The Domestic Dog is the book we’ve been waiting for since 1995

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Your neighbor has a great car mechanic: thorough, dependable, and honest. With your car recently spewing some funkay sounds, you consider paying the mechanic a visit. Might as well go with a recommendation, right?

But when the family dog starts barking incessantly at visitors, do you also turn to the neighbor for a quick chat to pick up some dog-behavior advice? I’d recommend against it, or at least not without having some way to evaluate the information you receive.

“More people may know more about dogs than ever before, but it is often a shallow sort of knowledge that is easily exploited by self-styled dog experts for personal gain,” writes professor James Serpell of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. “The carefully edited antics of these charismatic but frequently ill-informed dog gurus and ‘whisperers’ may be entertaining to watch on TV but, ultimately, it is the dogs who suffer when their owners imbibe too much of this quasi-scientific ‘snake oil.'”

What then constitutes a well-informed take on the dog? I’d argue it’s views that mature, grow, and yes, shift with evidence, that deserve our attention.

Which brings me to James Serpell’s highly anticipated second edition of “The Domestic Dog: Its Evolution, Behavior, and Interactions with People.” This edition captures the current state of all things dog: “what we truly know — and what we don’t know — about the evolution, natural history, and behavior of Canis familiaris.”

Many dog lovers have eagerly waited more than 20 years for this edition’s release. In a podcast interview, Serpell reflected on the popularity of the 1995 first edition: “It seemed to be timed to coincide with the professionalization of dog science. It seemed to be a prelude to people suddenly becoming interested in dog behavior, dog cognition, and things like that.”

The 2017 edition offers an academic and research-focused yet reader-friendly way of thinking about who dogs are, why they act the way they do, and where they came from. Chapters from the first edition were entirely revamped, and seven new ones were added to cover fields that barely existed 20 years ago. The book is split into four sections—Origins and Evolution; Behavior, Cognition and Training; Dog-Human Interactions; and Life on the Margins. There’s something for everyone.

With all the dog books out there, why am I telling you about this one? For one thing, because I ‘woo-hoo-ed’ when it arrived in the mail, and after reading it, I’m still woo-hoo-ing. For another, what we read and hear about dogs can affect our behavior toward them. We are constantly making decisions on their behalf, and those decisions can be guided by heck knows what. A quick Google search. Your experience with your first dog. Something a cartoon dog said. “The Domestic Dog” continues to help frame our thinking — and our decisions — using scientific studies and questions. 

“The Domestic Dog” walks readers through the many questions they might have about dogs. What is up with the wacky genetics underpinning some dogs having itty bitty short legs and others immensely long ones? How can a Chihuahua and Great Dane be members of the same species? How (and how much) do genetics contribute to different behavioral traits, and how is this even calculated or assessed? Is there a relationship between early life experiences and later behaviors? What does it mean when a dog barks incessantly or tears up the house in your absence? What is life like for feral or free roaming dogs living on the outskirts of human societies? How do they get food, and what are their relationships like with other dogs? Those questions represent just a tiny fraction of the issues investigated in this 416-page volume. Since these questions don’t have one-word answers, “The Domestic Dog” gives these, and other questions, the time and detail they deserve. Jam-packed with studies and references, “If you are a serious student of domestic dog behavior, you need this book,” offers Patricia McConnell, PhD, CAAB (her reviews of the book are here and here).

Two incredibly valuable chapters, one on learning and training methods and the other on the field of applied animal behavior, highlight that whether we realize it or not, we are constantly telling dogs stuff, giving them information, putting some training ideology onto or into them — all of which can affect their behavior and relationships with us. Owners may want dogs to come when called or prefer #1 and #2 be performed outside rather than inside the house, but dogs’ long evolutionary history alongside us hasn’t pre-programmed each individual with these “features.” Instead, what we do — what we put in — affects what they do.

And we have choices as to what we put in. Veterinary behaviorist, Ilana Reisner (Facebook), author of the learning and training chapter, reviews studies on training and suggests that all techniques are not equal. One survey-based study identified that, “More than a quarter of surveyed dog owners reported that intimidation-based training techniques such as hitting, growling, grabbing and shaking the jowls or scruff, or punitively rolling the dog on its back resulted in aggression by the dog (Herron et al., 2009).” On the other hand, understanding the risks, yet possible use, of punishment to decrease the frequency of certain behaviors is important as well. Both chapters tackle the complex topic of punishment that’s often rampantly overused — and oversimplified — on TV and in popular books. “Quasi-scientific snake oil” seems to run rampant in this area to the detriment of dog well-being and dogs’ relationships with people.

It’s chapters like these that give dog owners more control, perspective, and agency in how they interact with dogs. “Ultimately, training methods should continue to be based on the science of learning as well as the determination to do no harm,” Reisner concludes.

Another theme in “The Domestic Dog” is that, as simple and clear-cut as dogs might seem (man’s best friend! ‘nough said!), this interspecific friendship (relationship between two species) is actually quite muddled and messy when we get into it. Some cultures embrace service and emotional support dogs (this book clarifies the difference between the two), while elsewhere, dogs are dinner or a major public health concern. In their role as family members we may ascribe human-qualities to them — sometimes ones they can’t live up to — instead of exploring and embracing what it is like to be a dog, an area covered extensively in this edition in chapters on early life and behavioral development, dog social behaviors and communication, and social cognition.

“The Domestic Dog” is also a reminder that the dog is not set in stone. Even with genomics and archeology hard at work, there is still no consensus on the origins and evolution story of Canis familiaris, but we’re on our way. And if the dog is not set in stone, then a brighter future is possible. For example, dog breeding, though popular, is not without immense welfare issues. The focus of the last 200 years to achieve and preserve distinct aesthetics or functions has resulted in a plethora of breed-specific diseases and conditions. The dog welfare chapter by Robert Hubrecht and colleagues explains that “the breathing difficulties of pugs and bulldogs are caused by their having been bred for an abnormal, short-muzzled (brachycephalic) head shape. In these animals, the shortening of the bone structure of the muzzle is not matched by corresponding reduction in the soft tissues of the mouth, nose and throat, so the airways are narrowed and obstructed (Brown and Gregory, 2005).” Breed specific genetic conditions are also an issue, such as a recessive gene in Dalmatians that affects their ability to break down protein resulting in high levels of uric acid and the potential for stone formation in the bladder. Ouch.

Although hundreds of inherited disorders have been identified, movements to improve breed-related welfare issues are not obvious, particularly when a number of the welfare problems are actually part of what people see as cute, like short and squishy faces or excessive skin folds. Dog lovers looking not to perpetuate inherited defects can consider using a Puppy Contract if considering purchasing a dog, or checking out Love is Blind, a 3-minute video narrated by veterinarians and welfare specialists on changing the trend.

“The Domestic Dog” also suggests dog policies be informed by research, particularly when multiple studies draw similar conclusions. For example, companion dogs are being torn from families due to local breed-based policies which should be reconsidered when policies are not found to decrease dog bite injuries or protect public health or safety. Instead, some studies highlight that individuals cannot simply be characterized as “aggressive” or “non-aggressive.” Instead, there are certain conditions under which individual dogs are more likely to behave aggressively.

Our understanding of the dog is a work in progress. We all benefit from asking more questions like the ones explored in “The Domestic Dog.”

This isn’t the first time I’ve recommended a book, and it won’t be the last! Past reviews and recommendations below.

The Best Books for Dog Lovers

The Best Books for Cat Lovers

Being a Dog Celebrates All Sniffers

Chaser: How a Dog Aced the Verbal Section of the Canine SAT

Dog of the Dead: The Science of Canine Cadaver Detection

The Education of Will, by Patricia McConnell