Review of Let Dogs Be Dogs by Patricia McConnell, Ph.D.

Perhaps the next step will be finding common ground
By Karen B. London PhD, October 2017

There were many responses to Patricia B. McConnell, Ph.D.’s review of Let Dogs Be Dogs: Understanding Canine Nature and Mastering the Art of Living with Your Dog, which was written by one of the Monks of New Skete (Brother Christopher) and a dog trainer (Marc Goldberg). In McConnell’s review, she pointed out some serious concerns she has with the methods in the book.

Mostly, her review was well received, but there were a few detractors. When people disagree over methods in dog training, there can be angry words and discord, which is less productive than debating the methods. It’s disheartening, especially when attacks become personal, but I’m always hopeful that disagreements will be overshadowed by discussions and that we can find some common ground.

McConnell points out that a big point of contention concerns the concept of “leadership”, a term that has been causing angst and intense disagreement within the field of dog training for decades. The term has so much baggage that few people use it now for fear of being misunderstood. However, that doesn’t change the fact that in social species, some individuals are followed or looked to for reassurance and guidance more than other individuals are.

In her review, McConnell wrote, “Dogs do need to know that we have their backs, that they can count on us when they need protection. Dogs do look to us–to protect them, to feed and water them and to provide nurturing and social acceptance. One can indeed argue that dogs are attracted to people that some would call “natural leaders” in the best sense of the word. However, (and I want to say this in capital letters, but would rather not yell), this has nothing to do with leash pops or “strong verbal no’s”. It has everything to do with being around someone who is comfortable in his or her own skin.”

There is a need for a thoughtful discussion about what our dogs need from us, especially when they are troubled or need reassurance. However, any such discussion seems destined to get bogged down because any suggestion that people are taking care of things or that they are in charge gets into the term leadership. The term is so loaded that emotions often take over, the war of words continues and it’s hard to have a useful exchange of ideas.

Encouragingly, McConnell is interested in initiating a productive discussion about how we can be there for our dogs in meaningful ways. In a blog responding to the feedback of her review, she wrote, “The book talks about leadership, a word that has become polluted with so much baggage that it is almost worthless (or worse) now in many circles. But buried in that concept is the fact that dogs need to feel safe and secure, and it is our job to help them feel that way. . .There is no doubt that some training methods can undermine a dog’s sense of safety, but this is not so much an argument for or against any method, but more a question of how to we provide that “secure base of attachment” that social creatures like people and dogs seem to need?”

She continues with, “Could this be the issue that finds common ground between the two “camps”? I think this concept is important, but like much of the rest of the world, dog training has become so polarized that it’s difficult to have a discussion about it. But I’ll put it out there now, in hopes that we can continue the discussion in a thoughtful, positive way. I’m going to reach out to the Brother Christopher to see if he and I could at least talk about it. I’ll keep you posted.”

Let’s hope that the result is a frank discussion of methods and ideas that ends up improving the way we interact with and train our dogs as well as our relationship with them, to the benefit of both species.

Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression. She is the author of five books on canine training and behavior.