Dog Books, or I’ve Become One of Those People

When we got Lucy back in March, I never imagined it would impact my reading as much as it has. It started small. I brought home Cesar Millan’s How to Raise the Perfect Dog. We knew nothing about raising a puppy. Of course, it didn’t stop there; I found myself perusing Dog Training for Dummies, The Art of Raising a Puppy by the Monks of Skete and 30 Days to a Well Mannered Dog by Tamar Geller. I even dipped my toe into the dog memoir well.

Much like parenting books, there are fads in the dog training world. In my parents day, you’d housebreak a dog by punishing mistakes. These days, Cesar Millan’s detractors contend that even his relatively milder negative reinforcements are too easily misapplied. The majority of the new training books focus on entirely or almost entirely positive reinforcement: Interrupting, ignoring or isolating a dog is generally as stern as it gets.  The idea for all of them is to understand the dog and its instincts, and use those to your advantage, instead of regarding dog training as a battle of wills.

If you want a basic dog training book, Dog Training for Dummies by Jack Volhard is your book. It was actually better written than I thought it would be, too. Lots of helpful advice, although it does make a place for the more negative training systems like choke chains and prong collars.

How to Raise the Perfect Dog: Through Puppyhood and Beyond by Cesar Millan: The Dog Whisperer’s guide actually follows raising four different puppies of different breeds. Millan, too, has some good advice about using your dog’s instincts to get the behaviors you want. However, he’s got his own set of drawbacks as well.

I didn’t realize it until I got a dog, but some of Millan’s advice has become controversial. I mentioned that many trainers criticize his correction techniques, but they also disagree with his entire explanation of pack dynamics. Research on dominance in dog packs, and the popular concept of the alpha dog, goes back to the 1940s, and was popularized by the Monks of Skete in the 1970s, but it was fundamentally flawed.

There are, in fact, a lot of misconceptions about dogs, what they think, how they see, and smell, and act, and why. Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know by Alexandra  Horowitz researches, explains, and corrects, starting with the origins of dogs as domesticated wolves. That’s where I understood why Millan, despite his celebrity and apparent success, isn’t necessarily the guide you want to use for your own dog.

The original research on wolves was not conducted by studying wolves in their natural habitat and their native packs. Instead, researchers put a group of wolves from different packs together into a single enclosure and watched as conflict subsided into a sort of uneasy order. The observations from those studies led to training that advised humans to achieve dominance over their dogs with leash corrections and “alpha rolls.” But wolves are not dogs, and even if they were, a functional wolf pack is not a strict dominance hierarchy. More recent studies have found that a wolf pack is more like a family, and that with dogs, confrontational behavior can be disruptive rather than helpful.

Of course, there will be a million more dog books this year. Ever since Marley & Me, publishers keep trotting out the dog memoirs hoping for another bestseller. I did read one of the most recent entries: Bad Dog: A Love Story, Martin Kuhn’s tale of alcoholism and his recovery centered around his 95 pound out-of-control Bernese mountain dog. It was predictable but sweet. I’m not sure how many more of the memoirs I want to read, but I do like reading the training manuals. I hope someone finds this helpful.

3 thoughts on “Dog Books, or I’ve Become One of Those People

  1. Shelley

    As an economic p.s. to this topic, let me add that in the current economic crisis, many owners, sadly, are having to surrender their pets. It’s a great time for a donation to your local shelter: they’re overwhelmed.

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  2. Steve Walker

    Hey Megan,

    Have fun at BEA. Has it been a year already??? =P
    New Skete Monastery is hang out of mine. I’ve been going there since 2008 and become friends with the Monks. They do dog training in addition to raising German Shepherds and making Cheese Cake. The puppies are absolutely adorable and the cheese cake is out of this world. Hope to see you, Aaron, and Lucy soon.

    All the best,

    Steve

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  3. Stephanie

    Visited here for the first time a long while back, I’m sure I was looking up a book, so first I offer a belated hello!

    On the subject of dog books, one (or both) of you might like The Other End of the Leash, by Patricia McConnell.

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