In Defence of Dogs, By John Bradshaw

Reviewed,Robert Hanks
Friday 12 August 2011 00:00 BST
Misunderstanding a best friend: Dog-walkers
Misunderstanding a best friend: Dog-walkers (AP)

Do dogs need defending? From the point of view of those who don't own dogs - a category to which, until not so long ago, I belonged - the question may seem perverse. Dumping their faeces under our feet, snapping at our children and our postal workers, propping up a thuggish machismo that blights our inner cities, bowling into picnics and five-a-sides to steal our food and footballs: and dogs need defending from us?

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But since the arrival in our household a year ago of a whippet called (not my fault) Timmy, my attitude has necessarily shifted. Walking a smallish, mild-tempered and friendly dog, I've found myself on the receiving end of startling levels of hostility, including one physical assault. Sometimes the fault has been his (or mine); but often it seems what is wrong is that society has unrealistic expectations and fears. It demands that dogs are perfectly decorous, decent creatures, walking in straight lines, never approaching people to whom they have not been introduced, performing their ablutions and conducting their courtships as discreetly as duchesses. And when dogs, as they will, romp, crap and hump, many people are disgusted and fearful.

John Bradshaw is, as well as a dog-owner, director of the Anthrozoology Institute at the University of Bristol, dedicated to studying the relationship between man and the animal world. In this book, he puts a case grounded in kindness and science for letting dogs be dogs. This is not as tautologous as it sounds: the two most most widely held misconceptions about dogs are, first, that they are stupider versions of people and, second, that they are wolves in mufti.

The latter has some scientific basis, inasmuch as dogs are descended directly from wolves. Among dog-trainers it has been fashionable to explain our relations with dogs in terms of "pack theory": a dog sees the household in which it lives in terms of a wolf-pack, we are told. Like a wolf, the dog seeks dominance within the pack and it is the business of the owner to show the dog who is boss. This is wrong on two counts: first, it is based on outdated studies of captive wolf-packs; in the wild, packs are fluid, with individuals coming and going, and order achieved through cooperation rather than struggles for dominance.

Secondly, dogs have spent tens of thousands of years adapting to live alongside humans, and have cast off their wolfish inheritance. They have undergone physical changes - smaller teeth, smaller skulls - and even more dramatic alterations in behaviour. Where wolves are wary predators, dogs are among the most socially adaptable creatures on earth: that is, those that haven't been deprived by over-breeding of the basic tools of face and body-language.

A dog that has been properly socialised during the first two or three months of its life will be happy to meet new dogs and, remarkably, people. No other animal shows such a capacity for bonding regularly with members of another species; a dog's ability to slot into a family, to tolerate our illogical habits, our bizarre inattention to smells and high-pitched noises, is extraordinary. Dogs do this, Bradshaw has no hesitation in saying, because they love us. Because dogs make themselves part of our families, it isn't altogether irrational for owners to see themselves as "mummies" and "daddies". But this courts the other danger, of anthropomorphising.

Much of Bradshaw's book is given over to exploring the gulf between our view of the world and a dog's. Their senses are generally more acute than ours - we can barely begin to conceive of how much they can smell, and how much information they glean from scent. We cosily assume that we make up for this with our superior visual powers; but even here, once daylight fades, dogs can see far better. Where we do score is in our ability to connect events, to see how things happen over time; but this becomes problematic when we fail to realise how much dogs live in the moment. There is no point punishing a dog for something it did more than a minute ago. When we think we're administering discipline, a dog sees only arbitrary cruelty.

Bradshaw is not a marvellous stylist - for reading pleasure, you'd be better off with Alexandra Horwitz's Inside of a Dog. But In Defence of Dogs is authoritative, wise and, in its sharp appreciation of the cost to dogs of living with us, rather moving.

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