Monday, June 27, 2011

Dog Sense: How the New Science of Dog Behavior Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Dog, by John Bradshaw

Basic Books, ISBN 9780465023486, May 2011

It was the best of books, it was--not the worst of books, not by a long shot, but incredibly annoying in places.

This is a serious effort at collecting in one place the current state of the science of dog behavior. Bradshaw discusses the evidence we have for how and when dogs evolved from wolves,  as well as what dogs' close relationship to wolves does and doesn't mean for their behavior and needs in human households. For the last century or so, much training and dog management advice has been based on the idea that wolf packs are competitive, internally violent groups, dominated by the fiercest, most powerful male, or possibly the fiercest, most powerful male and female--the "alphas." Since, the reasoning goes, "dogs are wolves," dog owners need to establish themselves as "alpha" and dominate their dogs, lest the dogs seize control of the household and become problems and even threats.

Bradshaw explains in clear and understandable terms why every piece of this argument is wrong.

The studies that showed wolf packs as violent groupings dominated by the strongest were done with artificial, captive wolf packs--wolves who were not related to each other and had no way to leave the group if they weren't happy with. They had no choice but to work out Who's In Charge Here, by any means necessary. Natural wolf packs in the wild have since been studied extensively, and they are, in contrast, peaceful, mostly harmonious family groups. The "alpha pair" are in fact the parents of the younger wolves. Depending on local conditions, offspring from past litters may stick around for a year or three, helping to raise their younger siblings before eventually heading off to find mates and start their own packs. Where plentiful large game is available, a stable, long-lasting pack may include not only several years' worth of offspring, but siblings of one or both of the mated pair--aunts and uncles helping to hunt large game and feed and care for the pups.

So wolves aren't what we think they are. But then, neither are dogs what we're sometimes told to think they are--and we know this, from our own observations of our own dogs. Most dogs who have had reasonably normal puppy experiences are extremely friendly and social, both with humans and with other dogs. Wolves, as harmonious and cooperative as they are within their own family groups, do not share dogs' interest in being friendly and social with either humans, or other wolves. Contact with wolves outside the family pack doesn't always descend into violence, but it's always an occasion of conflict, with the resident group warning off the intruders. If our domestic pet dogs shared the behavioral traits of wolves to the extent that "dominance-based" training tells us they do, there would be no dog parks. We wouldn't have the idea of dog parks; it would engender not visions of happy dogs playing, but of conflict between dogs or groups of dogs of different households. Just the fact that dogs form close social bonds with humans is a clue they're not like wolves behaviorally; wolves are incredibly wary of humans, and even where an individual human has formed a relationship with an individual wolf, wolves don't have dogs' inclination to trust our judgment, regard us as sources of information, or respond to human body language.

Bradshaw goes further, and points out that today's wolves are the descendants of several hundred years of relentless human hunting and territorial encroachment; they've been effectively selected for distrust and wariness of humans in a way that wouldn't have been true of the original wolf protodogs who first started following humans to exploit our leftovers, and then gradually joined our human families and their skills for our skills to the greater prosperity of both species.

The wolves our dogs evolved from don't exist anymore.

The book further discusses how easy it is to get dogs to focus on humans. A dog who has no contact with humans as a puppy will normally be quite wary of people and is unlikely to be successful as a pet, but even minimal positive contact with humans at any point between the ages of three and eight weeks of age will set the puppy up to be ready to bond with humans and learn to be a good pet. How much contact, and at exactly what age, will affect how easy and smooth it is, but any positive contact with humans during that period will give the dog at least the minimal tools it needs to live with humans.

So, that's the good stuff. There's a lot of it, I've barely scratched the surface, and you really do want to read the book and get all of it, with Bradshaw's much fuller explanation, references to more sources, etc.


You knew there was a "but" coming, right?

Bradshaw says dogs are becoming less common as pets in the cities, being pushed out to suburban and rural areas. Maybe in the UK, I don't know, but not here in the US, where instead there is a shift to smaller dogs and/or lower-energy dogs, more likely to be happy and successful in cities--while the larger and/or higher-energy dogs remain extremely popular with people who have either more room, or a lifestyle that enables them to give those dogs the exercise and stimulation they need, regardless of geographic location. He says cats have become more than dogs as pets in the US--this is completely wrong. There are more cats than dogs kept as pets in the US--but more households have dogs than cats. The discrepancy in numbers is due to most cat owners having at least two cats, and often more, while dog owners are far more likely to have only one at a time--and this is often true even in households that have both. There's no evidence that dogs are falling in popularity as pets--not with the huge increase in numbers of dogs, numbers of households with dogs, and percentage of households with dogs over the last thirty years.

He also has a great deal to say about purebred, or, as he terms it, "pedigree" dog breeding, and he says it over and over. He talks about excessive inbreeding, kennel club regulations that prevent out-crossing to deal with mistakes that have made genetic diseases common in some breeds, the loss of genetic diversity within each breed, and emphasis on extremes of type due to show standards, leading to what are in effect major deformities in some breeds that make them less than viable.

These are all real concerns, some of them more so in some breeds than others, and yet he makes a complete hash of his discussion of it. Bradshaw places all the responsibility for the current problems on show breeders (who are not without fault), and completely misses the degree to which all of these problems are worse in puppy mills (puppy farms, commercial puppy factories, pick your terminology.) Many (not all) show breeders study pedigrees and do genetic testing where tests are available, to minimize the chance of producing puppies affected by the known genetic problems of their breed. Puppy mills don't; as long as a female can whelp litters of commercially viable size, they'll breed her. Many (not all) show breeders think seriously about the Coefficient of Inbreeding (COI) and out-cross to different lines to the extent practical within their breeds. Puppy mills don't; they'll happily breed a bitch to her full brother if it happens to be convenient, and it often is. Many (not all) show breeders follow up on the pups they place in pet households as well as show and performance households, and include the long-term health of those puppies in their considerations of future breeding decisions. Puppy mills don't.

Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, a breed he specifically mentions as being descended from just six individuals and having serious genetic problems as a result (I think he's wrong; I believe it's four individuals), are a breed in deep trouble, no question. These sweet, loving, perfect pets are at severe risk of developing heart disease, syringomyelia, or both, even when they come from the best breeders. I honestly believe that this is a breed that's doomed  unless planned, controlled out-crossing is introduced to fix their compromised genetic heritage.

But 100% of the breeders who care about this, and who are doing their best within the available rules and tools to save this wonderful breed, are the dread "show breeders." Backyard breeders, even the best, even the ones that love their dogs and really are breeding wonderful pets--an undertaking that gets too little respect in a world in which most dog owners desire dogs as pets and not as working companions--don't have the knowledge to do this. And the puppy millers, as well as most of the backyard breeders, simply don't care and aren't going to cut into their own profits by worrying about it.

Bradshaw doesn't state clearly enough what I believe the real problem is: between the late 1860s when much of dog breeding in the West became divorced from working considerations with the corresponding excellent empirical grasp of genetics, and the 1960s with the beginnings of a real scientific understanding of genetics, the combination of dogs shows judging by a written conformation standard and the insidious effects of "eugenics" leading to a belief that being "purebred" was a good thing in itself, caused many (not all, by any means) breeds to go seriously astray genetically. And once the problems are established, they are hard to undo--especially with the strong commitment to purebred breeding, now largely divorced from the pernicious philosophy that originally produced it, blocking planned out-crosses to other breeds or mixes to eliminate or dilute the genetic problem while preserving the essential character of the breed. And while Bradshaw rails against "pedigree breeding," at no point does he mention the most convincing proof that we don't have to lose our breeds in order to fix them, if we allow planned out-crosses: The Pointer/Dalmatian Backcross Project, which has produced dogs that look and act no different than AKC/KC registered Dalmatians--except that they lack the Dalmatians' extremely painful problem with improper metabolism of uric acid.

It's a complete mystery to me why someone who cares so much about the long-term health and welfare of dogs would waste time talking about Jemima Harrison's sensationalist "documentary," Pedigree Dogs Exposed, and not talk about the Pointer/Dal backcross project, which proves we can solve the problems without losing the breeds we love.

On balance, this really is a very good book, and I do recommend it. Read it, argue with it, come back here and tell me what you think about it!

No free galley on this one; I bought the ebook.