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.

Lee Allen Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut How To Tame A Fox (And Build A Dog), University of Chicago Press, Chicago, USA, 2017

“You become responsible forever for what you tame”,  says the character of the fox in de Saint-Exupéry in Le Petit Prince. What if humans created a domesticated fox? Well, that is exactly what Dimitri Konstantinovich Belaev did in his extraordinary longitudinal experiment in the heart of Russia. The vagaries of Soviet/Russian politics over the last 80 years which again see Russia largely isolated, the details of the work were not only shrouded from most scientist outside of Russia but of necessity initially, for insiders too.

The extraordinary bravery and dedication, not only of the scientists but the huge team of support workers, often working under very difficult conditions, have enabled revelations into the very process of domestication and the amazing result that is the domestic dog. More than that, it sheds light upon human evolution too…

Like Charles Darwin and Ivan Petrovich Pavlov before him, Belyaev did not have the tools, technique or knowledge that are available to geneticists today but nevertheless applied rigorous scientific methods to deduce what we are only just beginning to prove.

The little Russian cousins of our dogs have much to tell us about the unique relationship between man and dog and abut ourselves too.

Gareth Steel Never Work With Animals, Harper Collins, London, 2022

The success of the latest version of All Creatures Great And Small and countless feel good television programmes where animals go into vets and make miraculous recoveries feed the rosy glow that people like to feel about animals and their healthcare. 

Of course, the reality is different and the very same people that lap up such evenings sitting on their sofas with companion animals may be the very same people that accuse their vet of being money-grabbing, refuse to take an ill animal to be treated through fear, pecuniary considerations and, all too often, having administered a quack remedy that make the situation much worse for all concerned.

The world that Alf Wight worked in in the years immediately before and after the Second World War would in many ways be unrecognisable to a veterinary graduate in the 21stC, and, for that matter to the clients and patients. For a start, veterinary studies are immensely competitive and very pressured and that doesn’t stop upon graduation. Wight failed most of his exams and took an extra year to qualify which now, if he wasn’t thrown off the course, would mean an additional £9,000 in tuition fees alone. A graduate in Scotland would pay £6,000 less per year than one in England but could still qualify with a debt of more than £60,000. What is also little known, is that Wight, much as he loved his work, had a nervous breakdown in 1960.

Steel covers all of this and much more in his account of working in mixed practice, as a locum and occasionally as an emergency cover vet. He is bravely honest about his own shortcomings as he struggles with the need to retain clients for the sake of their animals and do the the right things ethically and clinically and, of course commercially. He is also well aware that vets commit suicide at four times the rate of the general population.

This is not all doom and gloom; there is plenty of humour and plenty of proposed solutions for the complex world that is modern veterinary medicine.

Kim Brophy Meet Your Dog: the game-changing guide to understanding your dog’s behaviour, Chronicle Books, San Francisco, USA, 2018

This book indeed could be game-changing if not life-saving for dogs. Brophy categorises dogs much in the way that Pliny tells us the Romans did. Forget kennel club designations: here we have the natural dog (basal breeds), the sight hound, the guardian, the toy dog, the scent hound, the gun dog, the terrier, the bull dog, the herding dog and the world (village) dog. Each category of dog is explained in the context of the four dog “LEGS” – learning (experience and education), environment (the dog’s external world), genetics (what DNA tells us) and self (the dog’s internal world).

After explaining the four LEGS in more detail, each category of dog is examined with sliding scales showing how likely such a dog is to adapt to indoor living, exhibit acceptable behaviour in public and extent of independence. There is also a list of reasons why such a dog may cause an owner to seek professional help.

So many people expect all dogs to chase balls and love people and just want to please humans. Too many are dismissed as being untrainable – including by many so-called trainers – if they do not live up to these unrealistic expectations.

This book explains the why and how of different types of dog using science and more than a soupçon of humour.

Linda P Case Feeding Smart, Autumn Gold Publishing, Mahomet, IL, USA, 2022

There is a paucity of good reading available about dog food in inverse proportion to the amount of opinion on the subject. This is an easy to read, comprehensive, well-designed book that also provides citations so that primary sources can be checked for those that have the inclination. It is aimed at the American market so some the regulatory details will vary from those in the UK, but the principles remain the same. It handles a complex subject in a way that would enable the inexperienced reader to make informed decisions. If there is a quibble it is that it would be easy to guess what the author feeds as this is the one area where she makes a bald statement and does not offer balanced arguments against – see if you can spot what it is.

Jessica Pierce and Marc Bekoff A Dog’s World: Imagining the lives of dogs in a world without humans, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, USA, 2021

At first sight, it may be odd to want to consider a world for dogs without humans. After all, even with the inclusion of lupus in the taxonomic designation of dogs, they are, uniquely among canids, canis familiaris. Even though approximately 80% of the world’s estimated 1 billion dogs live freely and not as companion animals, most depend to some extent on humans for food and sometimes shelter.

By considering a world that it immediately and suddenly bereft of humans, this book sheds light on how the 20% of companion dogs live as well as free-ranging and feral dogs. If you haven’t already, it should make you think long and hard about the detrimental effects that humans have on dogs – often when they think that they are doing just the opposite.

The authors do dip into a little science, but this is an accessible read for the thinking dog owner and well worth a read.

Dr Clive Wynne Dog Is Love, HMH Books, Boston, MA, USA, 2021

Do not be put off by the title. This is a book based on science not sentiment, by one of the most eminent canine academics. Do not be put off by the science. Dr Wynne discusses much recent research about dogs in an extremely accessible way but, most importantly from an intriguing angle. There is no scientific definition of love but, it seems that it really might underpin the co-evolution  of dogs and humans. So it’s not just about freeloading easy dinner after all.

Dr Tim Lewis Biology of Dogs, Dogwise Publishing, WA, USA, 2020

This a brilliant book that is honestly a laugh a minute. Dr Lewis is known to his friends, we are told, as Timipedia and for good reason. In between laughs (he is keen on wordplay and never misses a chance for a pun – hooray!), I frequently exclaimed “I didn’t know that!” and it certainly won’t leave you short of trivia quotations. He’s actually an expert on turtles, but he keeps and competes with collies and there are plenty of useful anecdotes alongside the science. This a very accessible book that still treats the reader as intelligent and is informative and enjoyable whatever your level of knowledge.

Dr Karen B London Treat Everyone Like A Dog, Animal Point Press, Flagstaff, AZ, USA, 2020

Considering that in spite of everything, dogs really are man’s best (and first) friend, there are a remarkable number of derogatory terms involving dogs. The only good thing about that is that it provides the chance for a slight shock effect for the title of this excellent book on positive reinforcement.

If most dog owners treated humans the way that they actually treat their dogs there would be a huge backlog in the courts to hear abuse claims and a lot of doctors treating sore necks, sore backs and mental anguish, not to mention false imprisonment claims.

This book is for them and for the more enlightened who use positive reinforcement. There are plenty of dog trainers who could do with lessons in how to treat their clients positively too.

Karen London explains why positive reinforcement is more effective in getting all types of animals – including humans – to change their behaviour and doesn’t shy away from her own failings in that regard. It is also an excellent primer for the basics in positive reinforcement training for dogs. London explains why having an understanding of the basics of the science behind the techniques is important, with a couple of informative examples where breaking the rules was the most effective and safest option. As she says “Good trainers know the rules. Great trainers when to break them”.

Dr Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pierce Unleashing Your Dog. A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible, New World Library, Novarto, CA, USA, 2019

This is one of the few books that really does live up to the promise of its title. It should be a mandatory read for the vast majority of dog owners, not least those who have had a succession of dogs and think that years owned and numbers of dogs equal expertise as in the “I’ve had dogs all my life” syndrome.

It is written in very accessible prose with excellent references and opportunities for further reading without cluttering the text with in-line citations or being overwhelming. Although largely aimed at the North American market (it does however cite the PDSA PAW Reports), it should be noted that some details are not pertinent to the UK. It is illegal to crop dogs’ ears in the UK and non-clinical tail docking can only occur under limited circumstances in working dogs. I have some minor quibbles too: I think that it could come down on the side of non-aversive training a little more but it is clearly attempting to enter such debates in a commendably non-antagonistic manner. I am especially delighted that the authors mention over-exercise as well as lack of exercise and explain why running with dogs is rarely a good idea.

Best of all, it discusses dogs’ need for mental stimulation as well as exercise. It covers basic skills in observing canine body language including common misconceptions (growl=bad, wagging tail=good, for instance). It explains why hugging dogs is not good and why so many of the behaviours that people dislike need to be accommodated, modified, sublimated or plain old allowed because they are natural canine behaviours. It mentions the imperative for undertaking lifelong training and dips into some of the most recent research to whet the appetite of the inquisitive reader for more.

At last, an “owner’s manual” that puts the dog where it should be – squarely in the centre.

Alex Gough and Niall Taylor No Way to Treat a Friend: Lifting the Lid on Complementary and Alternative Veterinary Medicine (Evidence Based Science), 5m Publishing, 2017

Forget “essential oils”: this is essential reading. Companion animals can be expensive, no more so when they need healthcare. Shielded from the real costs of medical care by the NHS, owners can be quick to condemn vets for profiteering and are often tempted to see what they can do for themselves. All sorts of potions and lotions are available over the counter, not to mention the owners who give their animals human medications. Genuine concerns about “Big Pharma” are used to attempt to justify quackery by both practitioners and proponents of so-called alternative medicines.

This book shows how companion animals suffer greatly by the actions – or inactions – of anti-vaxxers and purveyors of preparations that are no more than water and hokum. Unlike humans, they have no choice in the matter. At last, the realities of this appalling situation are here put into context and there are links to the excellent web site Rational Veterinary Medicine so that you can keep up to date with the latest publications.

In spite of pressure within the veterinary profession with thousands of vets signing petitions, it beggars belief that animals can still be effectively left without treatment by vets (approximately 50 in the UK) that are still sanctioned by their professional body the RCVS. In spite of the RCVS stating that there is no proven effectiveness in homeopathy and other “alternative” options, it is clear that they are, in contravention of its guidelines, being used as a first line option by some practitioners not as a “complement” to proven veterinary treatments. The membership body representing vets, the British Veterinary Association, is unequivocal in its opposition as are DEFRA.

This book will show you why. It not only looks at the evidence, it goes into great detail about different claims, flaws in studies and produces case histories, some of which make tragic reading.

A must for anyone who even remotely considers buying bottled cannabinoids or whatever the latest fad is. At best, you will come away lighter in the pocket, at worst, you could be causing serious suffering.

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

Stop Press April, 2019
Dr McConnell lost her beloved Willie to a primary adenocarcinoma on Sunday, April 14th, 2019. This book will be a lasting memorial to a wonderful dog.

As I started out in my new career as a canine and feline behaviourist, I knew that at least one of Dr Patricia McConnell’s books would 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 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.

André Alexis Fifteen Dogs, Serpent’s Tail, London, 2015

Two gods walk into a bar…Surely all the best stories start this way. One of the problems with being immortal is that it leads to a lot of boredom. Hermes and Apollo argue about what would happen if dogs had human intellects so they grant powers to a random group of fifteen dogs that have been kennelled overnight in the vet.

This is a work of fiction that is grounded in a comprehensive understanding of canine and human behaviour. It’s not always an emotionally easy read but it will give you a lot of insight into the canine mind. Anthropomorphism at its best.

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 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 gives 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 it is a must on any reading list. Darwin was a dog lover and wrote 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 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.

Karen sadly now has dementia but luckily she has left a written and video legacy which has and will continue to enable many people and animals to benefit from her wisdom and experience.

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, often affects the way we think about and treat animals.

Louis de Bernières The Red Dog, Vintage Books, London, 2007

The Red Dog (also known as Bluey, Tally Ho and Dog of the Northwest) was a red kelpie that lived in the arid Pilbara region of Western Australia in the 1970s. Although originally owned, he became semi-feral and was looked after by various members of the community like village dogs in many parts of the world. His story was recorded in newspapers which is how author Louis de Bernières discovered it and wrote this semi-fictional account. There is a plaque near to his grave and a statue in Dampier, one of his regular haunts. Warning though – it doesn’t have a happy ending.

Georgi Nikolaievich Vladimov Faithful Ruslan, Penguin, London, 1975

Again this is fiction, written in 1975, long before canine behaviour became a scientific study in its own right, yet it gets to the heart of the issue of the way that many dogs are brutalised by humans just as it documents how humans become brutalised and brutalising. It is a very hard read emotionally but well worth the effort, if only once. I am not sure that I could face reading it again, but it occupies a precious space on my bookshelf.

Dogs have worked for man for millennia – indeed it is at the root of canine domestication – whether they want to or not. Faithful Ruslan also shows how Ruslan manages to live during the brief time that he is not controlled by a human, providing insight into how approximately 80% of the world’s dog live today.

It has an interesting origin; Vladimov was told by journalists that a businessman had travelled to Kazakhstan and seen guard dogs starving because they had been trained only to accept food from their handlers so as not to run the risk of being poisoned. Moreover if they saw a line of people, they would heard anyone deviating from the line back into position. Vladimov initially wrote his story in 1965 as a satirical comedy but his editor at the literary publication Novy Mir thought that it struck the wrong tone. Vladimov retracted it but it leaked out as anonymous samizdat. By the time that Valdimov had revised it, the relative liberalisation of the Khruschev Thaw had ended so it wasn’t published for another decade. It was first published in an English translation four years later.