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Book Review
The Domestic Dog
edited by James Serpell

Review by: Kate Connick, August 2003

Relatively recent, behaviorist-styled literature about dog training focuses on rewarding desired responses, with the dog itself presented as a somewhat generic animal: Dog as dolphin. More traditional training literature presents dogs as socially contentious pack members that need to be dominated: Dog as wolf. Many pet owners, and even dog trainers themselves, view dogs as family members with perspectives not unlike their own or those of a child: Dog as person. Although each of these models may have some merit, all fail to really address the dog for what it is. Not a dolphin or a wolf or a person, a dog is a dog.

The strength of Serpell's The Domestic Dog is that it focuses on the dog as a creature in its own right by reviewing research that relates specifically to dogs. The book is an anthology of scholarly essays that examine how dogs may have evolved, aspects of behavior, and the relationship between dogs and humans.

This book is unlikely to appeal to the average pet owner, as it's not a practical guide to living with one's dog. Nor is it inspirational, entertaining, or filled with eye-catching photos. Rather, it is a somewhat pedantic and dry look at dogs from a research and theory perspective. That being said, it is extremely well-referenced throughout and will be of interest to those with a greater than casual involvement with dogs.

Dogs themselves have been relatively neglected as the object of serious study. Reading this book gives one not only a good overview of information through 1995 but could stimulate ideas for further investigation.

It's hard to characterize the feel of this book beyond what I've already described, as it is composed of varied topics and differing writing styles. Divided into three broad categories, the first section discusses domestication and evolution. Clutton-Brock focuses on archaeological findings, while Coppinger & Schneider examine evolution based on behavioral selection - a prelude to Coppinger & Coppinger's 2003 book, Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior & Evolution.

Eight chapters comprise the second section about behavior and behavior problems. This includes Mugford's vision of canine behavioral therapy, Lockwood's thoughts on aggression vis-a-vis fatal and non-fatal dog bite statistics, and Hart explaining the rationale behind the methodology used in his book The Perfect Puppy, which attempts to delineate behavioral differences among dog breeds. Serpell & Jagoe examine early development and its relationship to adult behavior and behavior problems. Bradshaw & Nott focus on canine communication with an emphasis on the importance of olfaction and relative unimportance of dominance posturing in dogs versus wolves. Willis addresses the hereditability of behavior. Thorne examines the role of early experience on food preference. And O'Farrell addresses how owner personality or neurosis might be related to behavior problems in their dogs.

The remaining six chapters explore the overlap between humans and dogs. Hubrecht focuses on welfare issues, especially regarding housing institutionalized dogs. Hart examines the pet-owner bond. Boitani, et. al., and McDonald & Carr report on the ecology and behavior of feral dog populations in Italy. Serpall looks at the conflicting ways that we perceive and treat dogs across cultures, observing that "in our own culture, the dog has been granted temporary personhood in return for its unfailing companionship... but only so long as they refrain from behaving like beasts."

Admittedly too sophisticated for a quick, casual reading, this book is nonetheless an interesting overview of reasonably modern research and theory about dogs. The book won't hold much appeal for someone looking for thoughts on how to discourage sneaker-chewing, but for the trainer or hobbyist, it is a most worthwhile read.

The Domestic Dog, edited by James Serpell.
Published by Cambridge University Press, 1996. ISBN: 0521425379

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