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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.

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 76: Winter 2013
Claudia Kawczynska is The Bark's co-founder and editor in chief. thebark.com
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