There are a whole lotta people on this planet working hard to make dogs’ lives better. One of the leading voices of that movement is ethologist and author Marc Bekoff, Ph.D, who has just released his new book Canine Confidential: Why dogs do what they do. In it, Bekoff shares the latest research about dogs in hopes that we humans will take the time to understand our dogs as the wonderful individuals they are, and treat them with love, compassion, and care. (Full disclosure: I am quoted several times in the book.)
“When I write about what dogs want and need, I focus more on what dogs feel as the marker for how they should be treated,” Bekoff writes. YES! Let’s all take a moment to appreciate that our dogs have feelings too and start there. I find that many people — those who share their homes with dogs and those who do not — don’t realize that dogs can suffer a great deal.
My attention is usually focused on the ways in which we train and care for dogs to improve their lives, and while Bekoff does discuss that at length (more below), Canine Confidential really got me thinking about the lives of free-roaming dogs, how dogs are used in research experiments, the problems with selective breeding, and cosmetic alterations done to dogs to tweak what selective breeding doesn’t accomplish.
“People still breed dogs who they know will have short and likely miserable lives because of inbreeding and selecting for traits that make it difficult for them to breathe or to walk,“ Bekoff writes. “These people are essentially breeding, as one observer put it, for ‘beauty over health… at the cost of empathy. Humans spend millions of dollars to get rid of their own wrinkled faces, yet we intentionally produce dogs who we know will suffer and die young.'
“But it doesn’t stop there, " Bekoff continues. At Texas A&M University, dogs are intentionally bred with deformities to study various forms of muscular dystrophy. Many of these experimental dogs are profoundly crippled by six months of age, and half of them don’t live more than ten months. This surely isn’t any way to treat one’s ‘best friend.’”
Interestingly, though it is evident throughout the book that Bekoff wants all of us to give dogs the best life possible, I’m certain that this tome will raise the ire of many. You see, Bekoff devotes a chapter in the book on probably the most controversial word in the world of dog training: dominance. A word that ethologists use to refer to social hierarchy among animals, but which has been misunderstood and misused as it relates to pet dogs.
Those who know me might have noticed that when the word “dominance” is spoken about a dog, I turn the conversation along a different path. Sadly, since at least the 19th century, dogs have been abused in the name of training — they have been (and many continue to be) hanged, hit, starved, shocked, choked and drowned. And the reason is because many people — many who call themselves “trainers” included — have not understood that dogs do things like chew, dig, sniff, chase, and jump because they are DOGS, not because they are being DOMINANT and need to be punished until they submit.
As Bekoff notes, “Most incidents of abuse arise from dominance-based or aversive dog training. This approach uses and encourages the harsh physical handling of dogs, which is justified by the belief that dogs need to be physically ‘dominated’ before they will respect or listen to a person… this idea is flat-out wrong and terribly misguided. This type of ‘training’ traumatizes dogs and leads to injury and even death.”
Because “the D word,” as Bekoff calls it, is the root of so much harm to dogs, those in the force-free training world have maintained that dogs do not display dominance. Some, like me, acknowledge that dominance is a concept accepted by ethologists and researchers, but find that there are other ways to teach clients about body language and behavior to help them understand and get along better with their pups.
Bekoff’s argument is that dominance is an accepted concept in ethology and we can’t make it go away because it doesn’t suit our needs. Fair enough. Who am I to dispute a world-renowned professor of ethology?
My hope is that those in the force-free training world will not close their minds to Canine Confidential because of Bekoff’s views on the D word. We all want the same thing: better care for all of our canine friends.
Tracy Krulik, CTC, CSAT
Certified separation anxiety trainer, founder of iSpeakDog, and mom to Emma the Bravest Beagle.