a curious Yankee in Europe's court

blog about living in Europe, and Italy

Books I read: “In Defence of Dogs” (John Bradshaw)

Posted on the March 10th, 2012

Our dog Amica


Why did I choose this book?

Although I love our dog in a way that keeps her front and center of my world much of the time, I knew very little about her world — the world as seen, heard, smelled, tasted, and “felt” by dogs. So a book written by a biologist offering to share with ordinary dog owners a bundle of recent scientific information and insight about that world was a must-read.

One backcover blurb:

Every dog lover, dog owner or prospective dog buyer should read this book. It will change how you feel about dogs and, likely enough, how you treat them too … sparkles with explanations of canine behaviour … Bradshaw denies that his book is a manual, but you’ll find more advice on training here than in most guides.” (James McConnachie, Sunday Times)

Did I learn what I hoped to learn?

Eleven years ago, come September, Amica came into our lives. Our neighbor’s little boy brought her to us after he found her dumped into the community trash bins down the road from our house. Not much bigger than a cereal bowl, with jetblack glossy fur and so sad dark brown eyes, she was a study in sweet and irresistible cuteness.

Initially terrified of everyone, when approached Amica squealed and scrambled away to hide under the hedge. Given that she was still making nursing movements with her mouth, I judged her to be no more than five weeks old. This could account for the fear, I knew, as that is much too early for a puppy to be separated from its mother. But the brutal mystery of how she came to end up thrown into a garbage bin no doubt also played a key role in the origin of her hysteria.

With time, gentle care and much affection, we slowly gained Amica’s trust. In maturity she displayed the appearance, behavior and intelligence of a herding dog. The usual comments we hear from those encountering her here in Italy are “E’ un Belga?” (Is she a Belgian Shepherd?) or — often from children — “Un lupo!“(A wolf!). The characteristically lowered head and John Wayne style sidle account for the latter, I think.

Amica’s fears, though ever there, have subsided. And, thankfully, she doesn’t exhibit cowering behavior. At any moment, though, she appears to expect to be the object of disapproval and of being abandoned. No amount of reassurance, it seems, will ever put back together what was shattered in those early formative weeks of her life.

But one of Amica’s great fears never wanes. In fact, over time it has deepened. It’s her dread of loud noises, especially the sound of fireworks and thunderstorms. Long before we hear the thunderclap, with her greater hearing, she begins to tremble. Scurrying from one room of the house to another, she searches for any refuge. Our efforts to calm her or comfort her fail. She continues to hyperventilate and the shaking intensifies.

All this to say, that while there was much I was hoping to learn from John Bradshaw’s “In Defence of Dogs,” what most drew me was the possibility of gaining some insight into Amica’s suffering, the mystery of its intransigence and, perhaps, some advice on how to ease it a bit if possible.

Bradshaw doesn’t disappoint. A primary purpose in writing the book, he stresses, was to help owners help their dogs in the most informed way possible.

In particular, I gained understanding about Amica’s fear of noises. And while it was disappointing to find that there’s little we can do to relieve her distress, I learned that many dogs suffer this problem. And at least I know now how to avoid making it worse. (Important note: Bradshaw does describe a training for young dogs that can prevent the development of this fear.)

An excerpt:

Up to half the dogs in Britain react fearfully to fireworks, gunfire and so on. Although some dogs probably habituate quickly to loud noises… many instead become sensitized. It is perfectly natural for a dog to be fearful of a loud noise that happens without warning and with no identifiable source or cause. Yet this very unpredictability is what makes it difficult for the dog to know how to react, and usually whatever it does will be only partly effective; hiding behind the sofa may provide a feeling of protection, but does not serve to reduce the volume of the next bang very much…

Dogs limited capacity for emotional self-control can therefore have real consequences for their welfare. Dogs cannot ‘pull themselves together”. Their instincts tell them to be frightened of sudden, novel events, and when they find such events incomprehensible… they are not capable of dismissing the event as irrelevant. On the contrary, some dogs become more and more frightened every time.

Notwithstanding my own narrow focus in scouring the book for help with Amica’s fears, Bradshaw provides a comprehensive overview of all things dog. And his core message is revolutionary. If we truly care about our dogs, he admonishes, we must change the way we understand and direct the care of them.

Bradshaw discusses in depth the recent studies that have led to a definitive “discrediting of the wolf-pack idea” as a model for dog behavior. Specifically, this is the longheld, still widespread belief that our dogs are all secretly plotting to become the Saddam Husseins of their households, always furtively seeking a chance to dominate us.

On the contrary, new evidence now proves, writes Bradshaw, that dogs are cooperative by nature and family-oriented. They respond best, therefore, when treated lovingly and with rewards for good behavior, rather than with punishment, in particular violent punishment.

There is so much information in this book that any caring dog owner will be engaged by the content. And, it seems to me, also grateful. Depending on your attention span, you can devour every word of the 288 pages, or skip through various chapters to extract only what you feel you need.

I learned not only what I hoped to learn from this book, but much more.

Favorite quote from the book:

…when it comes to the simpler self-conscious emotions, such as jealousy, can we be sure that dogs possess only those that we humans have, and can put a name to? While I am reasonably confident that dogs do not feel guilt… it does not necessarily follow that their emotional lives are any less rich than ours, just different. For instance, since they are such social animals, perhaps they compensate for their less sophisticated cognitive abilities by having more fine-grained emotions? If the Inuit can have fifteen words for snow, maybe dogs can experience fifteen kinds of love.

Who wrote this book?

John Bradshaw is a biologist. He founded and directs the Anthrozoology Institute, at the University of Bristol (England). He has studied domestic dogs and their behavior for over twenty-five years.

A word about the title:

Depending on where you are, Bradshaw’s book has different titles. In the US, it’s “Dog-Sense: How the New Science of Dog Behavior Can Make You A Better Friend to Your Pet” (link here). In the UK, it’s “In Defence of Dogs: Why Dogs Need Our Understanding” (link here). And in Italy, it’s La naturale superiorità del cane sull’uomo (link qui).

Note: For Speck ‘N U fans, I did a cartoon related to Bradshaw’s book… link here.


My Q&A with author John Bradshaw

March 1, 2012


Q:  Dog owners in modern societies reportedly are spending more on clothes for their dogs to wear, especially in cold or rainy weather. Do dogs need such cold weather wear, or is this primarily an example of what you describe as “anthropomorphism” by which people ascribe human characteristics to their dogs?

A:  While thick-coated, cold-adapted dogs like Huskies will happily fall asleep on the snow, small breeds with short coats can become chilled very quickly and will benefit from a cold-weather coat, especially if their normal environment is a centrally-heated apartment.  Provided the coat is comfortable, it doesn’t seem to matter much to the dog what it looks like, since dogs are probably incapable of feeling “embarrassed”.  Therefore in general, dressing dogs up is usually a harmless expression of anthropomorphism.  More serious for the dog is the anthropomorphic error that they are capable of feeling “guilty”, and therefore will understand why they’re being punished for a misdemeanour committed a few minutes or hours previously.

Q:  Some dog owners insist that it’s best to feed a dog only once a  day and others say it’s better (kinder, perhaps), instead, to feed a dog twice daily. What is your opinion?

A:  Dogs are carnivores, and as such they are adapted to eating rather infrequent, large meals, as would happen when a wolf pack made a “kill”.  One meal a day is a reasonable approximation to this, and there’s no evidence that a healthy dog will be happier if the same amount of food is split into two or more meals each day.

Q:  In the preface to your book, you wrote this: “Having studied the behaviour of dogs for twenty years… I felt it was time that someone stood up for dogdom…”  It would be interesting to know if there was a particular event or moment or situation that you remember serving as a catalyst in your decision to do this.

A:  Many years ago I owned a Labrador, Bruno, who suffered terribly from separation anxiety, and this inspired me to start a research programme into this disorder that ran for over a decade and made many advances in its diagnosis, prediction and treatment.  Yet despite everything we had discovered, we seemed to have made little difference to the average owner’s appreciation of just how important (and straightforward) it is to prevent their dog from developing separation anxiety.  At the same time, I realised that owners also knew very little about any of the new canine science that was emerging from other universities around the world.  I guessed that many would actually enjoy finding out about this, and that it might also help them to appreciate their dogs better, hence I set about writing the book.


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SPECK ‘N U: 23 (“In Defence of Dogs” – John Bradshaw)

Posted on the March 1st, 2012
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