For anyone who has ever wondered how a dog’s brain works — or more importantly, how it differs from your own — here’s some must-read material.
By Jaymi Heimbuch, Mother Nature Network
Millions of us have dogs as household companions or have working dogs that we depend on to get tasks done. But how much do we really know about these faithful companions? How much do we really understand about how they take in information and view the world, about why they react the way they do to other people or animals, or even about which training methods work best and why?
For me, it took adopting a very smart, very active, and very sensitive dog to really get it. The things that worked well with my bemused and obliging Labrador just didn’t work with this newly adopted border collie-heeler cross. The stuff I learned watching dog training shows on television certainly didn’t work either. To build a relationship with this dog, I needed to learn everything from how he sees the world to how I use my body to communicate. In that endeavor to retrain myself so that I could train this dog, I learned that the vast majority of dog owners out there really haven’t a clue about how to live with dogs. We think we do — but mostly, we don’t. Dogs have learned to live with us, to understand us and bend to our wishes to a far greater extent than we have ever really bothered to understand them.
In the last few decades, science has taken a deeper look at our constant companions and we have learned an incredible amount about how dogs experience the world, interpret it, and how we can help them understand us better to avoid conflicts (usually in the form of teeth sinking into skin).
In finding success with training my own dog, I’ve come across some invaluable reading material. These books have made all the difference in helping me finally “get it” when it comes to understanding dogs and formulating my approach to training. These books have been just as important as the help of two wonderful trainers in changing how I communicate with my dog so that he learns what I’m asking for, I learn what he’s asking for, and we all live happily ever after. And I wish so much that I’d have known all this when I had my bemused and obliging Labrador — he would have appreciated it! If you love dogs, have a dog, or are thinking about getting one, the following books are must-read material.
- Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz. “Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know” by Alexandra Horowitz
I first picked up this book at an airport. I had just adopted my new dog — so unlike any other I’d known — and I thought it would be interesting to see if it had any tips for training this smart and sensitive new addition to the family. Turns out, I couldn’t tear myself away from the pages and finished it before arriving back home. This has been one of the most influential books I’ve read when it comes to dogs — or animals, for that matter. As someone who has been around dogs my whole life, it is amazing the things I didn’t know and never thought about. Horowitz takes the science of dogs and unboxes it so that average dog owners can understand how our dogs see the world — or rather, how they take in the world through their various senses — so that we can have a whole new level of curiosity, sympathy, and awareness about what our dogs do and why.
Not only is Horowitz’s language beautifully clear in discussing the science of dogs, but she also unveils her own relationship with her dog in short, prosaic stories scattered throughout the book. Readers discover answers to: Why does smell matter so much to a dog? Why can’t the dog find the tennis ball that’s right in front of its face? Do dogs consider family members a pack? How does my dog know I’m feeling nervous before I even realize I’m feeling nervous? Our dogs are amazing creatures with sensory capabilities we too easily overlook. “Inside of a Dog” shines a light on those capabilities, and helps us understand what it’s like to be in our dogs’ heads — and in turn, learn how we can be better companions to them. If you’ve ever been curious about what your dog is thinking and why, this is a truly illuminating read.
- The Other End of the Leash. “The Other End of the Leash: Why We Do What We Do Around Dogs” by Patricia B. McConnell
Why do dogs greet each other like that? We dog owners are often so very in the dark about why some dogs seem to fall instantly in love with each other while others fall into instant hate; why some dogs fawn all over us for attention while others can’t stand being hugged; why some dogs respond instantly to training while others seem to take forever to “get it.” This book — in a joyful, charming and often very funny way — clarifies how we as primates interact with each other, how dogs as canids interact with each other, why our interspecies interactions don’t always go smoothly, and how we humans can become more fluent in dog and improve our communication with and training of our wonderful furry friends.
Humble and self-deprecating while also confident and extremely knowledgeable, McConnell is one of those dog trainers we all wish we could know in person. Luckily, she does a wonderful job communicating her philosophy and what she’s learned through experience in this book. Not only does the book discuss a great approach to understanding our dogs’ communication style, but she also offers up solid advice about how to better communicate with your dog, seamlessly blending together concepts to consider and advice you can implement immediately.
- Bones Would Rain from the Sky. “Bones Would Rain from the Sky: Deepening Our Relationships with Dogs” by Suzanne Clothier
It would be easy to say this book is similar to “The Other End of the Leash,” but in reality it is not. Like the latter book, this book discusses how our dogs see the world, how they interpret our actions through their canid brains, and how we can better approach our communication and interactions with our dogs to have a trusting and happy relationship with them. But it is different in the same way that asking two different friends for advice yields a different perspective and understanding of a situation while still coming to the same, supportive conclusion. Clothier is an animal lover to the nth degree. Because of this, she has gone farther than the average person to try to view the world as a dog sees it — she even opens the book by talking about her childhood antics of acting like a dog. While its simple to chalk up that act to a child with an active imagination, Clothier’s approach is actually fascinating and she has shown that by approaching situations from a dog’s mainframe, we can make real progress in training. By coming at everything from the dog’s perspective, we as humans can more quickly figure out the cause of “bad” behavior and much more quickly figure out solutions that will work to make everyone in the equation happy. This book is a joy to read both as a dog owner needing a guide for dog understanding and dog training, and also as an animal lover getting to know a kindred spirit and all that person has learned through decades of training dogs with empathy and compassion.
- Reaching the Animal Mind: Clicker Training and what it teaches Us. “Reaching the Animal Mind: Clicker Training and What It Teaches Us About All Animals” by Karen Pryor
This book is a staple for so many dog trainers, it seems a little obvious to include it in this list. But there’s a reason it’s such a staple: it is a training approach that works, and that builds strong, trusting relationship between a person and a dog. Karen Pryor is the force behind the movement toward clicker training, a form of training that includes using a consistent sound (typically a clicker) plus a treat reward to shape a dog’s behavior. It takes positive reinforcement training to a new level by using the click-sound at the exact moment a dog is doing something right, so that the dog knows exactly the behavior you want to see. Over all, it helps dogs learn what we’re asking from them in a fraction of the time that other training methods usually take. This book explains the science and technique behind clicker training and teaches the reader how to use this method of training for their dogs.
To illustrate just how effective clicker training is, I always think back to my experience with teaching my dog how to high-five. I didn’t know about clicker training when I adopted him, and I tried for several days to get him to understand the trick. He just didn’t get what I was asking and didn’t seem enthusiastic about me trying to lift his paw all the time to show him. I went into a pet store and by chance, the clerk told me about clicker training. I bought the clicker, went home and started reading all about it. I sat back down with my dog and tried the methods explained for clicker training a dog to do high-five. I kid you not, within three minutes, my dog knew the trick. I’ve read several of Pryor’s books since then and can confidently say that “Reaching the Animal Mind” is one of those must-read books for anyone looking for a solid, sure-fire method for training their dog. It’s not easy — as you learn when reading, it takes practice and patience with yourself to really hone your own abilities in using this method — but for anyone who wants to work with a dog, not against him in training, it’s an invaluable read.
- Genius of Dogs. “The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter than You Think” by Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods
“The Genius of Dogs” is a new book by Hare, who is the lead researcher behind “Dognition,” a project revolving around the study of dog cognition. How do our dogs read social cues? Just how tuned in to our movements and gestures are they? How thoroughly do our dogs train us without us realizing it? This is the genius of dogs, and in this book, Hare looks at the science behind the social behavior of dogs and their ability to understand both our body language and even our words to figure out the human world around them.
For several topics, the material covered here is also covered in “Inside of a Dog” — so in my opinion, if you’re going to read one or the other, read “Inside of a Dog.” But I strongly encourage reading both, as this has some very interesting information about how a dog’s motivations, reactions and understanding of the world are as individual as our own. Hare focuses very much on dog personality, and how that — be it extroversion or introversion, confidence or timidity, engaged or indifferent — is more a determining factor than even (or especially) breed in how well a dog navigates his environment. Hare views dogs as geniuses in figuring out the world around them, especially a world that is designed and influenced by a whole different species. By the end of the book you’ll have a hard time disagreeing.
- Dog Sense book. “Dog Sense: How the New Science of Dog Behavior Can Make You A Better Friend to Your Pet” by John Bradshaw
This is the one book on this list I haven’t yet read, but it came recommended from folks whose training style I admire and trust. Indeed, the book comes highly recommended by most readers and reviewers. “Dog Sense” explains misconceptions about dogs as a species, and shows us the world from a dog’s perspective so that we can have more productive, trusting, and positive interactions with our four-legged companions. The chief complaint from reviewers is that the author spends a lot of time reiterating the fact that wolves and dogs are not alike. That said, for those of us who have heard again and again that dogs are just domesticated wolves living in a “pack” of humans — and who hasn’t heard that more times than you can count, thanks to the popularization of the concept on TV — it might be helpful to learn all the scientific reasoning behind how wolves and dogs are different (and how we misunderstood wolves and their pack interactions for a very, very long time), why those “alpha dog” approaches aren’t the best way to relate to your dog (and in fact, can even cause more problems), and why alternate approaches like positive reinforcement and reading the body language of a dog as a dog and not a mini wolf do work. While it may use up a lot of space in the book, all that explanation of how dogs and wolves are different ultimately helps us to fully understand why using the “pack mentality” and dominance approach to how one deals with their dog is not appropriate or necessarily productive. Of course, if you already understand this and the science behind it (which you also learn in “Inside of a Dog” and “The Genius of Dogs,” for example), it may be a bit tedious to read page after page of it again. Still, the book provides readers with research and perspectives they can trust as they form their philosophy about working with and training their dog. For anyone interested in the science behind dogs as a species — and wolves as a species for that matter — and using that to fill out the understanding of dogs, this book is a good choice.