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Book Review
The Truth About Dogs by Stephen Budiansky
Review by: Kate Connick, Aug. 2003

Give David Letterman copies of books by Raymond Coppinger, James Serpell, and the like. Then have him summarize them with his humorous, sardonic edge, and the result might be similar to Stephen Budiansky's The Truth About Dogs. Budiansky's "Inquiry into the Ancestry, Social Conventions, Mental Habits, and Moral Fiber of Canis familiaris" combines a concise, palatable, easily understood literature review of dog theory with the author's opinionated conclusions. It is done in such a way as to make the book an extremely entertaining and deceptively informative yet breezy read.

Budiansky's desire is to pay homage to dogs as we scientifically understand them to be and not as we sentimentally imagine them to be. To this end, he describes dogs as remarkable social parasites that drain human resources in a variety of ways, although due to our emotional over-involvement, we don't really seem to notice or care. Budiansky contends, "Dogs... are a brilliant evolutionary success almost without parallel in the animal world, and they owe that success to their uncanny ability to work themselves into our homes, and to our relentlessly anthropomorphic psyches that let them do it."

Budiansky is certainly not the first author to see danger in anthropomorphism. Anticipating that readers may take offense at his unromantic vision of dogs, he argues nonetheless that, "Dogs that are treated as furry little people who ought to love and be grateful to us for the muffins they are baked and the little birthday hats they are forced to wear are not happy dogs, for they invariably suffer the consequences of our unrealistic expectations." One would be hard pressed to disagree with his assertion that, "Grasping what makes dogs tick is a way to avoid a lot of misunderstanding, hurt feelings, and unnecessary strife in our ever so peculiar relationship with them."

The author then launches into a discussion of evolution, essentially presenting Coppinger's vision of dogs that more or less domesticated themselves as they capitalized on a scavenger niche in close proximity to humans. He similarly echoes Coppinger as he discusses possible explanations for physical and behavioral diversity among breeds, the differences being related to developmental timing. He stresses that a great deal of behavior has a genetic basis, and he discusses his concerns about maintaining breed purity, per se, at the expense of genetic diversity.

Budiansky presents dog social behavior and attempts to explain how it is and is not like that of wolves. He also explores at length the limits of canine sensory abilities, communication, behavior, and behavior problems.

On the one hand, his research is impressive in its breadth, and not only as it relates to dogs. Tidbits of trivia peppered throughout keep the text colorful and lively. I don't know (or even particularly care) if caraway if a molecular mirror image of spearmint, for example, but little details like this add richness to the content that makes it fun to read.

On the other hand, the author is not necessarily logically consistent throughout. He blames dominance aggression on wimpy ownership, insisting that the best way to deal with it is to directly meet such challenges early on with swift, decisive, physical punishment. True to traditional wolf pack theories, he believes that dogs will not challenge an owner that they perceive as a social superior.

Yet he does acknowledge that observers of feral and domestic dogs report only a weak group structure, as opposed to the much more rigorous packing behavior of wolves. Further, Budiansky himself remarks that beagles, for example, "don't particularly give a damn about anybody being top dog." He notes that beagles have a relatively high rate of intractable aggression, as well. If beagles don't care about dominance hierarchies, as the author suggests, than the author's own explanation of how to prevent or treat dominance aggression would appear irrelevant, at least for this breed that has been bred "to be relatively inattentive to matters of social dominance."

Similarly, the author scoffs at behaviorist, food-based styles of training. His feeling is that a dog should receive the intrinsic reward of doing what it is genetically programmed to enjoy, such as herding or hunting. He notes, "One of the greatest rewards to a dog is the company of and matter-of-fact acceptance by its social superiors." Maybe. Or perhaps, as with the beagle, that is less true? Oddly, while Budiansky stresses that there are inherent differences among breeds, his remarks on training and establishing dominance appear to be one-size-fits-all.

Most amusingly, of course, is that the author falls into his own trap when he discusses certain topics. Saying that, "It is not terribly dignified to see adult dogs that are constantly performing for tidbits" is the height of anthropomorphism. If one really believes that dogs descended as scavengers and beggars, nothing could be more natural to a dog than groveling for food handouts. Whether or not one perceives this as dignified says more about the observer than the method itself.

To be sure, Budiansky highlights many excellent points about dogs, and he does so in an engaging and entertaining way. He often appears to be the child drawing attention to the emperor's bare buttocks as he assails everything from conventional dog breeding practices to professional dog behaviorists to "touchy-feely therapeutic types (that) declare that physical punishment is never 'appropriate,'" to folks who believe that dogs have psychic abilities. He is so gleefully critical of so much that some readers may be turned off by his tone.

Nonetheless, this book is well worth reading, although some of the conclusions might be best taken with a grain of salt. The best part of the book, of course, is that handsome boxer on the cover.

The Truth About Dogs by Stephen Budiansky
Published by Viking Penguin, 2000. ISBN: 0670892726

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