The Secret Language of Dogs
by Victoria Stillwell
For the last few years, the dog-training world has been rife with conflict. One contingent, following the teachings of the likes of celebrity "dog-whisperer" Cesar Millan, believe that dogs and humans are in a constant struggle for dominance and that an integral part of training is teaching your dog that you're the alpha. Others, given voice by renowned animal behaviourists like Alexandra Horowitz and celebrity trainers like Victoria Stillwell, argue that positive reinforcement is the only sane, logical, and humane way to train. Full disclosure: I'm one hundred percent on the side of positive reinforcement. The old dominance chestnut stems mainly from flawed behaviour studies of captive wolves in fractured packs, overgeneralized not only to wild wolves but also to dogs. While I've read a lot of books by dog behaviorists, I haven't recently read all that many books by trainers, so I was interested to hear Stillwell's perspective.
The Secret Language of Dogs is a short, reasonably engaging treatise on basic dog training and behavior. I strongly suspect that I'm not the target audience-- I work one day a week in an animal shelter and this is far from my first dog book, so I wasn't overly impressed by the common-sense points that Stillwell presents. More problematically, it uses a tactic that I term "Proof by Expert": she presents a "fact" that she tells us was proved by scientific authorities rather than discussing the study itself. I think she is so focused on opposing Cesar Millan's abusive alpha-dog training style that she ends up sacrificing accuracy for simplicity and expediency. For example, Stillwell states that dogs aren't trying to dominate people because she says they are incapable of planning:
"A dog's cerebral cortex is not as intricate as a human's, so dogs can't strategize with such complexity."
This is specious reasoning in two ways. First, the statement she seeks to disprove says nothing about domination requiring equivalent brainpower to humans. Second, while it's at least a little better than the old weigh-the-brain chestnut that caused men to claim women were less intelligent for so many years, gross anatomical comparisons of brains aren't a great way to judge intelligence. A better argument would be to discuss the origin of the theory in the flawed captive wolf studies, or to examine some of the studies that compared training methods.
Like Horowitz, Stillwell also warns against personifying your dog. Again, I applaud her motivations; all too often, people expect dogs to behave like little humans and that's just not fair. However, I question some of her statements. Stillwell says that
"it is unlikely that dogs are truly aware of how their behavior affects others,"
despite the fact that there have been several studies indicating that dogs' emotional intelligence surpasses this level. She says that dogs are not "empathetic in the true sense of the word," when it's not even clear how you could objectively quantify such a characterization.
If you aren't in the habit of reading dog books, then I think this could be useful. It is engagingly written and--thankfully!-- pushes positive reinforcement rather than brutal "alpha" tactics. It is full of cute doggy pictures that are fun to flip through, and also has a quite a few fun facts. My personal favourite: the "zoomies," what we called "Bichon blitzes" with my dog, have the more formal name of "frenetic random activity periods," or FRAPs. While I think the book tends towards oversimplification, it also probably isn't intended to be a pop-science book in the vein of Horowitz. If you're looking for a fast and engaging starter book on dog behaviour, The Secret Language of Dogs is well worth a look.
~~I received this book through Netgalley from the publisher, Ten Speed Press, in exchange for my honest review. Quotes were taken from an advanced reader copy and while they may not reflect the final phrasing, I believe they speak to the spirit of the book as a whole.~~