Book review: In Defence of Dogs

In Defence of Dogs – John Bradshaw

It feels sadly ironic that I finished reading this book just now, with the recent fire at the Manchester Dogs Home. What happened was truly terrible, and I hope the little monster responsible gets everything he deserves. But at the same time, it is heartening just how many people have responded: over a million pounds raised in donations in 24 hours, and apparently so many people wanting to donate items they caused a gridlock. There are more good people than bad out there – it’s just very unfortunate that apparently nobody was able to explain to this particular bad person why starting a fire and killing dozens of dogs is wrong.

It’s a bit hard to write a review of this book, as it doesn’t really lend itself to the typical analysis. It’s a non-fiction book, but one that’s far more straightforward than the others I’ve read this year. It has facts, and some scientific points to argue, and it simply lays everything down. There’s a lot of detail; you can’t really skim-read this one, so I’ve found myself reading it slowly even though it’s not an especially big book. But ultimately, the content is what’s important, and In Defence of Dogs is the kind of book I’ve always wanted to read about dogs: looking at them from a scientific perspective.

The book starts off with the evolutionary origins of dogs from wild ancestors, and some interesting historical lessons on the likely processes that took place to integrate them with humans and the timings of these events. We then get a particularly enlightening chapter where Bradshaw argues that training methods emphasising dogs’ similarity to wolves, and the crucial factor of dominance – something my family certainly took seriously when we got a dog – are actually inappropriate; not only because wild wolves’s social lives do not actually revolve around dominance (these conclusions are based on captive animals that have been forced together), but because dogs have evolved so much that they are now very different from wolves in many ways. This chapter also examines something I’ve always wondered about: how dogs might live if they were left to behave naturally, without being controlled by humans – Bradshaw uses pariah dogs from West Bengal to explore this. Bradshaw gives a convincing argument regarding dog and wolf behaviour, but I was left a bit dissatisfied because he doesn’t say much about mounting behaviour: while it often does have a sexual context, I’ve witnessed intra-dog mounting that does look more like dominance behaviour, or maybe that’s just superficial. I’d like to get more of an explanation for that.

The books continues with some information on dog training, on dogs’ emotional and intellectual capabilities, and even considerations of dogs’ changing role in human society. Although this is not primarily a book on how to train your dog, there is definitely some useful information here. Repeated emphasis is placed on the fact that dogs simply do not think the same way we do. A dog who is punished for tearing up a cushion while at home alone doesn’t understand what they’ve done wrong, because they can’t associate the punishment with what they did a few hours before. Dogs don’t feel emotion the way we do. (There is a chapter entitled “Does Your Dog Love You?” – but don’t worry, the conclusion is in the positive.) They don’t even sense the world the way we do – they live in a world of smell. Sometimes, what looks like genuine insight on the dog’s part actually comes from a more simple learning and association process. It may be impossible to completely get inside a dog’s head, but this book gives it a good try with the information available to us.

So although it was a slow read, this was a brilliant book. It was written by someone who is not only intellectually interested in dogs but clearly loves them for what they are too – and anyone else who loves them should give it a look. Rating: 4.5/5.

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About velociraptor256

Hi, my name's Richard. I created this blog to talk about my interests - and I have quite a few of those. I love zoology in general, herpetology in particular (especially snakes!), writing (have won National Novel Writing Month seven times so far, plus three Camp Nanowrimos), reading, astronomy, palaeontology, and travel. Thank you for coming to my blog, and I hope you find something that interests you here!
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