And Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience
We were pleased that Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist who uses functional MRIs to measure canine (and human) brain activity, and author of the 2013 bestseller, How Dogs Love Us, is back with new work. In What It’s Like to Be a Dog, Berns brings us up-to-date on recent discoveries coming out of his Dog Project at Emory University. His team, which includes 30 volunteers and their amazing co-pilots, takes on subjects like selfcontrol (dogs have been found to have varying capacities for this attribute), understanding of human language and differing value systems. And—no surprise for Bark readers—the finding that dogs are happiest being around their humans, preferring us to other dogs. We are the apples of their eyes.
It is important to note that, unlike other laboratories that use dogs in functional MRI research, Berns is very careful about the way the project’s dogs are handled. Even though MRI machines require subjects to remain perfectly still in a tight space while being subjected to loud thumping sounds, Berns’ subject dogs are never restrained and never sedated. To achieve this admirable state, Berns partnered with a fabulous trainer, Mark Spivak, at the project’s inception in 2011. Spivak uses positive reinforcement and clicker training to shape the dogs’ behavior so that they freely and voluntarily maintain the required position. Steps are provided for them to walk into and out of the scanner, and they can leave whenever they want, giving them what Berns calls “the right of selfdetermination.” In constructing this study, Berns was guided by a concern for ethics; as he notes, “We would never force people to participate in research, so why would it be okay to force animals?”
This book, while focusing on dogs, also explores the inner lives of wild animals, from dolphins and sea lions to the extinct Tasmanian tiger. No, these animals weren’t studied via the MRI; instead, they used diffusion tensor imaging (DTI), which is an MRI-based form of imaging that “takes advantage of the fact that movement of water molecules around the brain is biased.” Brains of sea lions who died as a result of environmental problems were obtained from the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, Calif., and for the extinct tiger, they used brains that had been preserved as part of museum collections. The process is a tad too complicated to explain here, but trust me, it’s given Berns and his team a comparative brainmapping tool that has resulted in some very compelling findings. My favorite involves a talented sea lion named Ronan, part of a study at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Berns observes that Ronan’s ability to find and keep a musical beat could change how people think about the evolution of language. (To see more of this pinniped star in action, go to YouTube and enter Ronan + sea lion in the search box.)
In setting out to explore what differentiates humans from other animals, Berns is demonstrating that the divide really isn’t that wide. This truly fascinating book shows a profound respect for animals, and one that is broadening our understanding of what it’s like to be a dog.
The Race to Save Animals in Peril
Laura Schenone, author of The Dogs of Avalon: The Race to Save Animals in Peril, was not always a dog person. Afraid of most animals, she couldn’t understand those who devoted themselves to animal welfare causes, especially in light of the number of people who needed “saving.”
But then proded by her sons and a chance meeting with a dog rescuer, she adopted a Lurcher from Ireland and was inspired to learn more about sighthounds—in particular, Greyhounds and their mixed-breed relatives. In exploring Greyhound rescue, she has written a work that merits high praise and appreciation.
In this country, the phrase “dog rescue” is almost synonymous with Greyhounds, an elegant breed that until about 50 years ago was rarely seen as a pet. Now, it would be hard to find a pet Greyhound who has not been rescued. Many devoted rescue groups focus on rehabilitating and rehoming these dogs and, as importantly, on exerting intense political pressure on the racing industry. As a result, many U.S. tracks have been closed, a development I heartily applaud. According to the author, this movement, “by and large created by and led by women,” has its origins in both the U.S. and England.
I learned many interesting factoids in this book. For example, I live within a stone’s throw of the world’s first Greyhound racetrack, which was constructed in 1919 at Emeryville, Calif., by engineer Owen Patrick Smith. Smith developed the mechanical lure that took the blood out of the coursing bloodsport and made it less horrifying to watch. By 1931, betting on dog races became legal in many states, especially in Florida (one of the six remaining states that still has active racing).
As Schenone writes, “Greyhound racing took a feverish hold in England, Ireland and Australia.” She also notes that Ireland quickly became the European leader in breeding as well as in exporting dogs to tracks in other countries.
The Irish Parliament established the Greyhound Racing Board (Bord na gCon), which, since 1958, has funded all aspects of this industry. It was, after all, a business that provided people with jobs and “entertainment,” regardless of what it did to the dogs. As an unfortunate consequence, the breed was stigmatized as high energy and fierce, making it hard for them to be considered as suitable companion animals. Thus, even within humane communities, their plight was easily overlooked. Until, that is, 1974, when the Retired Greyhound Trust was established in England and became the first formal Greyhound adoption organization in the world, funded in part, it must be noted, by the industry itself.
While adoptions became popular in this country and in England, Ireland was a holdout. Enter Marion Fitzgibbon of Limerick Animal Welfare. For years, Fitzgibbon had worked tirelessly, tending to animal welfare cases, but it wasn’t until 1994, when she was asked by Louise Coleman of the Massachusetts group Greyhound Friends about the welfare of Ireland’s racing Greyhounds that those dogs came into her purview. Friends cautioned Fitzgibbon that “the Greyhound thing is just too big,” but even though she was recovering from cancer surgery, she was game to take on their plight.
In her book, Schenone describes just how severe that plight was. The Irish racing industry was responsible for killing thousands of dogs (in some truly grisly ways) as well as multiplying the dogs’ misery by selling less successful racers to tracks in Spain. But as the press published exposés, increasing numbers of people joined the rescue ranks, volunteering to help the dogs. Fitzgibbon was the lynchpin. As the Schenone notes, “Once Marion got started on the Greyhound cause, it was as though she had a fever inside her brain.” What she and her colleagues were able to do with scant resources is truly remarkable, and makes for a very compelling read.
The book’s title references the sanctuary funded by another admirable woman, Johanna Wothke, former schoolteacher and founder of Germany’s Pro Animale. After reading a report about the Irish racing industry, she offered Fitzgibbon her assistance. Almost singlehandedly, Wothke rallied donors to contribute more than 200,000 euros for the construction of a paradisiacal, cage-free sanctuary on 38 acres in Ireland’s County Galway. Marion named it Avalon and they created a shelter in the truest sense of the word. In bright airy rooms grouped under names such as Patience, Tolerance, Faithfulness, Honesty and Strength, rescued racers are cared for until new homes can be found for them (oftentimes in Germany).
Work continues for Ireland’s animal protectors, who have accomplished a lot in a country where, as the author notes, “the government gives the racing business so much money.” Let’s hope that momentum for the Greyhound cause continues to build. With people like those profiled in this engrossing book still very much part of the effort, and with the publication of this book itself, things just might change. Schenone does a splendid job in providing a history of a movement that has important cultural significance worldwide. The stories of animal welfare leaders who have been able to achieve so much powered by their love for dogs is truly inspirational and definitely worthy of your notice.
See book excerpt and author interview.
Let’s start with what this book is not: it is not a new entry in the author’s “Chet and Bernie” series; the main character is not an awkward but insightful male PI and the dog is not a roguishly charming (and easily distracted) narrator. Rather, the primary human, LeAnne Hogan, is an army sharpshooter badly injured during her tour in Afghanistan, and the dog— a large, black Rottweiler/ Malinois-type mix with huge paws and a blocky head, unreadable eyes, and an oddly chopped-off tail—is no one’s idea of a pet. In another departure, the dog’s a female who keeps her thoughts to herself.
Here are the similarities, and they’re why readers of Quinn’s earlier books will also be drawn to this one: Like the Chet and Bernie books, The Right Side pairs a person and a dog with distinctive qualities and sends them on a quest. It powers along at a rapid clip. The dialog is sharp and natural. And it has a dramatic resolution.
The book opens with LeAnne as a patient at Walter Reed military hospital, being treated for serious physical and psychological wounds. Her roommate Marci, who lost a leg in a bomb blast, dies suddenly, sending LeAnne into an even deeper emotional tailspin. Checking herself out of the hospital, she heads west on the first part of her quest: to outrun her current life. Her trip ends in Marci’s rural Washington hometown, where she learns that her dead friend’s daughter Mia is missing, and where she reluctantly acquires the dog she eventually names Goody. Then begins the second part of the quest: find Mia.
The story drives forward in a series of chronological jumps. As LeAnne’s past and present converge, unsettling examples of the long reach of military intelligence abound. The Right Side excels in conveying the cost of war paid by its on-the-ground participants. LeAnne Hogan is a defiant, principled and absolutely stand-up wounded warrior in all senses of the clichéd term, and Goody has her back. Read this book.
One Shelter Volunteer, Countless Dogs, and the Quest to Find Them All Homes (Harper)
In Amy Sutherland’s thoroughly researched and engaging Rescuing Penny Jane: One Shelter Volunteer, Countless Dogs, and the Quest to Find Them All Homes (Harper), the author delves into what life is like for dogs and the people who care for them in shelters throughout the country. She does an excellent job covering the myriad issues connected with this topical and critical subject. From the chapters such as “Great Migration”— southern dogs transported to new homes up north, in lieu of local shelter dogs—to “Keeping Dogs Home,” which explores shelters’ strategies for dissuading owners from surrendering dogs, Sutherland seems to cover most of the salient issues.
Years of volunteering at shelters in Maine and with Boston’s Animal Rescue League gave her a front-row seat on the subject. Good journalist that she is, she broadened her information base by traveling around the U.S. and interviewing leading experts, animal behaviorists and dedicated activists in the shelter and rescue world, probing for their best ideas and strategies.
Sutherland introduces us to a few of the notable dogs she met along the way; their case studies provide invaluable insights into the importance, and the challenges, of finding new homes for dogs like them. She has also fostered a number of dogs, and adopted two, seriously under-socialized, Penny Jane and shelter-stressed Walter Joe. We learn how she and her husband worked to integrate these dogs, with their very individual personalities, into their lives.
It is to Sutherland’s great credit that she tends to this subject matter with the care and attention it merits, crafting a dour subject into an engrossing, and at times, entertaining read. Yes, a book about shelters and homeless dogs can be difficult, but it can also be life affirming and exhilarating.
If you’ve ever thought of volunteering at a shelter, fostering or adopting a shelter dog, this book may provide you with the impetus and inspiration to do it now. If you are already involved in the rescue or shelter community, you may encounter an alternative that could help in your work. Regardless, this is an invaluable book for all dog lovers. Shelters have changed a lot in the past 20 years, with many innovative approaches coming from that community. This book is Sutherland’s way of sharing what she learned, and it can help save precious lives.
Its Evolution, Behavior and Interactions with People (2nd ed.)
I want to call your attention to what is likely the most current and comprehensive summary of all things dog, or all things dogs. This muchanticipated update of Dr. Serpell’s encyclopedic book builds on the strengths of the first edition. Among other things, it incorporates two decades of new evidence and discoveries on canine evolution, behavior, training and human interaction. It also includes seven entirely new chapters covering topics such as behavioral modification, population management, molecular evidence for dog domestication, behavioral genetics, cognition, and the impact of free-roaming dogs on wildlife conservation.
In the big picture category, its very useful comparative informat ion on wild canids contributes to a greater appreciation and understanding of just who dogs are and why they do the things they do, and the references are a gold mine of information. The epilogue, “The Tail of the Dog,” provides a detailed summary of what we know and don’t know about these amazing beings.
I hope all dog trainers will carefully study this book, because the ideas and data that are discussed are essential ingredients for teaching dogs to live harmoniously with other dogs, with other animals and with us. An ideal volume for anyone interested in dogs and their evolution, behavior and ever-changing roles in society, The Domestic Dog is inarguably the canine go-to reference.
A Mutual Memoir of a Woman and Her Dog (Atria)
A memoir by Patricia McConnell, one of the world’s leading certified applied animal behaviorists and a pro in working with aggressive and fearful dogs, is the second of the two new arrivals. The Education of Will: A Mutual Memoir of a Woman and Her Dog (Atria) is quite unlike her previous work. While her astute, hawk-eye attention to canine behavioral matters is found in abundance, we also learn more about the author herself.
The Education of Will runs on parallel tracks. On one track is her Border Collie, Will, who presents McConnell with a whole host of behavioral and health-related challenges. It is difficult to comprehend just how misaligned this little guy was, even as a very young pup.
As she tells us, when she decided it was time for another Border Collie, McConnell did all the right things: she went to a reputable breeder; she knew both parent dogs; and, since she’d had other working Border Collies, she definitely understood the breed. Despite this, she still wound up with a dog whose unpredictable, furious outbursts “shook her to her core.” (This is in itself a valuable lesson for those who might be skeptical about adopting a shelter dog because of the possibility of behavioral problems; as Will demonstrated, opting for a well-bred puppy is no guarantee you’ll avoid them.)
The book’s other track follows the human end of the leash. While working with Will, McConnell realized that she needed to come to terms with her own fears, and the ways earlier traumas had informed her behavior—that in order to heal her fearful, reactive dog, she had to heal herself as well.
What has always set McConnell apart from others in her field is her ability to point out the fascinating parallels between canine behaviors and our own, including the cognitive and emotional lives of both species. In this book, she dives even deeper into such comparisons. For me, her insights into her troubled Border Collie’s behavior (as well as that of other dogs she’s treated) are the book’s most compelling aspect.
McConnell offers the case of Aladdin as an example of how a dog’s aggression can be set off by triggers. Aladdin’s sunny disposition would change in an instant once she put on sunglasses. As she noted, “To Aladdin, I had morphed instantly from a relaxed, benevolent acquaintance into a … potentially dangerous one. Aladdin was just going to get me first, before I could get him.” This was a relatively straightforward case; once she discovered the trigger, she could devise a treatment plan. Will’s issues, unfortunately, were not that simple.
This book speak eloquently on the benefits of opening your heart to dogs, and reclaiming lives in the process.
Following the Dog into a World of Smell
Back in 2009, Alexandra Horowitz’s first book, Inside of a Dog, made it to the top of every bestseller list. Heralded in this magazine and by others who wanted to learn what it means to be a dog, it delivered on the promise of its subtitle: What Dogs See, Smell and Know. It also introduced many of us to the concept of Umwelt—another’s perception of the world—coined by biologist Jakob von Uexküll.
Imagining what it is to be a dog and to enter a dog’s subjective world was, and still is, an entrancing prospect. What better guide to the “inside of a dog” than a comparative cognitive scientist like Horowitz? She writes in a clear vernacular: accessible, erudite, poetic and downright friendly. No wonder her first book became such a sensation.
And now we have her new book, Being a Dog: Following the Dog into a World of Smell, which not only delves deeper into dogs’ amazing sense of smell, but also considers the human olfactory capacity, even if it is rather paltry compared with that of dogs. Truly understanding another species requires that, as ethologist Frans de Waal has explained, “we need to try to step outside our own narrow Umwelt and apply our imagination to theirs.” That is exactly what Horowitz brings to her books.
Similar to recent books such as Being a Beast by Charles Foster (where the author literally lived underground as a badger), or Thomas Thwaites’ excursion into the Umwelt of goats in GoatMan, in Being a Dog, Horowitz learns to polish her own sense of smell. She undertakes this quest not only to better understand what she might be missing, but also, to get a glimmer of how dogs’ noses help them navigate their world. The book begins with a look at the canine nose, which “is rich in a way we humans once knew about, once acted on, but have since neglected.” Following the lead of her two dogs, she puts her “nose to the places the dog nose goes.”
We all love factoids about dogs, and this book delivers a trove of them: Dogs scratch up the ground after they poop in order to transmit their personal message to other dogs; their paw pads have scent glands and digging spreads their odor, broadcasting their signal far and wide (canine social networking in action).
Wagging tails serve a similar purpose, spreading the scent from their anal sacs. They smell when they dream; watch their nostrils twitch. Dogs rarely mark over their own urine postings. Males like to sniff tail areas first, while females prefer to start with faces.
We learn about the physiognomy of their smelling instrument, from nostrils (nares) to olfactory epithelium and vomeronasal organ, or VNO, and up to the brain’s olfactory bulb. When they sniff, they start with either the right or left nostril, depending on what they’re investigating. Unlike other senses, nostrils are ipsilateral, meaning that an odor entering the right nostril goes to the right side of the brain for processing, and one entering the left goes to the left side.
Horowitz takes us on a grand tour of scent-work professionals, from the Working Dog Center at the University of Pennsylvania to the University of Washington’s scat-detection dogs, with stops along the way to visit other working and detection dogs. At the book’s end, she treats her dog Finnegan to classes in nosework, which quickly become what she calls his “Favorite Place on Earth.” Definitely something in which all our dogs would love to partake.
It seems that for most of us, smelling isn’t something we practice much. One of the most remarkable comparisons she draws is the difference in the endowment of olfactory sensory cells (epithelium) between humans and dogs. As she explains, “If his olfactory epithelium were spread out along the outer surface of the dog’s body, it would completely cover it. In humans, ours would about cover a mole on our left shoulder.”
While we have a long way to go to catch up with our dogs, by the book’s end, the author has us tapping into our puny epithelium, sniffing and snuff ling. We thank Alexandra Horowitz for providing this inspiration.
To Raymond and Lorna Coppinger and their chief hagiographer at the New York Times, James Gorman, who wrote a fawning profile of the pair recently, the vast majority of the world’s 1-billion dogs all look alike because they have evolved to fill the ecological niche of village dump-diver or biological garbage disposal. Like all of Raymond Coppinger’s books, many of them co-authored, What Is a Dog? is a reductionist work of illogic that relies on simplistic scientific arguments and pre sent ism, manifest here in the assumption that the present circumstances of street dogs or village dogs have always been thus. The argument is grounded in Ray Coppinger’s belief that dogs cannot possibly have evolved from gray wolves because they look nothing like large northern wolves who feed on caribou, moose and other large animals. Were he to compare those 30-pound street dogs to the small desert wolf, he might find something different.
At the base of this book lies the Coppingers’ notion—wrong in all regards—that dogs are a species unto themselves and began to appear some 7,000 years ago, a time coincident with the first dog burials. The first dog burials in the archaeological record date to 12,000 or more years ago. The Coppingers also misrepresent or ignore evidence that dogs evolved from a gray wolf, most likely a now extinct subspecies, and continued to crossbreed for thousands of years with wolves who arose about the same time dogs did. Genes flowed from wolves to dogs and dogs to wolves. In some parts of the world, the crossbreeding continues. In the Caucasus, for example, wolves and livestock-guarding dogs are still interbreeding.
The Coppingers take what can only be described as an ahistorical view of the dog-human relationship. They seem to believe it has always resembled the current model of the dog occupying the niche of garbage disposal and occasional early warning system for incoming human or nonhuman predators. Some attention is paid to the system of transhumance—the seasonal movement of sheep between mountain and lowland pastures—but nearly nothing is said about other historic and traditional uses of dogs in particular cultures. Having spent most of their book arguing that 85 percent of the world’s 1-billion dogs are street/village dogs—the rest being human-created purebreds or their crosses—that all look the same and occupy the same niche, the Coppingers leave themselves little room for a serious discussion of just who dogs are.
After losing her sister to gastric cancer, Arlene Weintraub—science writer, investigative reporter and lifelong dog lover—embarked on a two-year personal and professional journey, delving deeply into the world of comparative oncology. During that time, she visited eight universities and interviewed scientists, medical doctors, veterinarians, researchers, professors and dog owners.
Comparative oncology is a research initiative that recruits dogs with cancer to generate new and improved treatments for humans and their canine best friends. As Weintraub notes, “Genetically speaking, our canine companions are more closely related to us than we realize.” Comparable to those who take part in human clinical trials, the dogs in these studies have few options; standard treatments are too costly and/or do not work, which ultimately leads their owners to seek out experimental drug trials. Also like humans, the lucky ones have years added to their lives, while others do not fare as well.
Weintraub begins her research with 206 dogs who participated in a 2001 medical trial in search of an approved product to treat cancer in canines. As a result of these trials, Palladia, a groundbreaking first-ever drug, was accepted by the FDA for use in the treatment of canine mast cell tumors. Based upon these successful studies, the drug Sutent was later developed to shrink a broad spectrum of mast cell tumors in humans, with the potential for long-term survival. In subsequent chapters, Weintraub describes other success stories. The efficacy of the trials, the cutting-edge treatments and the people involved are well documented.
Her interviews are up close and personal. We come to understand the struggle involved in getting a drug tested and approved, as well as the personal agony of people who are facing the loss of their much-loved companion animals. Behind the data is a bigger question: how far will we, as pet owners, go to have more time with our dogs and cats? And at what cost emotionally?
At every turn, Weintraub shows us the correlation between human and animal healing, and weaves in the story of her own healing from the loss of her sister. The dogs she encounters during her research become her comfort, restoring her faith in science as they pave the way to unlocking cancer’s mysteries and, ultimately, making it a less frightening diagnosis.
New Points of View of Shelter Dogs
Two new books, both well-investigated works, merit your attention. The Underdogs by Melissa Fay Greene is a fascinating, absorbing and inspirational read about the power of love to help those in need, while The Dog Merchants by Kim Kavin introduces an out-of-thebox idea involving a rating system that just might change how we get our dogs. Both are out just in time to make it to the top of your summer must-read list.
Greene’s book is an examination of the power of the bond between dogs and children with disabilities, but its purview extends much further. The two-time National Book Award nominee interweaves personal stories of children, their families and a few unforgettable dogs with current research and scientific findings on the cognitive and emotional lives of dogs and the human/ canine bond. The main story revolves around a remarkable woman, Karen Shirk, and the service dog academy, 4 Paws for Ability, that she founded in 1998. It was the first organization to train skilled service dogs with public access for young children.
We learn how Shirk’s own experience —developing myasthenia gravis as a young adult and being saved by a dog —motivated and inspired her to become a leading advocate for service dogs for young children with disabilities. 4 Paws trains dogs for highly specialized work, including seizure alert, mobility assistance and autism assistance; the goal is to never exclude a child “because a disability did not fit in a box.”
Greene profiles some of the families who have been benefited profoundly by graduates of this program; their compelling and uplifting stories pull on your heartstrings. Just how this connection between a dog and a child is established, and what motivates dogs to bond so deeply to their young charges speaks volumes for the intensity of crossspecies attachment.
Some of these dogs are truly are underdogs, adopted from shelters and trained in a nearby prison-based program. In a chapter called “Prison Dogs,” we have a good example of how adroitly Greene blends congruent storylines— those of the families and their children with, in this case, stories of the importance of the dogs to the inmates, along with overviews of research into “why humans feel happier in the presence of dogs.” Greene is a gifted and caring storyteller, and she gives her subjects the intelligence and warmth they deserve. This all makes for absorbing, pleasurable and inspirational reading.
In Kavin’s Dog Merchants, subtitled Inside the Big Business of Breeders, Pet Stores and Rescuers, she investigates the various channels through which dogs are purchased—keeping in mind that there are differences of scale between those who broker commercial puppy sales and those who provide shelter/rescue adoptions. Both, however, involve financial transactions. Her basic premise is that we as buyers need to be aware of our marketplace choices. Through crowdsourcing our views, she says, we might be able to make a difference. “We need to be conscious consumers when it comes to our dogs. None of us likes to think of our beloved dog as a product, but legally and financially, that is what dogs are.”
In the first half of the book, she takes us behind the scenes of the commercial dog world, from dog auctions to dog shows like Westminster (of which she is no great fan), breeders and the largescale brokers who provide overpriced puppies to pet stores. The second half focuses on rescuers and shelters, and what makes some of them more successful than others. The book also has a very useful chapter with questions that ought to be asked of breeders or shelters before getting a dog.
Kavin has developed a companion website, dogmerchants.com, that has listings for thousands of breeders and rescuers/shelters, and is now taking reviews and your suggestions. Might this change the way dogs are marketed? Will negative reviews actually expose those breeders or other “dog merchants” and have an impact on the way they do business? Will it hold them to account? Will it promote those who receive positive reviews? Kavin is definitely putting a lot of effort into weeding out the bad and “making the world a better place for dogs.” We can only hope that this works. While we might have questions about how the comments on the site are being vetted, we do applaud her for both it and her book.
See our Q&A with Kavin and read an excerpt from Dog Merchants, plus read an excerpt from The Underdogs.
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