Decoding Your Dog:
The Ultimate Experts Explain Common Dog Behaviors and Reveal How to Prevent or Change Unwanted Ones
Edited by Debra Horwitz & John Cirbassi
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company
(215 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10003), 2012.
347 pages hardback, $27.00.
The study of animal behavior has been around for a long time. It took on scientific dimensions mostly through the work of psychologists, including John B. Watson (Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It, 1913), B.F. Skinner (The Behavior of Organisms, 1938) and Murray Sidman (Coercion and Its Fallout, 1989, summarizing a career of research begun in the 1950s).
“Prussian school” dog trainers, however, led by ethologist Konrad Lorenz, for generations remained apparently ignorant of this scientific literature. Like Lorenz, whose career evolved from observing geese to collaborating with goose-steppers to writing about dog training without having actually studied dogs much at all, the “Prussian school” blatantly anthropomorphized animals. Dogs were represented as engaging in ceaseless dominance and submission behavior more reflecting human obsessions than anything dogs themselves actually do.
For decades “Prussian school” domination rituals and punitive training drove dogs and humans crazy, until dolphin trainer Karen Pryor in Don’t Shoot the Dog (1984) revived attention to behavioral science and revolutionized how many dog trainers looked at dogs.
The 100 Silliest Things People Say About Dogs
Skinner’s insights returned to vogue. Jean Donaldson’s The Culture Clash (1996) became a best-seller and was the first dog book to hint that maybe “dominance” wasn’t the best explanation for various dog behaviors. In 2000 I presented a new model for understanding dog social systems, expanded later into The 100 Silliest Things People Say About Dogs.
Since then, scads of books have been published that explain how to train a dog and deal with behavior problems using reward-based training and other principles of operant conditioning, while also discarding the idea of “dominance.”
The veterinary community has taken a long time to catch up. Many veterinarians are still well behind in their relevant reading.
And so I was surprised and intrigued to see a book whose title announces that veterinarians are “the ultimate experts” on the behavior of dogs, whose concluding note says they have written a “never-before-published view of dog behavior.”
Decoding Your Dog: The Ultimate Experts Explain Common Dog Behaviors and Reveal How to Prevent or Change Unwanted Ones, edited by Debra Horwitz and John Ciribassi, is a collection of fourteen chapters that in truth do little more than summarize insights many others have published before.
Written at multiple levels
Each chapter is written by a veterinarian who later got some education in dog behavior. The book is structured like a textbook meant to accompany a course for people who are thinking of getting their first dog, yet the course level is unclear. Some of the chapters read as if written for second graders, while others address a more advanced audience.
Decoding Your Dog more or less walks us through getting and keeping a dog, starting with a chapter that explains to us that dogs use body language rather than words.
From there the book progresses through how to choose a dog and where to get one, how dogs learn and how to housetrain a pup, a review of training tools, discussion of the life phases of a growing dog, and recommendations about responding to normal but irritating behaviors. Decoding Your Dog handles the issues of children and dogs, bored dogs, aggression and separation anxiety, noise phobias and compulsive behaviors, and finally offers some tips about the aging dog.
Most of the chapters handle complex subjects that can’t be adequately treated in 20 to 30 pages, which is why I assume the book is meant to accompany a lecture series. A lot of unnecessary jargon is thrown around where ordinary words would do, for example “systematic desensitization” instead of “getting your dog over being afraid.” Absent are footnotes identifying the various studies that the Decoding Your Dog authors cite, some of which may not represent credible research.
There are some praiseworthy aspects to Decoding Your Dog. Many self-appointed “experts” who have no training in behavior at all have revived “Prussian school” approaches, advising using painful and scary methods with dogs, talking all the while about dominance and submission as if dogs are into sado-masochistic fetishism. Any book that does not project this onto dogs and that encourages the use of humane techniques with dogs is welcome.
Decoding Your Dog acknowledges much that many “dog people” are reluctant to admit, for example that many behavioral traits are hereditary and often breed-specific; that temperament testing is not good at predicting certain types of aggression; that with aggressive dogs some situations are never safe; and that you can’t save every dog. These are not new insights, but it is good to have them repeated.
Omissions and misinformation
Unfortunately, Decoding Your Dog also contains omissions and misinformation that I wouldn’t want any beginning dog owner to absorb. The chapter on choosing a dog will encourage people to above all get a dog from a breeder who pays registration fees to a kennel club, rather than getting a shelter dog or a mixed mutt. We are told that siblings from the same litter are likely to fight. Though the risk that siblings will fight is somewhat elevated, the word “likely” is an exaggeration.
We are told that personality overshadows gender so strongly that it doesn’t matter whether a dog is male or female dog, or what breed the dog is. None of this is true. We are told that fights between male and female dogs are quite common, whereas the opposite is true except among the fighting breeds.
Decoding Your Dog states that aggression is “part of the normal behavioral repertoire of dogs” and that “biting is part of their normal communication.” This is a gross distortion of normal dog behavior. The tips on what to do if a dog attacks will not work with a great many dogs. The chapter on children and dogs doesn’t mention the various breeds who have a terrible track record with children. This includes pit bulls, Rottweilers, most other molosser breeds, and most of the northern breeds, including huskies, Malamutes, and Akitas.
Feeling less fear is perhaps the most powerful reward of all
The chapter on getting a dog to accept procedures that frighten him or cause pain makes an essential blunder, advising that session can last up to half an hour and should stop when the dog shows signs of discomfort or aggression.
The author of this chapter seems to think that food rewards are all there is, failing to understand that feeling less fear is perhaps the most powerful reward of all. Her advice is likely to make problems with grooming a dog or clipping the dog’s nails much worse, encouraging aggression rather than diminishing it.
As the book goes on, it reads more and more like an advertisement for Horwitz’s and Cirbassi’s “College of Veterinary Behaviorists,” aimed at channeling business from people more experienced in dog behavior and training toward their members. The chapter on training tools uses the term “veterinary behaviorist” 29 times in just 24 pages.
There is nothing new in Decoding Your Dog for those already educated and experienced in animal behavior and working with dogs, and there is much that will confuse and mislead the beginner. Though the misinformation is mixed with some valid insight, the authors rely too much on academic theory, and seem to have too little experience applying these theories and techniques in the real world of people living with dogs.
(See also The science of how behavior is inherited in dangerous dogs, by Alexandra Semyonova.)