A Good Read

Go to any bookshop and you will see a plethora of titles about dogs ranging from sentimental tales to coffee table extravaganzas and serious textbooks. Even the most obscure breed seems to have a title devoted to it and there is no shortage of people peddling their (literal) pet theories about feeding, training and general welfare. It can be hard to sort out good reads from the dross. Here are a few of my favourites for those cosy hours spent snuggling up with our pooches after yomping over the countryside.

The following very short list is entirely subjective, but I hope, the beginning of a journey for those of you who may be as inspired as I have been by the authors. All of the books are intended for the general reader but some have links to more in-depth reading for the technically-minded.

Dr Patricia McConnell The Education of Will, Atria Books, NY, USA, 2017

As I start out in my new career as a canine and feline behaviourist, I know that at least one of Dr Patricia McConnell’s books will always be near at hand. I am often tempted to hand over a copy of The Other End of the Leash as I hand my training clients their first clicker.

Although I’ve gazed at Wisconsin across Lake Michigan, I have never been there. However, I feel that I have got to know Tulip and Lassie and, above all Cool Hand Luke. Now I can add Willie and Tootsie to the cast. I live 4,000 miles away in a major, global capital city, but the language that exists between dog and human transcends all borders.

I knew that one of the reasons that I find Dr McConnell so inspiring is that she never seems to shrink from her own errors and then learn from them. There are many quotations from her autobiography The Education of Will that deserve to be engraved on plates and handed out to dog owners whenever the need arises:

“…dogs are always trying to talk to you; you just need to pay attention.”

“Seeking advice about behaviour problems in pets is often couched as the trivial pursuit of neurotics done only by the overly entitled. But canine behaviour problems can be serious. Life-and-death serious. Wondering if your dog, the one who was your best friend before you got married, is going to bite your three-year-old son is not a trivial question. Living in fear of a hundred-pound dog who has begun stalking you is not something you can ignore.”

““Take one dog and call me in the morning” is not a prescription you will ever hear from your doctor, but it would be a reasonable one. Healthy, happy dogs can be good for us.”

Just three examples from many.

The Education of Will reminds us of just how close the human-canine bond can be, often in spite of the circumstances “One client had stitched up a long gash in her own forearm herself, afraid that if she got medical care, her dog would be taken away from her.” The toll on the behaviouralist is not to be underestimated either …”emotional pain and suffering would come home with me every night, like cigarette smoke on my clothing.”

I was prepared to thank Dr McConnell for introducing me to a new cast of canine characters in her latest book The Education of Will, to enable me to learn from case histories of owners. However, nothing prepared me for the raw courage and open heartedness that Dr McConnell reveals in The Education of Will. when she discusses her own life history. I read a great deal through the mist of tears, throat tight and stomach clenched. For what Dr McConnell shares with us is her own personal demons and all-too-human trauma, the result of several horrific life events. Some are not unknown to me personally and it has made me understand my own relationship to animals, especially dogs, more deeply.

Dr McConnell reminds us “The dark side of being a responsible dog owner is being plagued with guilt and its handmaiden, shame”. It is also the dark side of being a certain kind of human. There are owners who buy and dispose of dogs as easily as if they were the latest must-have accessory. There are owners who bury their own guilt and shame in the furry ruffs of their damaged charges expecting it all to come better with “love”, and shelters, foster carers and behaviourists who then pick up the pieces.

So, thank you Dr McConnell. The Feisty Fido, I’ll Be Home Soon et al will help me with dogs but The Education of Will will help me with myself.

Marion Nestle Pet Food Politics: The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine, Atria Books, NY, USA, 2008
This is possibly the only independent, comprehensive account of the pet food recall scandal that rocked North America in 2007. Nestle sets it in the context of global food production and distribution and gives a balanced account of the consequences as far as they can be traced, allowing the lacunas to speak for themselves. It is eminently readable and provides the opportunity to dip into tabulated data where required.

Sadly, because of the mistrust engendered by the contamination and the lack of or delay in communication by those concerned, many pets are now being fed inadquate and often damaging home made diets because owners turned to bloggers and peers for advice. Reading this book would allow them to take a more measured view away from the heartache that losing a companion animal to such a cause engenders.

It comes as shocking news to a UK citizen to realise that the FDA had far fewer powers than its near-equivalent in the UK, the FSA, and may possily have shocked US citizens too. That they have now been improved is in some part due to writers such as Nestle. An important addition to any companion animal owner’s bookshelf.

Stephen Budiansky The Truth About Dogs, London, BCA/Orion, 2003

The Truth About Dogs has one of the best opening lines of any dog book that I have read and was certainly guaranteed to get me hooked. Budiansky is a serious science writer but he does not leave his sense of humour at the door of the lab. Some of the concepts outlined are now rather outdated, for instance, some of the theories and techniques dicussed regarding the origin of dogs, but it is nevertheless well worth a read. He outlines the definition of the domestic dog and goes into some depth about how dogs have wormed their way into human affection. Budiansky has written similar books on the cat and the horse (and, by the by, a pretty darn good book about Charles Ives to boot, so the musically minded might want to give that one the once over too).

Mary R Burch and Jon S Bailey How Dogs Learn, Hoboken, NJ, Wiley Publishing Inc, 1999

How Dogs Learn is rather more technical, but still a relatively easy read. It includes an excellent historical timeline of the history of learning theory and animal training and does not shy away from giving credit where it is due, even if modern theories and methods now rightly condemn some of the techniques that were advocated in the past. Although it is probably aimed at the serious dog trainer rather than the average owner, it is well worth putting in the effort required to understand at least the basics of the theory.

Charles Darwin On The Origin of Species, London, Wordsworth Press, 1859/1998

On The Origin of Species is not a dog book per se, but a is must on any reading list. Darwin was a dog lover and writes a lot about them. I am ashamed to say that I did not read this in its entirety until very recently and I was rivetted. Darwin’s vast knowledge, accrued a century and a half before the canine genome was sequenced went a long way towards proving his theories, is truly awe-inspiring. His style is extremely personable – almost like a fireside chat.

Jean Donaldson, The Culture Clash, James & Kenneth Publishers, 1996

So many people are used to thinking of dogs as accessories to their life, lesser beings there to merely entertain when required. There is not only no requirement to have any knowledge of how to look after a dog before purchase but, commonly, little desire as owners assume that it is obvious. The Culture Clash was one of the first books aimed at a general readership that tried to explain life from a dog’s point of view: not in an anthropomorphic, Disney-esque way, but genuinely empathetically. The section on Planet Gorn still chokes me up.

Alexandra Horowitz Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell and Know, Simon & Schuster, 2012

Alexandra Horowitz has spent many hours studying dogs at play. Although she is a respected academic, The Inside of a Dog is aimed at the general reader and provides a detailed insight into the world form a canine perspective (as far as we can assume). There has been a burgeoning of research into canine cognition in recent years and a lot of misguided rubbish has been published as it has then been mis-interpreted. This book corrects all the populist sensationalism and provides a brief digest of some of the research to date in a way that is extremely accessible. So, if you fancy putting a bucket over your head and assessing your dog’s reaction, this is the book for you.

Patricia McConnell The Other End of the Leash, Random House Publishing, NY, USA, 2002

I love this book! I wish that every dog owner could be handed a copy of The Other End of the Leash when they obtain their dog, if not before. Dr McConnell is not afraid to admit where she has made mistakes because she knows that it is a crucial step in the learning process – for dogs and humans. All canine/human life is here in this short, page-turner. Although most of us live very diffrent lifestyles to Dr McConnell, her experience with her own dogs as well as those of her clients can teach us all about living with dogs and improving our mutual relationship. She goes into some detail about the differences in body language and communication between primates and canids with useful illustrations which alone make the book worth buying. By the end, her dogs seem part of an extended family for her readers too. There are thoughtful insights into the differences and similarities between canine and human emotions, not least, the inevitable grieving process when a dog dies.

Karen Pryor Don’t Shoot the Dog!, Surrey, Ringpress Books Ltd, 2002

Written by the doyenne of clicker training, Don’t Shoot The Dog! has rightly been a revelation to many a dog owner. In spite of its sensationalist title (forced on the author by her publisher), this will give you all of the basics regarding how dogs learn and how to train without being overly technical. There are handy tables that outline likely training problems and solutions. It is sobering to remeber that many difficulties that are soluable with the right approach and a little patience have caused many an animal to be euthanised. This book has made a major contribution to halting that knee-jerk reaction.

Hal Herzog Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard to Think Straight About Animals, Harper Collins, 2010
Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat sums it up very concisely but don’t think that that is all there is to it. Again, not a dog book per se, but Professor Herzog has plenty to say about dogs and the way that our general attitude towards animals affects the way that we relate to our dogs. An entertaining and thoughtful read that demonstrates the way that random luck as far as the animal is concerned affects the way we think about and treat animals.