Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Goodbye Alpha Dog: A Review of Dog Sense by John Bradshaw

 Dog Sense: How the New Science of Dog Behavior Can Make You A Better Friend to Your Pet

John Bradshaw

Roscoe P. Whippet
My dog Roscoe and I had a very unusual relationship.  At least, it seemed that way in light of many of the books I was reading about dog training.  Sometimes, on a walk in the woods, we would come to a fork in the trail and I would start down one path only to realize that Roscoe wasn't coming.  Looking back, I'd see him sitting in his prim upright posture, staring down the other trail.  When he sat like that he looked like piece a of Egyptian statuary.  If it was a leisurely morning, and I didn't have to be anywhere, I would usually go back and take his path.  But on some mornings I had to be at work, and couldn't spare the time.  On those days, I would squat down beside him and look down the trail at his level.  I couldn't really see what he saw, of course, our eyes were too different.  But I knew that, being a whippet mix and a sight hound, he relied on his eyes more than most dogs.  I'd scratch his chest and just be there with him for a minute.  Usually I'd talk to him.  "I know, Buddy.  We can't go that way today because I have to get to work, but we'll come back soon, I promise."  It didn't really matter what I said.  That wasn't the point.  I felt like I was acknowledging his preference.  I was letting him know that he was heard.  Almost always, after a couple of minutes, Roscoe would get up and go with me.

The consummate Sight Hound, Roscoe always loved a view.
Many dog trainers would tell you this is all wrong.  You should never, they say, let a dog flaunt your authority.  You should always make sure that the dog knows that you are Alpha and you make all the decisions.  The reason for this (they say) is that dogs, being essentially wolves, are pack animals and it is in their nature to respond to the pack leader, the Alpha -- and if they don't see you as a strong alpha they will attempt to usurp that role themselves.  That's just the way wolves are.

Except it isn't.

I personally have never been comfortable in the "alpha" role.  It isn't in my nature.  And it wasn't in Roscoe's either.  I spent many, many hours with him at the dog park and watched him interact with other dogs.  He was a rescue dog, and I suspect he was never properly socialized as a pup (one of the many things we had in common) because he never quite knew how to get into the game other dogs played.  He wanted to, but he often ended up hanging out on the edges.  There was one thing he was very clear about though:  He didn't want to play any dominance games.  I never once saw Roscoe try to dominate another dog, and I often saw him make it clear that he wouldn't tolerate being dominated.  He had exactly the same attitude toward people.

It just never made sense to me that we would bring these animals into our homes, our lives, if all of our interactions with them were based on always maintaining our vigilance and dominance because at any sign of weakness they would revolt.  That seems more like being the overseer of a slave plantation than a loving pet owner.  

My most profound moments with dogs -- both as a dog owner and when volunteering in a shelter -- have never been about dominance or control.  They've always been about mutual respect.  

John Bradshaw -- author of Dog Sense:  How the New Science of Dog Behavior Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet -- says that the dominance model rests on two misconceptions.  First, it is simply not true that dogs are just like wolves -- they are descended from wolves, but they have tens of thousands of years of domestication and intensive selection behind them, and it has profoundly altered not just their appearance, but their behavior.  And secondly, our whole understanding of the nature of wolf packs is wrong.

Until fairly recently, almost everything we knew about wolf packs was based on observing wolves in captivity.  These were essentially artificial collections of wolves that had been forced to live together and could not leave.  Therefore, they worked out their relationships any way they could, and that often involved fighting for position in the faux pack.  But as scientists have been able to study wolves more in the wild, it turns out that's not at all the way real wolf packs operate.  Wolf packs are families.  And the same is true of other canine species as well -- Bradshaw also looks at rest of the canine family such as jackals, coyotes and African wild dogs in an attempt to re-create the common "social tool kit" that they inherited from the common ancestors.  He concludes that the most striking traits they all share are high sociability and adaptability -- traits that allowed wolves to become dogs and dogs to become man's best friend.  

Typically, a solitary male will pair up with a solitary female ... In many species the young leave or are chased away when they are old enough to fend for themselves, but not so in wolves ... the pups may stay with their parents until they are full grown. 

Funny, I don't remember ever hearing that from Caesar Milan.

Outside of primates and some bird species, canines are the most social animals on earth.  In fact, domestic dogs show a genius for social interaction, and have adapted so well to life with humans that they can read our social signals better than any other creatures.  Even young puppies have been shown to pick up on subtle signals, like following a person's gaze to the location of a treat.  No other species reads us that well -- not even our nearest primate relatives.  (Sometimes, not even our human relatives.) 

Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex among Apes
Chimpanzee Politics
It seems likely (to me) that the whole "Alpha" model says more about primate politics than it does about canines.  In our typical fashion, we have projected our own dominance models onto dogs.  (For more on the political heritage we share with our simian cousins, check out Chimpanzee Politics by Frans de Waal). 

But, no matter what wolves are like, dogs are not wolves. They are the descendants of wolves, in the same way we are descendants of our hominid ancestors. Using modern genetics and the wealth of recent studies on cognition and behavior, Bradshaw rebuilds our vision of who dogs are today.  Intelligent creatures with their own special talents -- extremely sensitive ears and noses for instance -- and their own limitations -- they have very little sense of time, they have trouble connecting what's happening now to past or future events, and recent studies show that they can probably feel love but not guilt.  (One of the many reasons why punishment is not a very effective way to shape canine behavior.)

I may not be the most objective reviewer -- ask anyone, I'll read just about anything about dogs. But canine evolution, cognition and behavior are among my favorite topics.  I've read everything that I can scrounge up on these subjects, and still I found new facts and new insights on almost every page of Bradshaw's book.  Dog Sense is one of the most accessible, entertaining and comprehensive overviews of these subjects you're going to find.  And for anyone who cares about dogs, it's a fascinating, fun book to read.  It opens up new possibilities for our relationship with our closest animal companions.

I just wish that my buddy Roscoe was still around, and that somehow he could read Dog Sense.  It would all be old news to him, of course.  He was trying to teach me these things his entire life.  But he'd be glad to know that we slow humans are finally beginning to get it.


(You might also be interested in my review of  The Loved Dog by Tamar GellerInside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz,  and the collective review "Whatever Happened to America's Dog".  And for more on the legendary Roscoe P. Whippet, see the "About" page on our sister blog Birdland West.)

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