Brenda Aloff's 371-page, oversized, soft cover Canine Body Language is an ambitious attempt to photographically illustrate canine communication. Although this useful book contains a wealth of information, the delivery is hampered by inadequate editing.
The goal of photographically illustrating canine body language is laudable. Photos convey more realistic information than diagrams and are far more engaging. Unfortunately, the quality of the photos in this book is uneven.
All photos are black and white. Some are unusually grainy or blurry. Sometimes the author seems to think that especially large photographs can compensate for poor quality. Nonetheless, along with the accompanying captions, the photos do generally support the information the author is attempting to convey.
A simple photo of two retrievers sitting side-by-side but leaning and looking away from one another convincingly illustrates "discomfort with proximity." A photo of a papillon attempting to monopolize a plate of food shared with a German shepherd dog is both effective and somewhat amusing, given the size disparity between the breeds involved.
On the other hand, the selection of some photos is bewildering. One very large black and white blur is identified as a papillon shaking. Excessively large, blurry, and very poor quality, the photo amounts to little more than meaningless page filler. The author even apologizes over another image, "Sorry about the blurriness of the photo, but the speed at which the dogs move is incredible." That's the purpose of fast shutter speeds and professional photographers. Too many of these photos belong in the "would have been a great photo if the focus or lighting was right" pile.
The author sometimes prompts the reader for observations that cannot be made, as if the power of suggestion can improve photo quality. Regarding one photo, she asserts, "You can see the relaxed expression in (the handler's) face." Actually no, I cannot. I can almost decipher sunglasses amid the dark shadows, but I can't see any facial features at all. A book labeled "A Photographic Guide" needs to use appropriate photos, and that includes getting the focus, lighting and contrast right.
Additionally, greater care should have been taken to keep the relevant text on the same page as the accompanying photo, rather than on a subsequent page. Another overlooked, user-friendly detail would be maintaining a consistent orientation to the photos so that the reader wouldn't have to continually shift the book from a vertical to a horizontal perspective.
One very real drawback of photographs is their static nature. On the one hand, that frozen moment in time is useful to analyze. On the other, behavior is never observable that way in real life. Obviously, one needs to actually get out around living, moving dogs to appreciate and apply whatever information is gleaned from this book. That is a given, and the book can't be faulted for its limitations in this regard.
The book is organized into 7 sections, with behaviors clustered under headings including: expressions of emotional state, calming & negotiation signals, neutral & friendly, space invaders, predation, play. The final section is a quiz testing one's ability to recognize behavioral dynamics depicted in various photos.
Aloff guides the reader towards recognizing whether a dog feels safe and comfortable or stressed and concerned in various contexts, as well as indicating how the latter might be diffused by other dogs (or an intervening handler). She highlights polite versus inappropriate interactions, especially during greetings, gatherings and play. She examines the fine line between predatory and playful behavior. To her credit, she reminds the reader repeatedly about the relevance of context in interpreting behavior. She sensibly points out the need to recognize subtleties and clusters of cues as to a dog's intent, including the way other dogs play off of a given dog's behavior. All of this is very well done.
Aloff effectively emphasizes certain basic concepts, especially stressing the importance of personal space and eye contact. If a reader gains little more from this book than an appreciation of the impact of direct or diverted eye contact, the book will nonetheless have been worth reading.
Less cogent is Aloff's arbitrary distinction between deliberate and non-deliberate communication. She claims that some behaviors - calming or negotiation signals - are deliberately issued by one dog to calm other dogs or people in the environment. Humans engage in plenty of nonverbal communication, yet most human beings are unaware of this body language in themselves or others. We do it, and others may unknowingly read and respond to our human body language, yet it remains beneath a level of conscious, deliberate action. If human beings - arguable a vastly more self-aware species - can communicate via body language without being consciously aware of it, one might be skeptical that dogs deliberately, intentionally and knowingly employ body language to send messages to others.
For example, a dog looks away and yawns while Aloff massages him. She concludes, "He is telling me that I am making him uncomfortable, but he is still Negotiating with me." Or she offers, "A dog might first snap at me... when he is not successful in getting me to back off, he will immediately begin to use Negotiation signals: 'Oh, since I cannot bluff or run roughshod over you, can we Negotiate?'" It is unclear why the dog's overt behavior isn't simply interpreted as a manifestation of stress, avoidance or appeasement rather than a deliberately conceived and issued communique. To use an analogy, we might interpret a public speaker's face-touching, lip-biting, paper shuffling, fleeting eye contact, and stammering as clear signals that he's nervous, but although the "messages" may be crystal clear to us, they aren't necessarily the result of his conscious effort to deliberately communicate his distress.
Although overall well done in content, the text is marred by Aloff's eccentric writing style. Unintentionally funny in a book about communication, typographical and punctuation errors, sentence fragments, and Aloff's peculiar Habit of Capitalizing Words Randomly and Excessively are distracting. I do believe that Aloff is an intelligent individual with some good ideas, but she undermines her credibility with the unprofessional presentation.
In a similar way, the book arguably drifts too far toward the casual and loses power in doing so. Commentary is more efficient when references are made to "Spotted Dog" or "the puppy" or "the black dog" than when the dogs are referred to by name. Whatever intimacy one gains by identifying the dogs by name is offset by the user-unfriendliness of expecting a reader to learn their names.
Sometimes Aloff seems to get carried away with chatty personal trivia. Accompanying four huge photos of her fox terrier smiling, the text derails as she shares personal details, "His father was my daughter's Junior Handling dog... laboring under a huge volume of dogs I had rescued, I placed him... he has a fantastic home..." I suppose a reader might find that charmingly conversational, but it's off-topic and superfluous. One doesn't need the dog's life history to know succinctly that he's enthusiastically greeting his owner after a separation. It would be more potent if those four photos were all placed on one page along with a concise, tightly focused description. As is, it feels padded.
Anthropomorphic interpretations of behavior may actually work reasonably well to entertain and engage readers, but Aloff contradicts herself by first declaring that one should, "Avoid anthropormorphization (attributing human traits to animals). It will only muddy the waters of clear communication and prevent you from understanding the species." She then fills the book with exactly what she warns against. Regarding greeting stretches, for example, she offers, "When dogs greet me like this, I get all mushy and gooey. It is very flattering... This is the equivalent of a child offering you a tiny bouquet of 'I picked these just for you' flowers."
Some terms ("Going hindbrain," "Pee-mail," "mum" or "mom" to refer to a dog's owner) may be excessively informal and border on the precious. Other phrases ("kicking ass and taking names," "getting his butt kicked," "save his own butt") are unquestionably too unsophisticated for a book intended to be taken seriously as reference material.
Aloff is at her best - and her best is excellent - when using an instructional, informational tone and at her weakest when being overly familiar and flippant. It's unfortunate that she didn't employ an experienced, demanding, competent editor to steer her towards a more effective presentation, because the current presentation weakens the content.
In all likelihood, this book will be helpful and educational for a reader, especially one with less experience in interpreting dog behavior. It represents an impressive attempt to catalog body language, and it does a pretty good job of it. Better photo quality and ruthless editing would improve the book significantly.
Kate Connick |
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