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Book Review
Why We Love the Dogs We Do
by Stanley Coren

Review by: Kate Connick, Jan. 2003

Give Stanley Coren credit for creativity. Give him credit, too, perhaps for having a good eye for what sells. In the great scheme of things, it's probably far less important for a book to be meaningful than to be profitable. Coren's book, titled Why We Love the Dogs We Do, and subtitled How to Find the Dog that Matches your Personality, ostensibly aims to scientifically demonstrate the best matches between dogs and owners based on personality factors. It's a great concept. But concept is as far as it goes.

Almost as entertaining as it is irrelevant, this book reads like a blend of the magazines Dog Fancy, Psychology Today, and People. Coren comes across more as a chatty, town washer-woman than a real scientist as he presents anecdote after anecdote of famous people and their dogs. There is absolutely nothing in this book that could help a potential dog owner select an appropriate breed. That being said, if one enjoys gossip about famous people, this book may be an enjoyable, if forgettable, romp.

Coren first attempts to reclassify dog breeds into personality-based groupings. They are as follows:

  • Friendly
  • Protective
  • Independent
  • Self-assured
  • Consistent
  • Steady
  • Clever

These are perhaps the most reductionist and oversimplified categories I've ever seen, and they are often rather puzzling. One finds Boxers, for example, listed as Protective dogs. This group of "territorial and dominant" breeds includes Akitas and Chow Chows. Boxers belong in there? Oddly, Doberman Pinschers, German Shepherd dogs, and the Belgian shepherd breeds are not found among the Protective dog group. They are classified as Clever dogs, alongside Poodles and Papillons.

Although the Kuvasz is listed as a Protective dog, another livestock guardian breed - the Maremma Sheepdog - is listed among the Clever breeds which are "adaptable and can live reasonably well under city or indoor conditions." The Bouvier des Flandres is identified as a Steady dog, being "solid, good-natured, and tolerant," alongside Basset Hounds and Clumber Spaniels. I spent a lot of time examining these categories and scratching my head. Although we're assured that "experts" made these determinations, many of the category placements don't seem to make much sense.

Given that the author contends that the person who is happy with one breed in a group should be well matched to others, I find these categories especially baffling. I adore Boxers, but I couldn't imagine sharing my home with a Chow Chow. They aren't even remotely similar in disposition. I can't very well imagine the diehard Irish Wolfhound afficionado easily adjusting to a Beagle. Nor do I consider Shih Tzus and Jack Russell terriers interchangeable. Maybe it's just me, but I have a hard time accepting that a Papillon owner would find a similar dog ownership experience with an Australian Cattle Dog or Belgian Malinois.

Although Coren argues that his research is genuine, it amounts to junk science based on a lot of surveys and speculation. Many of his conclusions are based on assumptions about famous people's personalities, and he reads the character of the person to suit his conclusions. If he wants someone to be a dominant personality, he'll declare them so. If that doesn't fit with the type of dog they have, he'll explain that although the person appears dominant, that's somehow mitigated by other factors. None of it is convincing.

I suppose that the proof is in the testing of his theory. I took his little personality test, and much to my intense amusement, it appears that Boxers are wholly unsuited to me. I've owned five Boxers, and if I brought home a dog tomorrow, it would almost surely be a Boxer. Coren asserts, "...your best advice is to stay away... The likelihood that you and the dog will clash is very high indeed..." Darn. Either I've been living a lie all these years, or maybe, just maybe, he's wrong.

Although he claims to write the book with a mind toward making successful dog-owner matches, some of his "findings" fly wildly in the face of conventional wisdom. A female who is very low in dominance herself should own a Protective or Independent dog, according to the author. Coren never does make the effort to try to explain such things. One would think intuitively that a highly protective, dominant, territorial, potentially aggressive dog might walk all over a non-dominant owner.

Even when presenting his long, rambling anecdotes about famous people and their dogs, Coren never attempts to address the why of it all. This dominant person adored their dog from the Self-assured group - but why? Is it necessarily because the dog is "self assured"? Or does the person appreciate factors that have nothing to do with the personality traits that Coren wants to believe are the most salient ones?

I must admit that I took a guilty enjoyment in Coren's side-splittingly funny chapter about cat people. It's beyond comical how utterly disdainful this man is of cats and their owners. He basically rants about a dysfunctional ex-girlfriend - an underachiever with tattered furniture and marginal hygienic standards - who represents the prototype of a cat person to Coren. He paints cat owners as introverted, suggestible, passive, emotionally cold people who go through a lot of gauze bandages and don't mind the aroma of feline urine. It must have been a safe bet for him that cat owners would be unlikely to read this book. The humor in the chapter is, of course, unintentional, and it's at Coren's expense, because he is so ridiculous as he attempts to use his "data" to support petty stereotypes of cat owners.

In the end, this book is silly and forgettable. If one is into trivia about famous people (e.g., Lucille Ball owned a Schipperke named Ginger, and Jimmy Stewart was a really nice guy), then this book could be amusing. I'll give Coren credit for having spent a great deal of time compiling gossipy trivia. On the other hand, if one is looking for insight into human or canine personality - much less how to match the two to best effect - this book won't do it. One would do far better reading a more pragmatic book about how to choose a breed.

Why We Love the Dogs We Do by Stanley Coren.
Published by The Free Press, 1998. ISBN: 0684839016

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