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Pets Aren't Us

Clive Wynne

The Truth About Dogs: An Inquiry into the Ancestry, Social Conventions, Mental Habits, and Moral Fiber of Canis familiaris. Stephen Budiansky. 263 pp. Viking, 2000. $24.95.

Dogs Behaving Badly: An A-to-Z Guide to Understanding and Curing Behavioral Problems in Dogs. Nicholas Dodman. 284 pp. Bantam, 1999. $13.95 (new in paper).

Companion Animals and Us: Exploring the Relationships Between People and Pets. Anthony L. Podberscek, Elizabeth S. Paul and James A. Serpell (eds.). xi + 335 pp. Cambridge University Press, 2000. $80.

In the course of just over a century, an enormous change has taken place in the industrialized world in our relationship to other animals. For millions of years we lived among species that we hunted (or were hunted by), farmed or worked. And now, in the space of a couple of generations, we have split ourselves off almost completely from the rest of the animal kingdom. Apart from a few pests, such as rats, mice, ants and cockroaches, with whom we keep our interactions as brief as possible, our only intercourse with other species is with our pets and with hunks of meat on plastic trays with nothing to remind us of the living animal. So firsthand knowledge of the behavior and habits of other species is more limited than it has ever been. And our affection for animals, uninformed by experience of them, distorts our perceptions and inclines us toward anthropomorphism.

Stephen Budiansky sees this problem clearly. The Truth About Dogs can be summarized very simply: Dogs are not people! "Dogs are dogs; humans are humans; and the remarkable and ennobling thing is that the twain can meet, and communicate, and enrich one another's lives despite having very different minds and very different ways of conceiving the world." It is the failure to notice these points of difference between dog and human minds that can lead to problems.

These photos show how a normal human and a dogClick to Enlarge Image

Budiansky, who may be the best writer around on animal behavior, is a terrific prose engine, motoring through a finely chosen set of facts and anecdotes to produce just the effects he wants. His style is emphatic, yet engaging: Fully one-quarter of the U.S. dog population is euthanized each year?how can this be if we love them so much? Broad brush strokes set the scene, and colorful metaphors bring the details out against the background: In a year, the production of urine by dogs in the United States would fill as many wine bottles as do the vineyards of France, Italy, Spain and the United States?"if, as Groucho Marx once said in a slightly different context, that's your idea of a good time."

Budiansky's complaints about dog habits come as bitter punch lines setting off sympathetic descriptions of the pleasures of dog company. His puzzlement at our patience with dogs starts with himself: Knowing what he does about the costs of dog ownership, how is it that he still feels affection for dogs?

Anyone who has read Budiansky's earlier books (particularly The Covenant of the Wild) will not be surprised that he sees dogs as active agents in their own domestication. Dogs hung around human settlements, stealing food and being a general nuisance, for a long time before people found any use for them. Nearly all of the more than 300 modern breeds of dogs originated within the past two centuries.

Budiansky's scholarship is impressive. In addition to discussing behavior and a kind of cross-species sociology that almost nobody else attempts, he ranges freely over physiology, anatomy, evolution and genetics, explaining all with admirable clarity as he goes.

Though Budiansky does not offer explicit guidance for dealing with dog behavioral problems, he keeps coming back to the idea that people need to remember that dogs are fundamentally pack animals watching out for the social hierarchy. They are exquisitely sensitive to social signals, and many problems stem from a reticence on the part of the owner to impose the necessary social order on the dog.

Nicholas Dodman, author of Dogs Behaving Badly, appears to share many of Budiansky's beliefs about why dog-human relationships go wrong. Dodman's approach to addressing this is to attempt what might be called interspecies cognitive-behavioral therapy. When people undergo cognitive-behavioral therapy, they receive reinforcement to alter their behavior and are also told what to think about the behavior, in the belief that this cognitive component may help them to change. In Dodman's hands, the behavioral part of the therapy is intended for the dog, which is nothing surprising, since rewards and punishments are pretty much the only way to communicate with nonhumans. Dodman's ingenuity lies in the cognitive part of the equation: He places beliefs in the dog owner's mind about what the dog is thinking, so that the owner may be more inclined to carry out the necessary reinforcement training. At a theoretical level, this cognitive component is just so much hot air?even if we accept that dogs have thoughts (a tricky concept at best), these thoughts must be unknowable to a human observer. But as a practical measure for getting humans to cooperate in the necessary training of their animals, it is close to genius.

The alphabetical structure of Dogs Behaving Badly did not strike me at first as a good idea. There are, after all, no 26 dog behavioral problems conveniently named with different letters of the alphabet. "Destructive Behavior" is largely about separation anxiety, presumably because S was needed for "Sexual Behavior." Consequently a fair amount of searching may be required before the desired section is found (an excellent index helps in that regard). "X-Files" is fairly pointless within the purely functional purposes of the book, since it is just a bunch of funny dog stories. It does, however, help leaven what is, despite the engaging writing style, a surprisingly serious work. And the alphabetical conceit works better than I expected. The entries vary greatly in length, depending on how much there is to be said about a particular topic. There is also a very clear (though somewhat short) appendix on behavior modification for dogs.

I was expecting Companion Animals and Us: Exploring the Relationships Between People and Pets, as the only academic volume in this trio of books, to pack a critical punch that Budiansky and Dodman could not approach in their trade publications. I was sorely disappointed. Edited volumes are always a mixed bag with little consistency of style or quality, but Companion Animals and Us has very few contributions that do more than dress platitudes about animals in scientific language. Things do not get off to a good start with the editors' introduction. Their blithe claim that, until recent times, "most scholars would have insisted that affectionate relationships between people and animals were not only distasteful but depraved" suggests they have not fully comprehended the historical chapters in their volume showing tolerance of and interest in companion animals in societies from the ancient Greeks and Romans onward.

A few chapters did strike me as interesting. I learned much from Liliane Bodson's chapter on pets in ancient Greece and Rome. Norine Dresser's chapter on "The Horse Bar Mitzvah: A Celebratory Exploration of the Human-Animal Bond" sneaked under my critical radar and left me strangely moved. And Piers Beirne's contribution on "Rethinking Bestiality: Towards a Concept of Interspecies Sexual Assault" expanded my awareness of the range of human-animal interaction; his account of the things people do to get their kicks was quite a shocker. After that, I think I need to take the dog for a walk.

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