Last Minute Gift Ideas for Dog Lovers: Six Books That Belong in Every Dog Lovers Library

In her book, Inside of A Dog, author and researcher Alexandra Horowitz writes, “We are known by our dogs— probably far better than we know them.” Horowitz is right, and sadly dogs don’t come with a user’s manual. In my 19 years of teaching dog training classes, I have tried to teach my students about more than training; if you want to be a good companion to your dog, you need to know about your dog’s language, natural history, anatomy, emotions, and everything else that makes your dog a dog.

I believe one of the best gifts we can give to ourselves and to our dogs is a better understanding of who they are. In this blog post I’ve reviewed the books that I believe everyone who lives with a dog should read. It’s a perfect time to pick one up for yourself or for another dog lover in your family or circle of friends.

On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals by Turid Rugaas  – This book and its author, Turid Rugaas, have influenced my understanding of dogs more than any other book or seminar. While this book is few in pages, it is rich in information depicted in great photos. This gentle, kind, woman is incredibly knowledgeable about canine behavior and ethology. She has taught many how to live in harmony with our dogs by helping us to better understand what they are trying to tell us, and in turn she has taught us a better way to express ourselves to our dogs.

Full of photographs illustrating each point, On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals focuses on how dogs use specific body language to cutoff aggression and other perceived threats. Dogs use these calming signals to tell one another, and us, when they are feeling anxious and stressed and when their intentions are benign. If you have more than one dog, or if your dog frequently plays with others, or if you are a frequent visitor to the dog park, you need to be familiar with calming signals. This book will help you learn 'dog language', for which you will be rewarded with a much better understanding of your pet and its behavior.

FAVORITE QUOTE: "If you want your dog to respect you, you must also respect your dog. A good relationship is based on two-way communication, and living together in a well-balanced togetherness. Leadership does not solve anything; it only creates problems, in our lives as well as in the dogs' lives."

The Other End of the Leash - by Patricia McConnell, PhD – Back in the early 1990's, before I entered into the pet care business, I was fortunate to attend several dog training classes taught by Dr. Patricia McConnell. Her understanding of how dogs and humans communicate and her emphasis on rewarding good behavior made this the first class my dog Gus and I really enjoyed.

The Other End of the Leash is an information-packed, yet readable book. In it you will learn how to have an improved relationship with your dog through better communication. As a scientist who has studied both primate and canine communication systems, Dr. McConnell has a keen understanding of where the communication between humans and dogs often breaks down, creating frustration and stress for both species. For example, she explains how simple innate greeting patterns of both species can cause conflict. We know that when two people meet, the polite thing to do is to make direct eye contact and walk straight toward one another smiling. However, as Dr. McConnell notes: "The oh-so-polite primate approach is appallingly rude in canine society. You might as well urinate on a dog's head." Direct eye contact and a direct approach is very confrontational to a dog.

Dr. McConnell also emphasizes how dogs primarily communicate visually, while humans are a very verbal species. The picture she paints of the frustrated chimp, jumping up and down, waving their hands, and screeching repeatedly is only a slight exaggeration of the frustrated human, saying "sit, sit, sit, ahhhh please sit" while displaying countless bits of body language. Primates, including humans, "...have a tendency to repeat notes when we're excited, to use loud noises to impress others, and to thrash around whatever is in our paw if we're frustrated. This behavior has no small effect on our interactions with dogs, who in spite of some barks and growls, mostly communicate visually, get quiet rather than noisy to impress others, and are too busy standing on their paws to do much else with them." With these fundamental differences, it's amazing we can communicate with our dogs at all.

FAVORITE QUOTE: "If humans are understandably a bit slow at responding to the visual signals that our dogs are sending, we are downright dense about the signals that we generate ourselves."

DOGS: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior and Evolution by Raymond and Lorna Coppinger – This book refutes a great number of the popular myths about the domestic dog with sound science. Dr. Coppinger is a professor at Hampshire College where he teaches evolutionary biology. He and his wife Lorna have over 40 years of experience living and working with all varieties of dogs.

The main premise of this book is that humans did not create the dog by taming and domesticating the wolf, but instead the dog self-evolved from the wolf. Tamer and less energetic wolves started hanging around human settlements for the discarded food and over time these wolves evolved into today's village dog. Only in the last few hundred years have humans become involved in consciously, and not always responsibly, engineering the village dog into the many breeds we see today. The Coppinger's have studied village dogs (feral dogs living in human communities) as they exist in the world today in places like Mexico City, and Pemba. 

FAVORITE QUOTE: "Dogs as a species are most likely less than fifteen thousand years old, which is a barest instant of evolutionary time. Wolves as a species are maybe five million years old, and they need protection from extinction. ... [There are] four hundred million dogs in the world – that is a thousand times more dogs than there are wolves. If wolves are the ancient ancestors of dogs that means dogs have achieved a biological coup, successfully outpopulating their ancestors by a lot.”

Dog Sense: How the New Science of Dog Behavior Can Make You A Better Friend to Your Pet by John BradshawEarly on in this book Bradshaw describes why he decided to write this book: “I felt it was time that someone stood up for dogdom: not the caricature of the wolf in a dog suit, ready to dominate his unsuspecting owner at the first sign of weakness, not the trophy animal who collects rosettes and kudos for her breeder, but the real dog, the pet who just wants to be a member of the family and enjoy life.” Bradshaw’s reasons for writing this book are exactly why I love it so much because most dogs are quite simply companions and family members.

Dr. John Bradshaw is an animal behaviorist and the director of the Anthrozoology Institute at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom. If you look at recent scientific papers that have been published on dog or cat behavior, you’ll often find Bradshaw listed as one of the researchers/authors.  In Dog Sense he summarizes the latest research for dog lovers like you and me. Topics he covers include; how the dog evolved, the fallacy of the dominance construct, how the dog’s role in society is changing and how that has led to higher expectations for non-dog like behavior and how these changes might affect the dog’s future. He addresses breeding issues and how the dog fancy’s focus on appearance rather than temperament and health may threaten the existence of many breeds. He also talks about how dogs learn and how research has demonstrated the many advantages of positive reinforcement/reward based training over the antiquated training model based on force and intimidation.

If you want to get off on the right paw with your dog, reading Dog Sense would be a great place to start. Incidentally, Dr. Bradshaw also has a book for cat lovers which I also recommend highly: Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet.

FAVORITE QUOTE: The new canine science reveals that dogs are both smarter and dumber than we think they are. For example, they have an almost uncanny ability to guess what humans are about to do, because of their extreme sensitivity to our body language, but they are also trapped in the moment, incapable of projecting the consequences of their actions backward or forward in time. If owners were able to appreciate their dogs’ intelligence and emotional life for what it actually is, rather than for what they imagine it to be, then dogs would not just be better understood—they’d be better treated as well.

For the Love of A Dog - by Patricia McConnell, PhD – Yes, this is the second book I’m recommending by Dr. McConnell and it’s simply because her books are that good! For the Love of A Dog explores the emotional connection we make with our furry, four-footed canine companions. She also discusses how revolutionary it is to view animals as having a vibrant emotional life. Kudos to McConnell for being one of the few scientists with the courage to admit what almost everyone has known all along; animals experience joy and fear and everything in between. We don’t know what it is they are feeling, but it’s obvious the have a rich emotional life; in some cases very joyous and in others quite sad.

After reading For the Love of A Dog you’ll have a better understanding of the science behind emotions and why we and our dogs get along so well. McConnell has also included an excellent section on canine body language, one of my favorite subjects and one that is not emphasized enough in classes for dog owners. If you take your dog to the dog park you MUST know this stuff.

I recently had the opportunity to hear Dr. McConnell speak on People, Dogs and Psychological Trauma at the 2014 APDT Conference, a topic filled with information on emotional extremes and how similar they can be between dogs and people. I suspect another book is in the works, and I cannot wait.

FAVORITE QUOTE: “On the one hand, of course dogs have emotions. It seems so patently obvious to most of us that we feel foolish at having to say it. As much as any animal on earth, dogs express emotions as purely and clearly as a five-year-old child, and surely that’s part of why we love them so much.”

Living with Kids and Dogs…Without Losing Your Mind: A Parent’s Guide to Controlling the Chaos by Colleen Pelar –

As a dog trainer and behavior consultant I get my fair share of calls and emails from parents trying to balance the needs, wants and desires of their dog and their children. In her books title, certified professional dog trainer Colleen Pelar alludes to the chaotic nature of living with kids and dogs. Not having two-footed children of my own, I’m glad to have her back on hand to help me make recommendations that will make things better and not worse. I especially like that Pelar is honest and upfront about the fact the dogs and children do not automatically get along and sometimes a dog , any dog, is not going to be a good choice for a family.

I like this book so much, that whenever I have the opportunity to talk to a family before they get a dog, I suggest that they read Colleen’s book first. I’m a big believer in prevention and Colleen offers information that will help parents make smart choices. I also recommend Living with Kids and Dogs to parents who already have a dog, even if there are no problems. It’s all about being prepared. This is also a good book for anyone who doesn’t have dogs but has children that will most certainly be meeting dogs that belong to friends and other family members. It’s also a good choice for the grandparents and aunt and uncle who don’t have kids but do have dogs that will be interacting with children.

Why didn’t I recommend a “how to train your dog” book? There are many good “how to train your dog” books out there and also some that are quite bad. I didn’t recommend any because I believe the best training experience a pet parent can have is working with an experienced dog trainer privately or in a group class. Books can be a great reference, but they do not take the place of having a skilled professional working with you and your dog together and being available to answer questions when they occur.

First published in Don’s column; Words, Woofs & Meows in the November 2014 and December 2014 issues of the Downeast Dog News.


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