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Culture: Reviews
Book Review: Decoding Your Dog
Vet Experts Tell Us How

Did you know that the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (ACVB) has fewer than 50 members? To obtain board certification in this specialty, each has gone beyond a DVM to earn various degrees in applied animal behavior, and has completed a rigorous training program as well.

Decoding Your Dog (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, January 2014), with sections on canine behavior written by 20 ACVB diplomates, thus represents the expertise of some of the leading experts in the field. Their goal is two-fold: to make sure dog people have scientifically correct information about dog behavior problems and “to correct widespread misinformation.” The volume is well edited by Drs. Debra Horwitz and John Ciribassi and pet journalist Steve Dale; Victoria Stilwell contributed the foreword.

A concerted effort to debunk the many fallacious, pseudoscientif ic notions all too prevalent in the dog world is really long overdue. This book repudiates, in each and every one of its 14 chapters, the theory of dominance— i.e., dogs want to be pack leaders—that has been promulgated for much too long. In “Creating a Mensa Dog,” Dr. Katherine Houpt outlines that theory: “It goes like this: since dogs are essentially domesticated wolves, and wolves have a rigid dominance hierarchy within their pack, the same must be true for dogs. Simple, right? But the thinking turns out to be wrong.” She then goes on to tell us why it is wrong. Similarly, when this concept appears in other chapters, it’s firmly dismissed as a myth with no scientific basis that harms dogs and our relationships with them.

Another adroitly debunked myth is that dogs feel guilty about infractions people find upsetting, such as house soiling. Dogs must know they’ve done something wrong, right? In “Can’t We Just Talk?” Dr. Jacqueline Neilson explains that while to us, cringing may look like guilt, what is actually happening is that dogs see us acting aggressively and do what they wisely do when faced by an angry bully: offer a submissive response. In the fascinating chapter on aggression, Drs. Ilana Reisner and Stefanie Schwartz remind us that dogs are not mean: “There is no revenge or malice in dogs; they are merely using canine tools to respond to social situations.” Also, that aggression is a response to many different triggers, some of which might not be apparent to us. Consequently, it’s imperative that we learn how to read canine body language and methods of communication. Punishment, they say, “is not necessary when you’re managing your dog’s behavior, and at worst is likely to increase anxiety and aggression.” That means no leash pops, alpha rolls or other “in your face” confrontational techniques (as used by a popular TV personality). It is up to us to defuse the situation, and then work on a strategy to fix the problem.

On less dire subjects, it’s good to know Book Reviews that there is no association between “spoiling,” such as allowing a dog to sleep on the bed, and behavior problems. And that dogs rely on “visual and olfactory cues for communication,” which means it’s best to train them with hand signals first, then supplement with verbal cues.

I found the chapter on separation anxiety by Drs. E’Lise Christensen and Karen Overall to be invaluable, particularly their reminder that “only when dogs are calm can they learn new things, including how to be home alone.” With information ranging from the best ways to start out with dogs to helping dogs as they age, this book is appropriate for both novice and seasoned dog people. The editors have done a good job in making the text readable and approachable; each chapter incorporates case studies, and there is a clear organizational format. Recurring sections (“Facts, Not Fiction,” “Is That Really True?”) and review summaries (“What Did We Say?”) neatly encapsulate the various messages. I have a little quibble with the use of the latter phrase, which sounds like a scolding parent’s “What did I tell you!” But that doesn’t detract from my overall admiration for this book. Decoding Your Dog is an important addition to the canine canon, one that will go a long way toward increasing your understanding of your best friend.

Culture: Reviews
Exploring Dogs’ Cognitive Abilities

How Dogs Love Us
By Gregory Berns
New Harvest

Chaser
By John W. Pilley
Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt

What The Dog Knows
By Cat Warren
Simon & Schuster

Spurred on by the marketplace, publishers are quickly getting up to speed in bringing out meaningful “dog books,” those that go well beyond memoirs of canine misbehavior. We credit Alexandra Horowitz and her bestselling Inside of a Dog for much of this turn toward “smart dog” reads. John Bradshaw, author of Dog Sense, also deserves mention; so far, he’s the only canine scientist to go one-on-one with Stephen Colbert. Here are three new books that deserve a place on both bestseller and every dog lover’s reading lists.

Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist at Emory University who uses functional MRIs to measure activity in the human brain, had long been a dog-lover, so when his family adopted Callie, a hyperactive Terrier mix, he naturally started to wonder what she might be thinking. This led him to consider how he might apply techniques used in his studies of the human brain to dogs. In the fascinating book How Dogs Love Us, he recounts the methods his team employed, and how their pet dogs made these groundbreaking studies possible.

Training the dogs to maintain a sharp and steady focus as well as enjoy themselves while undergoing this testing was key. An MRI machine requires the subject to remain perfectly still in a tightly enclosed space while being subjected to loud thumping sounds. Luckily, Berns found the perfect training partner in Mark Spivak, who was confident that positive reinforcement and clicker training could shape the dogs’ behavior so that they would freely and voluntarily maintain the required position. As it turned out, Spivak was right.

Initial findings showed evidence that dogs empathize with humans and have a theory of mind, and, by extension, that the idea that you must be your dog’s pack leader is a mistake. As Berns notes, “Callie was a sentient being who understood, at some level, what I was thinking and reciprocated by communicating her thoughts within her behavioral repertoire.” There’s much to learn in this engrossing, must-read book.

Chaser, by John Pilley, is the story of how a man and a very smart, committed Border Collie won what amounts to the canine world’s grand “spelling bee.” Chaser learned to differentiate at least 1,022 words—more than any other animal—most of which were related to toys. Throw in some basic grammar, her ability to categorize her toys by function and shape, and the start of imitative behavior and you have an engrossing and remarkable tale.

The man behind this canine phenom, John Pilley (a professor emeritus of psychology whom Chaser knows as “Pop-Pop”), is himself rather amazing. Pushing 80 when he began Chaser’s lessons, Pilley spent four to five hours a day enriching his new dog’s social and learning experiences. He and co-researcher Dr. Alliston Reid later published their findings in the journal Behavioural Processes and garnered lots of media coverage, so you may be familiar with the narrative's broad strokes. To fill in the details, read this book, which will also give you tips on how to tap into your own dog’s genius.

In What the Dog Knows, Cat Warren explores the science and wonder of working dogs, guided by Solo, her German Shepherd. A “singleton” puppy (the only one in a litter), Solo was a challenge to train, even for someone as experienced as Warren. To harness his 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.

Initially, Warren interpreted Solo’s high drive and almost complete uncontrollability as “bad dog” behavior. However, she came to learn that he was demonstrating characteristics working-dog trainers value: intense drive and resourcefulness. In her words, “Solo was brutally rebooting my canine worldview.” This is a story of how she discovered what that worldview really is, and how she and Solo not only learned to navigate it but also, to excel at it. Warren teaches science journalism at North Carolina State University and has strong investigative and storytelling skills, which makes the book all that more enthralling and engaging.

All three books offer readers new avenues to learn about the cognitive and emotional lives of their own dogs, and are highly recommended by this reviewer.

Culture: Reviews
Book Review: The Dog Encyclopedia

This hefty compendium underscores the old saw about the value of pictures. Heavens, dogs are lovely, aren’t they? Flipping through the pages rewards the reader with information on more than 400 breeds, crossbreeds and “unknowns,” in all their sizes, shapes and colors—an exploration that speaks not only to the length of our association with dogs, but just how much we’ve influenced their development. Readers are introduced to many breeds not at all well-known in this country, including the pert little Kooikerhondje from the Netherlands and the Slovakian Rough-haired Pointer, a breed that, it is said, “thrives on company and activity.” Both of these breeds, and many others too, look like charming mixes, which is how “pure” breeds started, after all.

We also learn interesting facts about each breed. For example, the Lucas Terrier is a cross created by Sir Jocelyn Lucas, who—unhappy with the way his breed, the Sealyham, was being modified by show-ring standards—bravely decided “to outcross his dogs with a Norfolk Terrier” to add more vigor. Then there’s the New Zealand Huntaway, who “lacks a breed standard”; this mix of German Shepherd, Rottweiler and Border Collie makes for a very handsome dog.

Along with stunning photos, the book also has helpful “care and training” basics, which, luckily, employ positive techniques, as well as amazing illustrations of canine anatomy and interesting dog-culture coverage of canine evolution, art, lore and history. An engrossing and entertaining book for the whole family to savor.

Culture: Reviews
Book Review: All that Ails You
Published by CreateSpace
All That Ails You

All that Ails You is narrated by Wrigley, a most attentive caregiver: emotionally attuned, good-natured, resilient—just what’s needed in an assisted-living facility. Sure, he’s a dog, but that’s a plus in an environment where it’s sometimes hard to remember that life was once joyful. As All that Ails You makes clear, dog power can be a perfect antidote to illness and loss.

Culture: Reviews
Book Review: Dogtripping
Published by St. Martins
 dogtripping

Best known for his “Andy Carpenter” mystery series, Rosenfelt recounts a real-life adventure in this book, something those of us who fret over preparing for a weekend in the country with our dog will find truly daunting: moving 25 dogs across country, from California to Maine, in a caravan of RVs. With typical self-deprecating humor, Rosenfelt not only journals the move, he also shares how he and his wife got involved in rescue work, and the stories of some of the dogs they saved.

See our interview with author David Rosenfelt.

Culture: Reviews
Book Review: Weekends with Daisy
Published by Gallery Books/S&S

Suffering from canine deficit disorder, Sharron Luttrell signed up to be a NEADS/ Prison Pup Partnership co-caretaker, the person who familiarizes an assistance-dog-in-training with daily life on the “outside.” In doing so, she learns to let go and to plumb the depths of her own compassion for the benefit of others.

Culture: Reviews
Book Review: Following Atticus
Published by William Morrow

We review Tom Ryan's Following Atticus. Start with New Hampshire’s White Mountains, add a small dog and an overweight and out-of-shape reporter on a mission, and what do you get? A truly uplifting account of the adventure of a lifetime and a partnership built on mutual trust. A book of “life, growth and redemption.”

Culture: Reviews
Book Review: Short Leash
Published by Michigan State U Press
Short Leash Book Review

In Short Leash: A Memoir of Dog Walking and Deliverance, Pema Chodron has said that the best way to deal with fear is to lean into it, diffusing its effect by letting it inform you and staying present. Suffering the aftereffects of traumatizing attacks, Gary and her dog Barney leaned into their fears and in doing so, freed themselves from them. An inspiring and uncompromisingly honest story.

Culture: Reviews
Book Review: Ask Bob
Published by Henry Holt
Ask Bob

Before there were dog “love” stories, there was the irresistible The Cat Who Went to Paris. Peter Gethers is back with a charming novel about Bob, the type of vet we’d all love to have. There is also a cast of lovable and amusing characters, including a romantic interest who was a little too unyielding for my liking. The animals, both patients and those who are part of Bob’s family, are well drawn, and observations such as “Pet weight is one of the most delicious feelings in the whole world … it is like an extraordinary security blanket,” make Ask Bob a gem of a book.

Culture: Reviews
Book Review: How Dogs Love Us
Exploring Smart Dogs

Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist at Emory University who uses functional MRIs to measure activity in the human brain, had long been a dog-lover, so when his family adopted Callie, a hyperactive Terrier mix, he naturally started to wonder what she might be thinking. This led him to consider how he might apply techniques used in his studies of the human brain to dogs. In the fascinating book How Dogs Love Us, he recounts the methods his team employed, and how their pet dogs made these groundbreaking studies possible.

Training the dogs to maintain a sharp and steady focus as well as enjoy themselves while undergoing this testing was key. An MRI machine requires the subject to remain perfectly still in a tightly enclosed space while being subjected to loud thumping sounds. Luckily, Berns found the perfect training partner in Mark Spivak, who was confident that positive reinforcement and clicker training could shape the dogs’ behavior so that they would freely and voluntarily maintain the required position. As it turned out, Spivak was right. Initial findings showed evidence that dogs empathize with humans and have a theory of mind, and, by extension, that the idea that you must be your dog’s pack leader is a mistake. As Berns notes, “Callie was a sentient being who understood, at some level, what I was thinking and reciprocated by communicating her thoughts within her behavioral repertoire.”

There’s much to learn in this engrossing read.

 

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