If you decide to read this book, and I suggest that you do, then prepare to become quite annoying. This book is so packed full of interesting facts that it is likely that on every second page you will be nudging your partner and saying “Did you know that dogs .. .. ?” The facts will range from their skills smelling and seeing, through their social behaviour and cognitive structures, to their morals and their very genetic makeup. This is a wide ranging scientific book which attempts, and largely succeeds, in giving a potted summary what we know about ‘the dog’. Despite the scientific slant this is, however, a very easy book to read and at times can be quite humorous.
It is surprising that there are not more books on this subject. This symbiotic relationship between two different species is quite unusual and very special. The length of time that our species have cohabited is stunning and it appears that both ourselves, and the dogs, evolved together and we both influenced the development of the others evolution. The fossil evidence for dogs dates back around 14000 years; a burial site in Israel (Ein Mallaha) which was dated at around 12000 years ago shows that man and dog are well acquainted from the start. The burial site contained the remains of an elderly man, curled up, with his hand resting on the skull of a young puppy.
Not only is our relationship with the dog one of our earliest relationships it is also part of a very small and select group. Of the thousands of animals and birds which have inhabited the earth alongside us only about a dozen species have entered into a domestic relationship with man. It is probably fair to say, though a few weird cat people might disagree, that the relationship mankind has with the dog is of a magnitude greater than with any other animal.
It is not that there are not a lot of books about dogs, there are. But these are often ‘how to’ books (“How to train your Alsatian“), encomia to various breeds (“For the love of Spaniels“) or pop-psychology about the dogs’ mental state or yours (“What your dog is saying to you” or “How to live as an alpha male; being a wolf in a man’s world“). This book is not like these, it is a measured review of our current scientific knowledge and it tends to puncture quite a few commonly held myths about dogs especially in the area of language and dog psychology. However, as someone who has always lived with dogs, and whose dogs grace this page, I found this more hard-nosed approach all the more interesting.
The book tackles the idea of domestication, the idea that we tamed wolf pups to become dogs, and reveals that this is very unlikely to have been the case. We, as a species, did not domesticate the dog; the dog, as a scavenger, learnt how to carve a niche for itself and moved into our society. We may later have promoted different breeds by determined mating but prior to this there is no evidence that we created the dog by breeding from its forbearer the wolf.
The cognitive styles and communication of the dog are also considered and it is shown that it is not helpful to try and shoe-horn the dogs’ actions into explanations based on human cognition or conversation. It is very rarely appropriate and very commonly leads us to errors of judgement. Dogs are not partially developed humans and is best not to think of them in these terms. It may be occasionally helpful to think of them as a form frust of wolves. But,in any event, it is better to be aware of the research that has been done and use this exciting and interesting data to understand our friends. This would stop us making the many mistakes that other books anthropomorphism lead us to (Or worse, the mistakes when we analyse our behaviour on the basis of our behaviour being related to those of the dog or wolf pack).
There is so much information in this book it keeps the reader actively engaged. Readers who live with dogs will especially find items of interest and surprise on just about every page. Those readers will also end with a much better understanding of the dog than when they started. Those readers who are not fortunate enough to live with a dog will also find it enjoyable and may help them understand why their neighbours spend time picking up 2 millions tons of dog faeces annually in the United States or why they pay $5billion a year to feed these parasites who have moved in with them.
This is a book that explains dogs as dogs, not as some reflection of ourselves. It is important to remember this as, as the author notes, “If dogs truly were human, they would be jerks. As dogs, they are wonderful”