Eccentric Musings (jakaEM)

"I have undergone sharp discipline which has taught me wisdom; and then, I have read more than you would fancy." Emily Brontë


still figuring this place out - Jen W

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Currently reading

Friend of My Youth
Alice Munro
Progress: 115/288 pages
Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature
Margaret Atwood
The Other End of the Leash: Why We Do What We Do Around Dogs - Patricia B. McConnell This is animal behavioural science, not dog whispering, and it should be required reading for everyone who has a dog, is thinking of getting a dog, or is at all interested in dogs. It's a necessary antidote or at least counterpoint to the "wolf pack/dominance" school of dog training.

The book is structured to compare and contrast primate (including human) behaviours and their underlying meaning with canine (wolf and dog) behaviours. McConnell itemizes and then analyzes the natural behaviours that people, as primates, exhibit and how these are sometimes at odds with those of dogs, sometimes lead to exactly the opposite response one is trying to achieve, and sometimes are downright cruel.

Everything from hugging, to looking at, to talking to your dog -- behavours that are so ubiquitous and natural among humans, but which are often utterly confusing or even off-putting to your canine friend.

Read the book just for this, and you will have many a-ha insights.

But it is the discussion of dominance - status - aggression that I hope people pay most attention to. The theme runs throughout most of the book, and the topic is covered in detail in several chapters. McConnell does a good, diplomatic but thorough, job in dismantling the au courant pack leadership dog training ideology, and explains how its underlying premise is flawed, fundamentally mislabelling dogs as wolves. She then persuades us of the stronger, kinder, evidence-based and more effective value of positive training (reinforcement/reward).

And, she doesn't throw out the baby with the bathwater - which is important. Like the behaviourist she is, she gently corrects and provides alternative, well-reasoned approaches that have a better chance at being effective.

The problem with training based on dogs-as-wolves stems from they deeply flawed theory that because dogs are descended directly from wolves (true), they therefore behave like wolves (not true; or at least, not true in some very specific and important ways). The dogs-as-wolves theory goes on make a lot of assumptions about what dominance is, how it is dislayed in wolf packs, how dominance (or rather, status) is achieved in wolf packs and most precisely, how adult wolves correct their pups. The gap between these already erroneous beliefs is then further widened when the assumptions are transposed to dogs, and becomes actually dangerous (McConnell uses the term "violent") when these assumptions are used to derive training practices for dogs.

McConnell does an outstanding job here at peeling back the layers of misconceptions - including the pervasive ones that relate to how wolves discipline their young (fact: by very sharp, quick nips at their muzzles as a last resort after ignoring them hasn't worked; fiction: by pinning them or by shaking them by the scruff of their neck) and how so-called pack leaders behave (even, who pack leaders are and what that really means).

She acknowledges the controversy within the dog training world about these issues, right down to terminology: dominance, aggression, status, discipline -- now an unholy mess of poor and misunderstood definitions and assumptions, no longer having much to do with the evolutionary biological facts and causing not just confusion, but out-and-out harm to animals.

Dominance-aggression? Incredibly rare, she says; a misapplication of two terms that are already poorly defined to a wide range of behaviours that may not be either (i.e., a dominance display or an aggressive one). Not only does she acknowledge the high-profile controversies, but she examines both sides of some of the practices that have emerged, including for example the "dogs shouldn't walk through the door first" principle that many hold as sacrosanct. (On this, she says there is some relevance to dogs of who goes through the door first, but it's not about who is the pack leader.)

The chapters looking at pack leadership versus benevolent leadership are insightful, well-articulated and - I would hope - eye-opening to those whose only frame of reference for the role that humans play in their dogs' lives is shaped by TV celebrities and trainers telling us we must assume the role of pack leader.

She details some truly tragic cases where owners have received training advice, applied it blindly not knowing any better, and ended up with incredibly damaged dogs, some of whom simply could not be rehabilitated. But she also tells heartwarming, beautiful and inspiring stories of where a simple readjustment based on a more complete understanding of the behaviour has resulted in a strengthened human-canine bond and - most importantly - happy, healthy dogs and people.

She talks a lot about her own dogs - Border Collies and Great Pyrenees. You will fall in love with them.

She outlines why behaviour is the primary and most important consideration in selecting a dog that's right for you - and not necessarily breed.

She recognizes individual differences, even - and especially - within breeds. At the same time, she understands the intricate, inextricable link between genetics and environment in creating behaviour. She uses a great simile to explain it that will stick with me: "Asking if the behaviour of either one of us is "genetic" or "environmental" is like asking if bread is formed by the ingredients or by the process by which you put them together."

McConnell is a scientist - rigorous, analytical - and an unabashed dog lover who admits to spending long nights, every night, spooning with her dogs. She loves them unreservedly. That is what leaps off this page, like a Border Collie in a field of sheep: her intellect and her emotion, well-balanced and devoted to supporting the healthy, happy human-canine bond.