Dog Sense: The Book Every Dog Lover Should Read

Last time I was at the library, I picked up a book called Dog Sense: How the New Science of Dog Behavior Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet by John Bradshaw. After finishing this book, I felt like it had so much valuable information that many dog owners don’t seem to know.

Dog Sense challenges some of the common beliefs (which are really misconceptions) that have been held by us humans for decades. Namely, that dogs are trying to be dominant over us and we need to use punishment and dominance displays to turn them into well-behaved creatures.

While I certainly do think that positive reinforcement (also referred to as force-free or reward-based training) is becoming mainstream, I still see outdated ideas about dog training more often than I would like. For instance, there is a dog trainer in my area who trains dogs through leash-jerk corrections. A different training school nearby uses shock collars.

Yesterday, I saw a post in a group I’m in on Facebook. A woman said her one-year-old Dachshund was pooping indoors despite being potty-trained. She said she “showed the dog his mess” and he cowered, and she also “put him in his crate for a time out.” Though her explanation of her actions doesn’t seem to be harsh punishment, it is nonetheless misguided because as Dog Sense explains, her Dachshund has no idea what it has done wrong since the action of pooping would have happened hours ago. But dogs associate your actions with whatever has happened within about two seconds. This means her dog may have associated her angry body language and tone of voice with being brought into a certain room of the house. If this is reinforced enough, the dog may learn to be afraid of specific rooms in the house, or worse, his owner.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let’s go back to explaining what Dog Sense is about and what it has to teach us (and thus why you should read it).

The first few chapters focus on evolution. How did wolves become dogs? How did dogs become domesticated? Bradshaw connects our knowledge of evolution and domestication along with research on today’s wolves to explain why we should stop using wolf behavior as a model for how dogs should be treated or trained. He highlights just how different dogs are from wolves, making a strong argument for why we should base our ideas about dog training on — can you believe it? — dogs themselves.

After this, he goes on to talk about how dogs learn, explaining different types of conditioning and associative learning. Remember what I mentioned about the lady and her Dachshund? If her Dachshund learns to be afraid of the bedroom because his owner yells at him inside that room, that’s associative learning. Your dog knowing what it means for you put your coat and shoes on is another example of associative learning. Think about how many things your dog has learned in this manner without you lifting a finger. Positive reinforcement takes advantage of this by teaching your dog to associate actions with rewards (though there is more to reward-based training than just this).

But we can’t talk about learning without punishment, unfortunately. Bradshaw discusses different types of punishment and explains that they can often be effective but only in the short-term. In the long-term, punishment is largely ineffective. He shares information from studies about dog owners and the types of training they used on their dogs. Those who opted for punishment typically had dogs that were far less behaved than those who used positive reinforcement. Furthermore, dogs that had been punished were more likely to exhibit behavioral issues such as separation anxiety or aggression. Bradshaw takes the time to explain exactly why punishment doesn’t work, along with the dangers and pitfalls that come with it. For many dog lovers, not using punishment to train our dogs is the obvious choice, but unfortunately, there are still those out there who could learn from Bradshaw’s chapter on positive reinforcement versus punishment-based training.

After this, the book moves into talking about dogs’ attachment to humans. According to his research, Bradshaw believes that as many as 20% of dogs suffer from separation distress (he uses the term distress because he feels anxiety is too specific). This is a result of their incredible attachment to humans. In fact, a study found that dogs that were put into anxiety inducing situations did not find any comfort from other dogs, even those they had spent their whole life with. On the other hand, they were greatly comforted by the presence of their owners. All of those touching Facebook quotes about how we are our dogs’ everything just might be true.

Talking about dogs’ attachment to us must make one wonder about what emotions dogs feel, and Bradshaw tackles just that. He has a whole chapter on love alone, but I personally found the chapter on emotions in general more interesting and even more important. It is in this section where he discusses guilt. How many of us have, at some point or another, believed that our dogs were guilty over something they did? How many of us still do believe our dogs are capable of being guilty? Bradshaw argues that dogs are not capable of self-reflection, which is necessary for one to feel guilt. So why does your dog look guilty before you’ve even found his mess (if you even find one)? It goes back to associative learning. Your dog has learned to associate your arrival home or your entrance into a certain room with punishment. Dogs are also incredibly observant and will learn to associate your body language and even facial expressions with punishment. Dogs cower or make certain “guilty” faces because they have learned that it reduces or even stops punishment. Therefore, a dog may cower because it has learned that 1. you coming home means it might get punished and 2. cowering reduces punishment. Your dog is not actually guilty.

If you read any chapters in this book, it should most certainly be the chapter on guilt, titled “Emotional (Un)sophistication.”

Bradshaw finishes up Dog Sense by talking about problems with breeding. He spends some time on the issues of inbreeding, but also discusses how the dog’s place in society has changed drastically. Dogs were once working animals, whereas now they are primarily companions. He argues that breeders should move toward producing dogs that would make good family pets rather than dogs that have a specific appearance or would do well in show rings.

Now that I’ve given an overview of the book, I’d like to share my own thoughts on it. You can probably tell by the title of this post, but I found the book to house incredibly valuable information. I feel that dogs across the world would have better lives if more people simply picked up this book. I only have my own experiences to make judgments with, but I’ve come across too many people (especially in the “boomer” generation) who still tend toward punishment as their preferred method of training. They truly believe that the best way to stop a dog from doing something is to hurt it. Hurting a dog definitely gets you results in the short-term, but they haven’t actually learned anything. For instance, an electric fence will keep the dog in the yard because she wants to avoid the pain of the fence, but the dog hasn’t actually learned to manage the impulses that send her out of the yard in the first place. If more people understood how their dogs think and learn, then perhaps they would be less likely to turn to punishment. Overall, I love how this book combats common misconceptions with science and sound logic.

While I do feel this book is accessible to the average person, I will admit that it is a bit dense. I personally found it fascinating because I enjoy learning about dogs, but I realize that some people might get a little bit bored because the book is so detailed. Still, I think it is worthwhile to read at least the chapters about why we shouldn’t treat dogs like wolves as well as the one about emotions and guilt.

I hope you will consider picking up this book by John Bradshaw (and no, I’m not sponsored. I wish!), and if not, that you at least learned a little something worthwhile by reading this blog post.

2 thoughts on “Dog Sense: The Book Every Dog Lover Should Read

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  1. Glad to see you back with a new article. I always knew my dogs were giving me pouting eyes just to get out of trouble! Lol. What would be a good way to teach your dog to identity a mishap inside the house if you found out about it much later? If their association to an action has such a small window of time it makes educating them fairly difficult to do properly.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Unfortunately, if you find a problem hours later, whether it’s a chewed up shoe or a potty accident, there’s nothing you can do about it. Though we all make mistakes, I think it comes down to being proactive with our dogs. If your dog is still learning to wee outside or has a habit for chewing stuff he shouldn’t, then it’s important not to give them too much freedom. Keep them near you and crate them when you’re away. With chewing, sometimes all that’s really needed is just engaging with your dog more as chewing can be a sign of boredom. More exercise, more time spent on positive reinforcement training, and more time playing with your dog can often reduce unwanted behaviors. I’ve definitely noticed that my dog behaves much better when he’s had enough activity that day.

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