In Defence of Dogs

August 18, 2011

Looking at long bookshelves packed with books on dogs gives the impression that anybody can be an expert on man's best friend. But in an overcrowded field, one may feel fully confident when reading biologist John Bradshaw's thoughts on the subject. The latest developments in the newly named field of "canine science" really need the sure hand of a skilled scientist to offer a balanced picture for the interested reader.

As expected, Bradshaw's book considers the most up-to-date research on dogs and their wild relatives, so there is no need for the general dog-loving public to dig into the most recent scientific papers on genetics or cognitive ethology to keep up with the news. Bradshaw makes deft work of summarising important and novel insights on dog evolution, along the way pointing out the difficulties we face in reaching full conclusions.

But after reading the first three chapters, the reader may still be wondering about the book's title. Why would dogs need any defence? And if defence is needed, who is the enemy? As strange as it may sound, the greatest enemy is us, dogs' beloved and trusted two-legged companions for many thousands of years. Bradshaw sees two main problems in today's human-dog bond.

First, modern, "civilised" humans still seem unable to grasp the deep social aspects of the human-canine relationship. The question is no longer whether dogs are wolves in sheep's clothing or furry child-substitutes; it is time to acknowledge instead that dogs are dogs. It is a simple point, but it seems to be the hardest lesson to learn. Humans inevitably seem to find a justification for their reluctance to pay sufficient attention to these special creatures to learn about their material and mental needs. "Observe - think - act" goes the advice, but too often we do it in the reverse order - and often it is sadly too late. Is it a coincidence that our households contain more and more cats - a species that needs much less in the way of attention, care and devotion?

The second issue Bradshaw raises relates to the breeding of dogs, a subject of interest in many media outlets. It seems paradoxical that often the very same people who claim such love for their pets will make them ill as a result of careless breeding practices. Here, the reader will find many thoughtful arguments on the need to change our approaches to dog breeding, but I would have taken a more provocative stance on future possibilities. Bradshaw seems happy with the present 400-odd dog breeds. But why not think about establishing new ones?

The form and function of dogs has changed throughout human history. We have managed to select for different breeds as our technologies have changed. It is very unfortunate that kennel clubs exercise such control over the majority of dog breeding, and Bradshaw offers ample evidence that this situation has led to a marked deterioration of genetic quality. So let's break out of this outdated tradition and think about dogs that may live longer, may be better at understanding words, or may manipulate objects more skilfully.

A further important issue is whether the concept of dominance is justly applied to the relationship between dogs and humans. This idea has a long history in dog training, but Bradshaw seems to be determined - rightly - to use all available weapons to destroy this view. There is a good argument to be made for replacing the idea of the dog owner as pack leader with the development of a well-controlled family setting based on observable rules. One should note, however, that some individual dogs may need special arrangements.

But I am not sure whether the reader will be as perplexed as Bradshaw by the roots of our desire to punish dogs physically. The answer may lie in remembering one's childhood in school, when there was ample occasion for both smaller and bigger fights. Old habits die hard, it would seem. But happily, this rule may also apply to man's desire to keep up the deep friendship with dogs that has been with us all along.

In Defence of Dogs

By John Bradshaw. Allen Lane, 352pp, £20.00. ISBN 9781846142956. Published 11 July 2011

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