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.)

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle by Thor Hanson

(Note: The bird photographs in this blog posting were taken by me, are copyrighted by me, and can only be re-used with my permission.)

Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle
Feathers:  The Evolution of a Natural Miracle, by Thor Hanson

"The true mystery of the world," Oscar Wilde said (sounding, unintentionally I'm sure, like a Zen teacher), "is the visible, not the invisible."  I think about that idea almost every time I watch birds.  A chickadee starts in a bush on the front edge of my yard, darts skyward, and then flies straight through the middle of the cherry tree -- through the close set branches, the thick spring leaves -- and out the other side.  It's something we see every day.  In fact, all too often, it's something we don't see at all.

And yet, it's a miracle.

Black-capped Chickadee

Forget, for a moment, the wonder of flight itself.  Think simply about what it takes for the chickadee to fly at full speed through that tree.  The precision control to fly through such tight spaces, avoiding all obstacles.  The speed with which eye and brain must process information, even in flickering, constantly changing light.  It's a feat that should take our breath away in awe.  Every time.

And the magic of birds is closely tied up with the secrets of their most distinctive feature:  feathers.  Most of us don't spend a lot of time thinking about feathers apart from the birds themselves, but Thor Hanson, a conservation biologist and author (his previous book was The Impenetrable Forest: My Gorilla Years in Uganda) has.  And the result is his new book Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle.  At the  risk of overusing the word, I have to say that the book itself is a kind of miracle too:  an enjoyable, well written popular science book that is not only neck deep in real, hands-on science -- from chemistry to evolutionary biology to acoustics and paleontology -- but also manages to take us to the quirky, off-beat places where the human fascination with feathers lives.  It's a delightful trip, and if I wanted I could probably write an easy, intriguing review just by listing some of the fascinating nuggets you'll stumble across in this book.  I'll try to resist that impulse.

Bird feathers can create color in two different ways, by pigment and by structural properties that effect the refraction of light.  Much of the vibrant blue of a Steller's Jay's color, for instance, is due to the refractory properties of the feathers, not just to pigment.

Hanson begins where all things in biology begin -- with evolution.  In 1861 a quarryman in Germany uncovered what would become one of the most famous fossils in the world  -- the ancient winged creature that scientists named Archaeopteryx.  When that fossil made its way to England, it sparked one of the most heated debates in the history of science.  On one side, Sir Richard Owen, Director of the natural history at the British Museum, the man who coined the word "dinosaur" and a staunch believer "species were created and altered only by the hand of God."  On the other was "Darwin's bulldog" Thomas HuxleyOn the Origin of the Species was only two years old, and the debate over evolution was front page news.  Owen flatly denied that  Archaeopteryx was any kind of intermediate step, claiming that it was "simply the earliest known example of a fully formed bird."  But Huxley was not convinced.  He undertook an ambitious study of avian anatomy, and answered Owen with a series of papers and lectures that showed Archaeopteryx similarities to both birds and reptiles.  "But he went further," Hanson writes, "identifying a small dinosaur ... Compsognathus longipes that resembled Archaeopteryx in everything but the feathers .... "  There at the very beginning of the debate, Huxley laid out the basis for what most scientists now believe is the inescapable conclusion -- birds are the descendants of dinosaurs, and specifically, of a class of bipedal dinosaurs called Theropods.

But the debate goes on.

A young Cooper's Hawk.
Hanson introduces us to Dr. Richard Prum, whose theory of the development of feathers, derived from his knowledge of how feathers grow, has become the framework for modern ideas of feather evolution. To Xing Xu, a Chinese paleontologist who has uncovered some of the most important links in the story of birds (and feathers):  Sinosauropteryx prima, the first fossil that showed, definitively, evidence of proto-feathers (dinofuzz) -- Caudipteryx zoui, also a theropod dinosaur, but with distinctive feathered hands and tail -- and many more.  And we meet the dissenters, like Alan Feducia, a professor at the University of North Carolina, the de-facto leader of an increasingly marginalized group who call themselves BAND (Birds are Not Dinosaurs).

Tiny songbirds, like these bushtits, are constantly faced with the dual challenges of staying warm and staying cool. 

But evolution is only part of the story.  Just as fascinating are feathers as they exist today, in all their diversity and wonder.  From insulating down to sensitive facial feathers that can read air currents with amazing accuracy to aerodynamic flight feathers as sophisticated as anything humans have designed.  Feathers are the most efficient insulating material in the natural world, far outstripping the abilities of skin, hair or scales.  For instance, a Golden Crown Kinglet, Hanson tells us, one of the smallest of songbirds, can survive in places where night time temperatures get as low as 17 degrees below zero (-27 C), and devotes the vast majority of its feathers (7 percent of its body weight) to insulation.  "The difference between the outdoor air temperature and the cozy space inside a kinglet's feather coat could be as large as an astonishing 140 degrees (Fahrenheit)  ...."  He goes on to note that hundreds of bird species live at least part of the year above the Arctic Circle, that Penguins incubate their eggs unprotected in the middle of the Antarctic winter, and that the Bar-Headed Goose flies over thirty thousand feet high in its migration over the Himalayas.  "At that altitude, the air temperatures and wind chill often combine to dip below -80 degrees Fahrenheit ... Like Kinglets, these birds rely on feathers to insulate their bodies against the elements."

There is much more to Hanson's book, and I can't possibly go into everything.  (The flip-side of feathers' insulating power is that birds, whose metabolic rates are much higher than mammals, have had to develop elaborate cooling systems to keep from overheating.)  He also shows us some of the ways humans have co-opted bird's feathers -- from fashion to the design of airplane wings to quill pens.

Feathers  is a book almost any bird person will love. 

Check out my most recent posting Newcomers:  Birds of Spring at our sister blog, Birdland West.

You can read more about the evolution of feathers in the recent National Geographic Article, here.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

A girl and her Sloth

Zoo City
Zoo City by Lauren Beukes


There's a blurb by William Gibson ("Very *very* good!") on the front cover of Lauren Beukes' Zoo City, and that seems appropriate.  Even though Zoo City is tagged as urban fantasy, we are definitely in Gibson-like terrain.  If it's not quite cyber-punk, it's the fantasy equivalent. 

Moxyland (Angry Robot)
Which isn't surprising.  Beukes' first novel , Moxyland, was clearly the great-grandchild of Virtual Light or Pattern Recognition.  Set in a South Africa that could be today -- or could be a future so near that it's out of date before you finish the book -- it features hackers, streamcast blogs, 'sponsorbabies' (nanotech implanted living advertisements), revolutionaries hiding out in the inner-city 'Sprawl', corporations that are indistinguishable from the government .... Charles Stross called it, "The larval form of a new kind of science fiction munching its way out of the intestines of the wasp-paralyzed caterpillar of cyberpunk."  Which seems like a very cyberpunk kind of praise to me.  

Chinatown (Special Collector's Edition)
China Town
This kind of fiction is as much a descendant of Raymond Chandler as it is of science fiction.  Neo-noir plots set on the fringes of society (but always involving the decadent and degenerate rich).  You could digitally re-master China Town, adding mutants and high tech hackers, giving Faye Dunaway a chic haircut and computer plug in the back of her neck, and it would all work just fine.  It's never been about the plot.  It's about the mean streets (or the mean paths of cyberspace) and the hard-edged, damaged-but-untarnished hero who's honest eye shows us the world we've made for ourselves.  Chandler himself complained while trying to write the screenplay to The Big Sleep that he couldn't keep the plot straight.  And really, we could care less.

The Big Sleep: A Novel
The Big Sleep
One thing's for sure:  Beukes is a good writer, with a sharp feeling for character and world building.  Zoo City, where the fringe of society survive on the borders of the law, is a place the police only come heavily armed and the respectable citizens don't come at all (or don't admit when they do.)  It is set in an alternate version of modern day Johannesburg, which shares our history -- but only up to a point.  This world also experienced (sometime in the last decades of the Twentieth Century, apparently) something called "The Shift".  There are hundreds of different explanations of what it is and what it did, but the world is unmistakably different.  And the same.  Africa is still Africa, torn by civil wars, plagued by AIDS, and South Africa, though far from perfect, is the haven the refuges flee to.  Zinzi December, is a former journalist and former junkie (she doesn't seem very proud of either) sent to prison for killing (or causing the death of her brother), who now makes her living finding lost things and writing stories for 419 scams.  Those are the kind familiar from your junk e-mail box, lamenting the sufferings of poor orphans and misplaced Nigerian royalty and promising great rewards to anyone kind enough to help (by sending money).  Zinzi is very good at tugging the heartstrings of the gullible.

Virtual Light
Virtual Light
The most visible effect of the Shift is the appearance of 'the animalled'.   All over the world, those who commit acts of deadly violence -- it doesn't seem to draw a distinction between deliberate murder and accidental manslaughter -- are gifted or cursed with a mysterious animal familiar.  They just show up, shortly after the incident.  No matter where the person is.  Even in prison.  And they aren't necessarily local animals.   Even their type seems to be random, although some claim that they reflect hidden aspects of the person's soul.  Zinzi has a sloth.

Along with the animal comes a special power or mashavi -- magical or psychic depending on your point of view.  Zinzi for instance, can find lost items.  In fact, she can see the threads that connect a person to the things he has lost, writhing around him like umbilical cords or tentacles.  It's not always a comfortable gift, but it allows her to function as a low-rent detective. 

I won't even try to summarize the plot.  Just like a novel by Chandler or Gibson, the plot is complicated, perverse and isn't going to stick with most readers very long.  It might not even hold up if you think about it too closely.   As I said before, plot has never been the point of this kind of fiction.  It's ultimately Zoo City, it's inhabitants, the strange world of the animalled, and the glimpses we get of the effect of the Shift on the wider world, that are fascinating here.  And they are very interesting indeed.  Beukes approaches the whole idea of her magical world with an almost scientific attitude -- she offers us multiple theories that never quite completely explain what has happened.
Pattern Recognition
Pattern Recognition

I sometimes think that the biggest difference between science fiction and fantasy is the direction in which they face.  Fantasy, even urban fantasy set in the present, is always looking backwards at the past.  Science fiction looks forward, toward the future, sometimes with hope, sometimes with fear -- usually with a mix.  If that's true, then Zoo City, despite its magic powers and mysterious animal familiars, is firmly in the science fiction mindset.  It's a portrait of a society dealing with change that comes too rapidly and that no one really understands. 

I must add a word of warning about the book's ending.  It is over-the-top violent and bloody and many readers (lovers of animals, humans included) might find it disturbing.  It's not uncommon in this type of story, for the ending to be the weakest point of the book. Part of the problem is main characters who are essentially observers, and who in the end don't really have much effect on the events they witness.  A bigger part is just what I keep saying -- the plot doesn't really matter, and when we get down to the business of tying up all the loose ends (or more often, not tying them up) that becomes a little too obvious. Gibson often suffers from that problem too.  (As did Chandler). In the best cases though -- and Zoo City is certainly one of the best -- the ending doesn't override the pleasures that come before it.

Gibson is right.  Zoo City is very good.

If you enjoy Books and Beasts, you might also enjoy our sister blog, Birdland West, which focuses on birds and wildlife around West Seattle, in Washington State.