Monday, July 12, 2010

Stephen Budiansky "The Truth About Dogs"

I didn’t enjoy Stephen Budiansky’s book on dogs as much as I did his cat one. Maybe, as Laura Miller refers in a scathing dog and cat book review, “while most human-dog bonds are fairly similar, there seems to be so much variety in cat owners' relationships to their pets -- every cat is a custom job”. But dog books somehow can never avoid the subject of “leadership” which is a concept that in animal relations, as in life, never fails to annoy me.

This is undoubtedly why my dogs are such brats (and why I was the worst substitute teacher in the world). I can’t tell people what to do, much less 10 year olds or dogs. I don’t get why they don’t do their own thing without constantly causing mayhem.

Anyway, back to “The Truth About Dogs”. The beginning was hilarious and highly promising. Like me, Budiansky has some qualms with the prevailing western cultural image of dogs: “unconditional love”? “best friend”?

“Dogs take from the rich, they take from the poor, and they keep it all. They lie on top of the air-conditioning vent in the summer, they curl up in front of the fireplace in winter, they commit outrages upon our property too varied and unspeakable to name. They decide when we may go to bed at night and when we must rise in the morning, where we may go on vacation and for how long, whom we may invite over to dinner, and how we should decorate our living rooms. They steal the very bread from our plates.”

So true.

Even though one passage is titled “Dogs aren’t wolves”, Budiansky actually spends most of the book using wolf behavior as a way to make sense of dog behavior. Most dog books, since Konrad Lorenz do this, so it didn’t feel very surprising. As in his cat book my favorite parts dealt with history (although there is little cultural history here; on that subject, the fascinating “Lost History of the Canine Race” is unsurpassable) and my least favorite with intelligent testing.

I did learn something, however: wimps make awful dog owners. If you are not willing to assert dominance (and occasionally, physical dominance) over your dog, she will probably develop all sorts of undesirable behaviors not to mention outright aggression.

So here I was, thinking what a coincidence it is that I always end up with super independent, stubborn dogs when all along, I’m the problem in the relationship (I also fall in another dangerous category according to Budiansky: owners who desperately want their dogs to love them)…

It might sound as if I’m being ironic, but it was actually pretty insightful, not to mention the first time I read about it in such unapologetic terms (and to give credit where it is due, my husband had already alluded to my general disinclination to discipline as a problem).

All around, a good dog book for those who haven’t read too many already. I’m reading his book on horses now (both of these a kind heads-up from Jeane at “DogEar Diary” so stay tuned…

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