1000 pictures

October 4, 2012 § Leave a comment

I’m fascinated by dogs and by their behaviour and body language. I often wonder what the relationship with my dog would be like if we could ‘talk’ a little more directly to each other. I want to be more able to ‘understand’ dogs, and I want to learn how to ‘read’ the signals given by dogs.

Barbara Handelman’s Canine Behaviour: A Photo Illustrated Handbook (2008) is a pictorial guide to canine behaviour. It gives a detailed look at dog behaviours and signals. These behaviours are illustrated by many photographs, but also by texts compiled from scientific work, letters to the author by various dog behaviour experts, as well as by quotes from poetry and other literary writings about dogs. The last section provides the opportunity to try and read photos of behaviours yourself first, and then provides an answer key.

These various forms of explaining and illustrating behaviours make the book a useful resource. I did not find it an easy to use resource, though. Although the key to using the book says that related behaviours are grouped in categories with section headings, the headings to me don’t make any sense other than its alphabetical order. A lot of typos in the text I also found a bit annoying. But these are questions of use rather than of content, and the book is full of useful information, such as in the section 11 ‘Learning Theory Terminology and Methodology’, which is a good primer (or reminder) of learning theory for dog training.

The many, many photographs (1000 of them), by various photographers, are exquisite, particularly the wolf photography by Monty Sloan. They themselves make the book worth having as a resource on your bookshelf. And the pure joy with which the book’s author revels in the love of dogs, celebrating their beauty with the many photos and quotes from literary texts that intersperse the behaviour terminology sections.

Here is a photo of my two dogs. They so often looked like they were ganging up on me, and their interactions always made me wonder what was going on.

It sure looks to me like my cheeky puppy Tuhi (on the left) is trying to talk my good dog Fin (on the right) into mischief.

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Friends, not slaves (John Bradshaw)

August 15, 2012 § 4 Comments

“[…] dogs are expected to be much better controlled than they used to be. There has never been a shortage of experts telling owners how to take charge of their dogs. When I took on my second dog, a Labrador/Airedale terrier cross named Ivan, I was determined that he would be better behaved than Alexis. I decided I ought to find out something about training but was then shocked to discover the approach adopted by the trainers of the day, such as Barbara Woodhouse, who seemed to see the dog as something that needed to be dominated at all times. This simply didn’t make sense to me—the whole point of having dogs as pets was for them to become friends, not slaves.”
— From John Bradshaw, 2010,
Dog Sense: How the New Science of Dog Behaviour Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet.

John Bradshaw is writing about dog training in the 1980s. But this idea of our pet dogs needing to be dominated at all times, because they are lurking in the corners of our houses waiting for our weak moments just to jump in and dominate us, is still one of the ideas governing a lot of dog training today. Just look at the still popular Cesar Millan. Or take for example Jan Fennell, self-proclaimed dog listener, who insists (and I mean really insists) that we must absolutely be the pack leaders with our dogs. Otherwise they’ll take over. All her protocols are geared towards so-called pack leadership. Her technique is based on ‘communicating’ with our dogs according to wolf pack principles. No mentioning that dogs are not wolves, nor have been domesticated from wolves by humans. Also no mentioning that we humans are usually not all that good at communicating within an extremely complex communication system of another species. ‘Dog language’ consists of visual, vocal, olfactory and probably many other signals. Most of us are not skilled ethologists, and we struggle understanding our dog’s body language most of the time, let alone ‘speaking’ it ourselves.

Whether Jan Fennell promotes a scientifically outdated model of dog behaviour matters, because the old “dominance” model of dog behaviour more often than not goes together with using (physical) punishment methods in training. Fennell does not promote physical punishment at all, but her work still supports a misunderstood idea of dominance. That kind of thinking will have consequences in how we behave towards our pet dogs. If nothing else, it makes us misunderstand so much of what our dogs are actually signalling — to their owners, to other humans, and to other dogs — and what they are trying to tell us. After reading her books I felt brainwashed. You must do this. You absolutely must not do that. Never. Trying to be with, let alone train, my puppy became a constant test of my “dog leadership” skills. But I’m not a dog. This approach of basing dog training on dominance is a shame. In Fennell’s case it’s a shame because the starting point of her method—how to train dogs and communicate with them in such a way so that they want to be with us and work with us—is so important.

Oh, and by the way, Alexis, Bradshaw’s dog mentioned in the quote above, was a Labrador/Jack Russell cross, and, in the author’s own words, a roamer, interested in the opposite sex. Bradshaw dedicated his book to Alexis, a “Real Dog”. One that had more freedoms than most dogs have today in our often overly controlled world, increasingly fearful of all animals and characterised by a stronger and stronger urge to control all things “nature”.

Writing about this quote from John Bradshaw’s book Dog Sense reminded me of a dog I saw on North Stradbroke Island many years back. It was a little black Staffie x, mangy and with a jandal threaded through his collar. He looked so sad and you could feel it so strongly, the image still sticks with me today. Back then I made a memory sketch of him.

Books and other readings

August 7, 2012 § 2 Comments

I always enjoy getting ideas for further readings, so I’ve added a page titled ‘Readings’ to the blog. I’ll fill it up with the books and other readings I come across while learning about dogs; with what I find useful and has influenced my thinking–about dogs specifically, and about our relationship with nature and animals more generally.

I was going to group them (‘dog training’, ‘dog behaviour’, ‘dog nutrition’, &c.), but then I got stuck with the pesky old question of how to categorise things. Things are always connected and can fit into so many categories, and I always struggle with where to stick things in. So I decided to just list them alphabetically and write a short annotation, so that you can pick and choose when browsing.

Happy reading and browsing, and it would be great to hear your thoughts on these and on your other readings.

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