Dog Sense: How the New Science of Dog Behavior Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet - John W.S. Bradshaw, Michael Page

I picked this up on audio in my continuing quest to try to understand dogs a little better.

In some ways, I think it makes for a nice companion read to Inside of a Dog. Bradshaw's focus is very different than Horowitz, who focuses mainly on doggy perception and the way the doggy umwelt differs from our own. Bradshaw is rather (too) dismissive of this angle of study and instead seems more interested in the genetic components.


Bradshaw spends quite a lot of the book expressing concerns about purebred dogs. Overbreeding tends to introduce various health issues, and since modern breeders tend to go for looks over temperament or abilities, dogs aren’t necessarily being bred for the “right” characteristics. As I spend all my time around mutts, it’s not an issue I really considered, but it is an interesting angle. After I read the book, I started looking into the controversy surrounding the AKC and the potential damage it does to the breeds it recognizes.


Unlike Horowitz, Bradshaw goes into far more detail about the evolution of dogs. Bradshaw hypothesizes that the genetic changes that produced dogs effectively trapped dogs in various neonatal stages. He also proposes a theory that dog owners probably subscribe to almost universally: your dog is a baby (wolf) that never grew up.


At the same time, Bradshaw is very emphatic about the distinction between dogs and wolves. He points out that the wolves of today are not the wolves of pre-dog times; just like dogs, they have continued to evolve. The wolves of today are the wolves that decided not to join the humans at the campfire and spent the rest of the millenia avoiding them. He also compares the behaviour of wolves to wild dogs. In the wild, wolves roam in highly cooperative packs primarily composed of family members. The position of alpha usually goes to the matriarch and patriarch, and it isn’t contended. The strict hierarchies we associate with wolf packs aren’t found in the wild; they are formed only when unrelated wolves are forced into artificial packs in captivity. Wild dogs don’t show either pattern; they don’t cooperate to the extent of wolves, but they don’t exhibit the rigid inability to accept non-familial pack members, either.


Bradshaw’s desire to emphasize the difference between dogs and wolves is well-founded. For decades, dog trainers have used the dog-as-wolf analogy to back up their recommendation of brutal training methods. According to popular TV trainers like Cesar Milan, your dog is a wolf who is always vying to become the alpha, so you must continually--and usually forcefully-- assert your own dominance. Bradshaw repudiates this reasoning: not only are dogs distinct from wolves, but that’s not actually how wolves behave. This is especially true with techniques such as the “alpha roll,” where the person forcibly rolls the dog and holds it in a submissive position. The “alpha roll” has been observed in wolves on occasion--it’s performed in extremely serious fights and is often followed by a death bite. If we accept that dogs are wolves, then putting your dog in that position is telling him that you’re considering killing him. It’s only natural for the dog to fight back. Bradshaw also discusses evidence that indicates that negative reinforcement, especially physical punishment, is ineffective.

Overall, while I don’t necessarily agree with all of Bradshaw’s interpretations, particularly on the intelligence studies, the book presents a lot of interesting research and hypotheses about what makes a dog a dog.