7 March, 2011

A Pile of Book Reviews

I have been reading various dog books like they’re going out of style.

Eminent Dogs, Dangerous Men by Donald McCaig
I really kind of loved this one, the story of McCaig’s search for The Perfect Border Collie and the people and dogs he meets along the way. It’s the kind of book that makes me feel inspired to go train my dogs, so Siddy got extra clicker-time while I was reading this one. Two instances in the book did make me roll my eyes, though. Very early on, McCaig says that wolves will stare down their prey to “dominate” it. Uh huh. “Intimidate” I would buy but dominance is not a theory that applies here, and I really really wish I could eliminate it from the vocabulary of dog people. And then late in the book, McCaig makes a passing reference to “the r*tarded girl” that a shepherd sends his puppies to for raising and again, really? Did you just need to throw that out there, Mr. McCaig? But only two incidents of eye-rolling in a book is pretty dang good for me, so I’d give this one a thumbs up.

My Life in Dog Years by Gary Paulsen
A nice account of the dogs Mr. Paulsen has known in his life, arranged as brief vignettes about the dogs in question. Not quite Chicken Soup for the Dog Lover’s Soul, but it serves much the same heartwarming purpose. Good stuff, especially for readers who prefer a brief, blog-entry-like reading experience.

Puppies, Dogs, and Blue Northers by Gary Paulsen
I admit it, this book weirded me out in the beginning because it opens with a lyrical description of Paulsen listening to two of his dogs have sex. But it gets much better and less weird from there, and there are moments that are positive gems of comic gold, like his description of letting thirty-some-odd sled dog puppies into his house one morning. A short book that is most definitely worth the read.

How to Be Your Dog’s Best Friend by the Monks of New Skete
Where to even start with this one. Oh, I know, with confusion! The Monks have a beautiful grasp of the need for trust, love, and respect between dog and person. They write gorgeously of the relationship that is possible between human and dog. But to get to that bit, first you have to read through a metric butt-ton of “dominance” bull, and also past the part where they instruct you on disciplining your dog.

The Monks were the ones who, in previous editions of this book, popularized the “Alpha Roll” where you force your dog onto his side and pin him there. They explicitly state in their book that they no longer recommend this maneuver because it is too likely to get you bitten. Unfortunately, they still recommend “the Shakedown” (grab a puppy by the scruff of the neck, or an adult dog by the sides of the neck, lift him off his feet, and shake him) and “discipline under the chin” which involves using a “training collar” (by which they mean a choke chain) to hold the dog in place in a sit at your side while you hit him under the chin. “How hard should you hit the dog?” they ask, rhetorically, before answering their own question. If you don’t get a “yelp or other reaction” then hit the dog harder.

The rest of their training is a mix of the old-fashioned “crank and yank” where you alternate verbal and physical “praise” with leash corrections using the choke chain, and for “softer” dogs they will graciously allow you to use food treats, recognizing apparently that repeatedly strangling your dog, cutting off his air supply in the “shakedown” and hitting him under the chin will totally fry the brains of some dogs. Hell, even most dogs. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want my dog to see sitting calmly at my side as a predictor for being nailed under the chin.

They recommend this “physical discipline” incidentally for “heinous canine crimes” such as going to the bathroom in the house and “stealing”. These are so deeply problematic. If your dog is going to the bathroom in the house, I have to ask why you haven’t worked to house train him, and why you’re giving him enough unsupervised time to have accidents if you’re going to be upset enough to hit him over it. And “stealing”? Oh please. Dogs do not have a concept of ownership like people do. To a dog, what you’re using right now is yours, but when you put it down and walk away from it, it’s fair game.

Most of the book is the same old, same old: “blah blah blah dominance blah blah get leadership blah blah.” I find it hard to believe that a human being could fail to impress upon a dog that the big-brained, thumb-having human controls everything in life a dog wants without resorting to force, seriously.

In short, I do not recommend this book in the least and only read it because I felt like I should. With the exception of a couple of pages, it was universally appalling — dog training has come a long way since the Monks published the first edition of this in the 70s, and I think it would behoove them to stick their heads out of the cloister and learn about it.