Reviewed by Merritt Clifton
Published by Hastings Press, England in
association with The Carriage House Foundation
(Postbus 10 308 2501 HH Den Haag, The
Netherlands), 2009. Downloadable at
269 pages, paperback. $25.00. Download: $15.00.
“I wasn’t exposed to all the stories dog people tell until I got my first puppy,” behavioral scientist Alexandra Semyonova relates in her introduction to The 100 Silliest Things People Say About Dogs. But then Semyonova “read every book I could get my hands on and talked to many trainers. All sources agreed that dogs live in a hierarchy, and that they spend all their time being either dominant or submissive to each other.
“I was told I needed to make sure I was the Alpha Leader,” Semyonova recalls. “I should always go before my dog through a door. I had to eat before I fed the dog. The dog wasn’t allowed on the couch, since the Alpha wolf always lies on the highest spot when the pack is resting. Most
of the trainers also urged me to train the pup with punishment.
“My doubts began,” Semyonova explains, “when I started to have many and various dogs in the house and to observe their group behavior for long periods of time, in groups with ever changing composition. There was no dog who always lay on the highest spot. It was always a different dog who was first to go through a door.
They seemed above all interested in being considerate to each other and avoiding arguments where possible. None of my own observations confirmed any of what the experts had told me.”
As a scientist, Semyonova “decided to delve deeper into the literature. I also started my own research project.” The 100 Silliest Things People Say About Dogs “is based on real live observations of real live dogs, in their natural surroundings, 24 hours a day, seven days a
week, for fourteen years.”
Semyonova learned that “The dog’s social system is based on a few simple rules of politeness that are aimed above all at not disturbing the peace.”
Almost everyone who has studied street dogs, or almost any dogs who are at liberty to be themselves among other dogs, has reached the same conclusion. Yet few pet keepers and dog
trainers seem aware of this finding, valuable as it is to understanding how best to teach and
motivate a dog.
Instead most embrace the fallacy that as Semyonova puts it, “The dog is a descendant of the wolf, and because of this we should regard him as a sort of tame wolf.”
Responds Semyonova, “Our ancestors didn’t tame the dog at all. The dog most likely tamed himself.”
Meanwhile, Semyonova points out, wolves “didn’t exist yet when the dog began to split off
into a new species.” The ancestral dog “had already split off from the wolf family line some
200,000-500,000 years ago,” Semyonova recounts, who “probably looked somewhat like the dingo and
other primitive dogs who still live in the wild today.”
Emphasizes Semyonova, “The dog is not a wolf. If you want to know about dogs, you have to study dogs. But aside from this, we don’t have much knowledge about wolves in the first place. The stories that are told about them are all too often hunters’ tales and jailers’ anecdotes––basically nonsense, based on myths, fantasy, imagination, speculation, projection, lies and/or poorly designed research; or by watching them behave in a habitat that is decaying and disappearing right under their feet.
“The dog evolved at the rubbish dump,” Semyonova determines. “He didn’t need to kill to eat. Aggression not only lost its function, but actually became a threat to the dog’s survival in
our proximity. The killer bite disappeared from the dog’s natural behaviour pattern.
“Dogs are anything but pack animals,” Semyonova continues. “The whole reason the domestic dog does so well living among us humans is that she adapted herself to a different life than the pack life. Dogs wander alone around the rubbish dump or the back alleys, looking for food. When dogs do form groups, the members are not related to each other, didn’t grow up together, met each other as adults, and formed their easy friendships. Their groups are fleeting collections of acquaintances. Of course a dog becomes attached to other dogs she knows well-but she has no aversion to strangers, and is glad to turn them into friends.”
Semyonova also refutes the common belief that dogs are strongly territorial. “The only thing all dogs seem to claim,” Semyonova observes, “is a sort of personal zone. Inside [the zone],” a dog “moves around the dump without bothering about strangers. The dog might keep more distance from a stranger than from a familiar dog, but he does this without trying to claim the whole dump as his own. Free-living city dogs tend to travel around within a relatively small range, but this range is also not a territory. A city dog will defend a vestibule or a clump of bushes where he sleeps, but he does not defend his travelling space. Even in agrarian regions, where food is less abundant, dogs who know each other do not defend their ranges or their dumps from strangers….Once dogs have met a stranger several times elsewhere, the stranger can often
join the group at the sleeping spot. Dogs do not claim a territory as defined by biologists.”
Semyonova takes critical note of the influence of Nazi trainers and theoriests on conventional beliefs about dogs, especially ethologist Konrad Lorenz, who mostly studied geese, but wrote about dogs to make money.
“Unlike some others who stood at the roots of animal psychology as a science,” Semyonova points out, “Lorenz never had problems with the Nazi authorities––Lorenz worked at the Race Policy Bureau. In 1942 he participated in examining 877 people of mixed Polish-German descent, selecting who would and who wouldn’t go to a concentration camp to be murdered. He believed firmly in superior and inferior races and consistently expressed great contempt for the latter. He believed in a strict, hierarchical society, in which an absolute authority ruled to whom all owed obedience,” and projected this view in his writing about dogs.
Normal dogs, Semyonova observes, “don’t live in a hierarchy and aren’t interested in controlling each other’s behavior beyond demanding ordinary politeness.”
What is usually described as dominance behavior, Semyonova argues, are just mechanisms for developing mutual trust. Once dogs trust each other, she says, they don’t bother with these rituals.
“The domestic dog is a highly non-aggressive species,” Semyonova continues, “but this doesn’t mean there is no such thing as a truly aggressive dog. Plenty of dogs exist who are, by nature, aggressive, and there are plenty of others who have learned to be aggressive. There are definitely dogs who use their weapons without restraint, and who do inflict serious to deadly damage. These dogs are, by definition, abnormal.”
Semyonova cites in particular, “The fighting dog breeds (the pit bull/American Staffordshire terrier, the English Staffordshire terrier, the English Bull terrier, the American Bulldog etc.). These dogs have been bred either to fight to the death in the pit, or to tear apart a bear or a bull who was tied to a tree.
Since most dogs won’t bite unless severely provoked, breeders selected for dogs who would attack unprovoked-and not only that, they wanted dogs who would go on attacking once they started, even though they met no defence. Don’t let anyone tell you that this is past tense, or that these are now household breeds, or worse yet that they have always been household breeds. They are working breeds that are still bred and used for killing purposes.”
Semyonova puts into a separate but related class “Other breeds (the Presa Canario, the Dogo Argentino, the Fila Brasiliero, the Boerboel etc), who have been bred to have a sort of general, unbridled aggression not only toward animals, but also toward humans.” These are typically mixes of pit bulls and mastiffs. The Dogo Argentino and the Fila Brasiliero, Semyonova writes, were bred by slave owners “not to catch and return escaped slaves, but to rip these slaves apart on the spot as a lesson to other slaves. In order to make them able to do this, they were bred with a body mass so large as to make resistance futile. This body mass also means that by the age of about four months, they are too large for other dogs to teach them to shun aggression. By the time they are adolescents, it can be lethal for another dog to try to discipline them or teach them anything at all.”
Warns Semyonova, “When you are dealing with a dog from one of these two categories, you are dealing with dogs who have genetic defects. They have been bred to have different brains and different body structures than normal dogs. They are also not at all like our romantic wolf, who does hunt and use his weapons for real, but wouldn’t think for a second of wasting scarce
energy on pointless aggression.”
Observes Semyonova, “a certain kind of man (and, increasingly, woman) likes to have these dogs in the house, proud to show all the world that s/he’s capable of keeping one of these dogs under control, and smiling condescendingly at visitors who are frightened of the ‘sweet’ pit bull/ Presa/Dogo/etc. However, this sweet dog, who you think is so nice because he smiles the
brachiocephalic smile at you all the time, will––once triggered––kill your child.
“There are huge economic interests involved when we talk about these breeds of dogs,” Semyonova acknowledges. “The breeders and the various kennel clubs are not inclined to be honest about the kind of dog they have created. They tell us that despite at least 200 years of careful selection for the willingness to fight to the death, there is no such thing as a fighting dog. On the other hand, where it’s to their advantage to do so, they cheerfully claim that all kinds of other breeds most certainly do have genetically determined characteristics that you can rely on if only you buy their puppy.”
In a boxed subsection, Semyonova notes that “Most of the discussion about these breeds is about whether they are dangerous to humans. To me, an equally important tragedy is what these breeds are doing to other dogs since they have become so popular. Many, many more dogs than humans have been maimed or killed since the fashion started, and I have never understood why people who claim to love dogs seem unconcerned about this.
“The myth that you can raise a killing breed dog to be ‘sweet’ is mostly aimed at preserving these breeds by claiming they aren’t always dangerous to humans,” Semyonova continues.
“This myth has contributed to an ongoing slaughter of ordinary household dogs,” for example at dog parks, where Semyonova herself has witnessed pit bulls killing other pets.
“It has also led to a revival of the dogfighting culture in many countries,” Semyonova adds. “Shame on the humane societies and ‘scientists’ who have contributed to this.”
Semyonova is no less critical of almost every common approach to dog discipline and training. She acknowledges trainer Cesar Millan’s success, but points out contradictions between much of what he does, quickly getting positive results, and the explanations he gives his audience on television and in books, frequently repeating conventional belief.
“Dogs run their relationships on the basis of trust, not dominance, violence and punishment,” Semyonova emphasizes over and over. “People who try to dominate dogs must be suspected of being infantile, blind and petty. I hope this book will help us behave towards our dogs as good friends should,” she concludes, “without feeling ashamed of it. We will affectionately try to understand and consider our dogs’ needs and longings, happily seek compromises with them, and thankfully answer their friendliness with the same coin. We will, above all, not punish them, but rather help them when they don’t understand what we want.”