety caused him to leap out of the couple’s fourth-floor apartment window, it became clear that it was almost impossible to leave him alone. As a result, their lives were increasingly constrained by Oliver’s fears, anxieties and compulsions. In trying to understand just how to best to help him, Braitman began to wonder how similar Oliver’s experiences were to those of humans with mental and emotional problems.
As the subtitle notes, the scope of this book spans multiple species—not just anxious companion animals but also, compulsive parrots, depressed great apes and donkeys, suicidal sea mammals, jealous elephants, and many others. While Oliver’s plight—which Braitman admits had her acting like a service animal for her own dog—runs through the book, she also covers topics like Charles Darwin (a firm believer in animal emotions), anthropomorphism (not a bad thing at all, since it allows us to understand “the other” better) and animal-pharma (an industry that has become quite pervasive in the treatment of animal psychological problems). Regarding the latter, she notes that initially, these drugs—which are projected to reach $9 billion in annual sales by 2015—were only prescribed by vet behavior specialists but are now readily available from most general-practice vets.
While some of these stories can be difficult for animal lovers to read, most have mediated recoveries. However, taken together, they make a salient case for acknowledging the “parallels between human and other animal mental health,” which, as Braitman notes, “is a bit like recognizing capacities for language, tool use and culture in other creatures.” And, given how important emotional enrichment is to all social animals, she definitely has qualms about the capacity of any social animal to lead an emotionally stable life in captivity in a zoo environment.
In the hands of an observant and engaging writer like Braitman, this story is an outstanding example of a rigorous investigation presented in a most accessible way. Readers will also be rewarded by the deep compassion and gratitude she shows for all her subjects, both the animals and the humans who care for them. As she humbly observes, Oliver was “one anxious dog who brought me the entire animal kingdom. I owe him everything.”
For more insights, see the Q&A with Laurel Braitman.
Culture: Readers Write
Those who share their lives with sporting dogs (as I do) face unique challenges: dogs who are hardwired to laser focus on anything that moves and have the physical stamina to run, leap and course for what seems like forever. Dawn Antoniak-Mitchell is well acquainted with these training trials, and in From Birdbrained to Brilliant: Training the Sporting Dog to be a Great Companion (Dogwise), offers sound advice on how to “work with the ‘sportiness’ in our dogs, instead of against it.” Many of these dogs, especially those used for hunting, have been trained using harsh methods to break them so they’re “biddable.” Luckily, this book subscribes to a much more humane, reward-based approach. Key points like how to motivate your dog and become her gatekeeper “for access to all good things” are stressed, as is creating and sticking with a training plan. As Antoniak- Mitchell observes, to teach your sporting dog to be a great companion, you must be as focused, enthusiastic and creative as she is. And it turns out that the secrets to achieving that goal are to be found in this very helpful book.
Also due out in August is the must-read, The Mountaintop School for Dogs and Other Second Chances (Houghton Mifflin) by Ellen Cooney. This novel is a moving and joyous romp featuring impulsive, 24-year-old Evie, who is on a quest to untangle a troubled past by seeking a new life path as a dog trainer. Though she has scant experience with actual dogs, she applies for a position at the Sanctuary, which she thinks is a school for trainers. Apprehensive and excited, she learns that she must first spend time as the sole guest in a mysterious inn, overseen by a reclusive innkeeper. Little does Evie know that the Sanctuary is actually the command center for a network of underground animal rescuers led by four elderly ex-nuns.
All the dogs are wonderfully, fully drawn characters with heart-wrenching backstories. They reside at the Sanctuary, and Evie first encounters them when they are brought to her at the inn to assess her training skills. The dogs, Evie and, in fact, most of the other characters are all involved in some kind of transformative recovery program. The wounded dogs are tenderly given a place of refuge, while their f ledgling trainer/companion is tutored by a lama-like nun to “never, ever give a dog who comes to you anything but love.” This is a brilliantly crafted, uplifting book, with its message of “Rescue. Best. Verb. Ever” evident on every page.
Now it is summer and its long, warm days have arrived, we hope to catch up on our reading. To encourage you to do the same, we’ve compiled a roster of some of our favorites from newer to recent classic shelves. We would like to suggest our picks for a well-versed “dog culture” reading roster. These 10 books will enhance your understanding of your dog, along with entertaining and inspiring you. Enjoy!
Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures by Virginia Morell (Crown) explores what researchers have discovered about the mental and emotional lives of animals ranging from trout to dogs, and many others. She went in search of the “minds of animals to better grasp how the other creatures around us perceive and understand the world.” Her journalistic storytelling skills makes for a compelling read.
Edgar Award-winner Theresa Schwegel’s newest book, The Good Boy (Minotaur Books), includes an unforgettable character, Butch, a Belgian Malinois/German Shepherd mix trained as in drug-detection work. Butch and his K9 officer partner, Pete Murphy, navigate some of Chicago’s bleaker byways in this story. Both Joel, Murphy’s 11-year-old son, and Butch qualify as the “good boy” of the title. Joel is bright and innocent and loyal; Butch is honest, and honestly portrayed by a writer who knows dogs and their behaviors (she even knows why dogs’ feet smell like popcorn, an intriguing bit of trivia). Put this one on your reading list!
Read the interview with Theresa Schwegel for insights into her portrayal of Butch and the choices she made in his creation.
If you haven’t read it yet, make sure that this summer you pick up, Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz a fascinating journey into the dog’s rich sensory world, providing valuable insights into what it’s like to be a dog. If you think you know your dog, think again. Horowitz peels away the layers of pre-conceived notions and gets to the core of canine-ness to reveal that Canis familiaris is anything but familiar.
Read an interview with Alexandra Horowitz here.
A new must-read, The Mountaintop School for Dogs: and Other Second Chances (Houghton Mifflin) by Ellen Cooney is due out in August. This novel is a joyous romp featuring an impulsive, twenty-four-year old, Evie, who is on a quest to untangle a troubled past by seeking a new life path as a dog trainer. Little does she know that the she has enrolled in a command center for a network of underground animal rescuers, lead by four elderly ex-nuns. This is a brilliantly crafted, uplifting book, with its message of “Rescue. Best. Verb. Ever,” being evidenced throughout its pages.
First-time book author, Matthew Gilbert goes behind the scenes of a typical dog park, in his enjoyable Off the Leash: A Year at the Dog Park (St. Martin’s). He’s a dog-phobic convert who falls hard for his first pup who helps him to get immersed in a whole new world at a nearby dog park. The pair discover an engaging human pack replete with all the quirks, revelations and drama that come with your average (canine) nation state. This is a witty and memorable read that will delight and enthrall off-leash readers everywhere.
See a sampling of this book here.
In August, Spencer Quinn is back with another of his widely popular Chet and Bernie mystery books. In Paw and Order (Simon & Schuster), the seventh in this series, we find the intrepid duo being swept up in a case of international intrigue. Chet, the canine copilot extraordinaire, is always the unforgettable one in this partnership. Read one, you’ll want to read them all!
Susannah Charleson’s second book about dogs, The Possibility Dogs is every bit as enthralling as her first, Scent of the Missing. In this new book she refocuses her work from search-and-rescue to training rescue dogs for psychiatric service and therapy duty. She becomes an expert on evaluating shelter dogs to find those who might have the right personality and drive for this work. This book is an informative training guide but also a truly inspiring personal story.
For an excerpt on our site click here.
Rex and the City, by Lee Harrington. First published over seven years ago, this book still is one of the finest examples of the ever-popular canine memoir genre. Rex was a “behaviorally-challenged” sporting breed mix rescued by a NYC couple, who proves a trifle more than they can handle. But when it comes to exploring what it takes for “newbies” to learn about co-existing with a canine (and with each other), this is one of the funniest and exquisite accounts of the journey. A love story at its finest. As one reviewer noted: “Harrington shows us that learning how to live with a canine is the surest way of learning how to live."
For a sample of Lee Harrington's work read this.
A Small Furry Prayer: Dog Rescue and the Meaning of Life by Steven Kotler is part Hunter Thompson part Carlos Castaneda but mostly so original that it’s difficult to peg. A fascinating examination of the “cult and culture” of dog rescue. The story takes place in rural northern New Mexico—a perfect place for the author and his wife to start their dog sanctuary, Rancho de Chihuahua—home to not very “normal” dogs: special-needs dogs who are too old or too frail or simply too “compromised” to be easily adopted. Kotler gleefully throws himself into being part of the pack, taking the big dogs and the many Chihuahuas on forays into the foothills, where both dogs and humans experience a “flow state,” defined as “a joyous and complete merger of action and awareness.” Being totally involved in the now, time flies and the ego melts away—a feeling you’ll surely share when reading this delightful and insightful book.
In What the Dog Knows, Cat Warren explores the science and wonder of working dogs, guided by Solo, her German Shepherd. To harness Solo’s energies, she decided to try him at scent work—specifically, cadaver scenting. Her own training for this field was also a challenge, one that at times was more than she thought she could handle. This is a story of how Warren discovered what the worldview of a working dog really is, and how she and Solo not only learned to navigate it but also, to excel at it. This book offers new avenues to learn about the cognitive and emotional lives of one’s own dogs, and is highly recommended by this reviewer.
Click for a conversation with Cat Warren.
A Dog’s History of the World: Canines and the Domestication of Humans (Baylor University Press) by Laura Hobgood-Oster is a small book packed with interesting insights into the canine-human bond. She rightfully posits that our own species would not have succeeded without our oldest friends, and gleans support for her position from a variety of fields, including archaeology, history and literature. The only quibble we have is with the inclusion of the oft-cited theory about the evolution of the “first” dog; this is a fluid field of study, and some of the research in the book has already been successfully challenged. However, that doesn’t detract from the overall impact and delight this book brings to the field of canine studies.
A century ago, pets didn’t even warrant the meager legal status of “property.” Now, they have more rights and protections than any wild animal on earth. How did we get here—and what happens next? That’s what Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs (Public Affairs) by David Grimm is all about.
Grimm discusses all aspects of the issue, providing readers with enough information so they can make their own decisions about whether humans should celebrate or condemn the better treatment of cats and dogs. We are entering a new age of pets/companion animals, one that is fundamentally transforming our relationship with them and reshaping the very fabric of society. Citizen Canine is an easy, enjoyable, must-read for all who want to know more about these fascinating beings.
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