The mythical dog: Beliefs don't substitute for facts

"Dogs, in short, are a brilliant evolutionary success almost without parallel in the animal world, and they owe that success to their uncanny ability to worm themselves into our homes, and to our relentlessly anthropomorphic psyches that let them do it." (Stephen Budiansky 2000, The Truth About Dogs, page 5)

"Let’s face it: If dogs truly were human they would be jerks. As dogs they are wonderful."  (Budiansky 2000, page 238)

"Dogs are 'biological freeloaders' ... have got us exactly where they want us, and we, idiotic grins fixed to our faces, go along with it all." (Budiansky 2000, pages 6-7) "They also '... play us like accordions.'" (page 13)

In response to a recent essay called "Training Dogs: Food is Fine and Your Dog Will Still Love You," in which I dispel a myth about how food shouldn't be used in dog training based on an essay called "Eager to Please?" by dog trainer and journalist Tracy Krulik, a number of people asked me about a book published in 2000 called The Truth About Dogs. One person asked why hadn't I or someone else reviewed it. I found it interesting that this book resurfaced, as it seemed to have been put to rest years back because it is so utterly misleading -- a clear example of how so-called truths lie. The book also considers the question of whether dogs really are eager to please, and the above quotes show that the author feels -- he provides nothing that resembles a substantive argument -- that dogs go out of their way to please us using various disingenuous tactics. 

In the continued spirit of myth-busting about beliefs, feelings, and unfounded opinions that are far too often written about dogs, claims in which beliefs are conflated with facts, I revisited this book because I had a little time on my hands and wanted to respond to people who asked me about it. 

It turns out I already had written a short review of The Truth About Dogs (Anthrozoös, 2001, 14, 56-59) replete with references about why, at that time, the book was just a bunch of unsubstantiated opinions. I honestly had forgotten about it because it is a perfect example of where so-called truths about dogs can easily mislead those who are looking to experts to learn more about who dogs are and what dogs do and why. The author of this book is hardly an expert on anything dogs.

In addition to my short review, I wrote a long essay in which I noted numerous serious errors because the author felt comfortable misrepresenting what we knew about dogs at the time or simply ignored a significant amount of easily available research to fit his ill-informed mischaracterizations of dogs. A similar trend -- a sort of reincarnation -- was repeated in two more recent books on dogs, so regrettably the habit of using beliefs and other sorts of fiction to substitute for facts didn't die with The Truth About Dogs (please see "How and Why Dogs Play Revisited: Who’s Confused?," "On Comparisons Between Dogs and Wolves: What We Really Know," and Psychology Today writer Mark Derr's "What a Dog Is Not"). All three books are misleading, reductionist, and dismissive accounts of what we've known about dogs for more than 20-25 years, surely before the first of these ill-informed books was published. 

Dogs are not parasites who prey upon, and exploit, human frailties and insecurities

In revisiting The Truth About Dogs a lot was rekindled, especially how frustrated I was when I first read it almost 17 years ago. I remember when I first picked it up hoping that I would read a well-researched book about dogs. However, I was incredibly wrong. Rather, Mr. Budiansky offered downright mistruths about the behavior of dogs through the repeated use of combinations of cute phrases, slippery and slick writing, recycled and convoluted arguments, and uncritical evaluations of available data. He confused the behavior of wild wolves with captive wolves, failed to recognize that critical studies had not yet been performed in many of the areas in which he implied otherwise, used insulting statements about some researchers with whom he disagreed, ignored the work of numerous scientists who had studied various aspects of the behavior of dogs, wolves, and other wild canids, and offered sweeping over-generalizations including that dogs are parasites who prey upon, and exploit, human frailties and insecurities.

I was astonished then, and I remain incredulous now, that this book ever saw the light of day. Here are a few more problems with the book, many of which continue to be repeated as facts by others. 

According to Budiansky, dogs are "biological freeloaders" (page 6) ... "have got us exactly where they want us, and we, idiotic grins fixed to our faces, go along with it all" (page 7). They also "... play us like accordions" (page 13). Budiansky also claims -- and he often states his beliefs with unyielding authority purportedly "as a brutally objective observer" (page 9) -- that dogs are constructed by human’s need for connection and love and that dogs really do not do much for humans other than to create an image that they really care and that they are truly there for us unconditionally. However, Budiansky also notes, "No one has actually done a study of this ..." (page 6) 

It's also interesting to note that early in his book, Budiansky is aware that he will likely engender the wrath of many readers. Thus, he tells his readers (page 4), "So let me hasten to add: I am joking. Mostly." Then, why a book at all? Dogs are complex beings whose psyches and behavior are not easily understood nor teased apart. No one really knows the truth about dogs, even today, and I suspect that the catchy title of Budiansky's book was chosen to make it more visible and more authoritarian. 

Continuing on, concerning evolution, Budiansky claims, "... neither joy nor pleasure, nor even low blood pressure, is an evolutionary force that carries much weight" in the sense that it plays some role in net increased survival and reproduction. (page 5) This is not so at all. Any freshman biology student knows this. 

Budiansky also professes to be a dog lover (he asks on page 9, "Did I mention that I love dogs?") and also an amateur ethologist (student of animal behavior). A brief discussion of the notion of "love" (page 75) might tell us what he means by love: "... an instinctive behavior that is expressed, in the immediate context, for its own sake; it is a powerful drive that has no other immediate reward than the continued nonaggressive behavior of a social superior." I'll let you take this wherever you like. 

Ethological studies of dogs and other animals: Learning more about how they sense their worlds

Ethologists often ask the question "What is it like to be another animal?" for they realize that animals live in vastly different sensory worlds and that there are large individual differences even among members of the same species. Budiansky's conception (pages 12-13) of Konrad Lorenz's "innate releasing mechanism" is incorrect and surely incomplete. Most amateur ethologists I know would not make the errors he does. Lorenz did not offer his theory of the innate releasing mechanism strictly in the tradition of behaviorist psychology and indeed, while many animals show inappropriate behavior on some occasions (brooding a rock or retrieving a stone as if it was an egg), these activities are not "inane" as Budiansky claims. If he understood the underlying theory of innate releasing mechanisms he would never make that claim, for what appears to be inane to humans makes good sense when analyzed from the animal's perspective. Furthermore, not all hard-wired behavior patterns (seemingly inane and otherwise) are products of innate releasing mechanisms, and an innate pattern of behavior can be modified during individual development. Simply put, Lorenz's concept of the innate releasing mechanism is far more sophisticated than Budiansky leads readers to believe.

Along these lines, nonhumans and humans rely on instincts or innate patterns of behavior in certain situations, especially when something has to be done “correctly” the first time. These actions include staying close to an adult for food and protection or avoiding predators. Contrary to much popular use of words such as “instinct” or “innate” that suggests that instincts are not modifiable, research shows that instincts can be modified through learning, and are not “fixed in stone.” For more on this topic please see Jack Hailman’s classic essay titled “How an Instinct is Learned” and books including Konrad Lorenz’s The Foundations of Ethology and Niko Tinbergen’s The Study of Instinct

Budiansky also claims that "Social rank is a result; it is not a state of mind." (page 55) Once again he makes a hard-and-fast claim for which there were, and are, numerous competing explanations, and he ignored a plethora of data that indicate that many animals do indeed behave in ways that show that their relative dominance rank within a group has a strong mental (representational) component. 

And there's more. Concerning play, Budiansky claims that the play bow "... is clearly derived from the submissive crouch . . . " However, even when he wrote his book this was far from evident to those who had carefully studied bows. Indeed, it's not clear today with many more comparative data available. For more on this topic please see "How and Why Dogs Play Revisited: Who’s Confused?" and "Dog Play Is Socially Contagious and Now We Know Why," and links therein. 

Budiansky continues his pursuit of truth in his discussion of communication. Concerning visual signals in animals, Budiansky states they are "... only a first approximation of the truth" (page 87), but he never tells us why he makes this claim and what he means by "a first approximation of the truth." Surely, even when he wrote his book, many serious students of animal behavior noted that many social signals were what they called "honest signals."

Do dogs have a "highly altered version of reality" and what does this mean?

Budiansky also writes (page 107) about dogs having a "... highly altered version of reality," but we must ask how he knows this and what a "highly altered version of reality" means. Budiansky discounts the idea that while a dog's reality may be vastly different from our own and also from that of other dogs and other animals, they still have their own view of the world. As I mentioned above, ethologists often ask the question "What is it like to be another animal?" for they realize that animals live in vastly different sensory worlds and that there are large individual differences even among members of the same species. They have their own reality and we need to step into their paws, heads, and hearts if we're to come to terms with their views of their world. 

In his discussion of what he calls "weird behavior," Budiansky clearly doesn't make any attempt to understand why dogs do why they do. He briefly considers situations in which dogs and other animals roll and rub on various objects and scents. Of course, if one carefully watches dogs, they will discover that rubbing and rolling are not at all weird, but rather activities in which dogs and many of their wild relatives engage routinely. While we still don't know much about why dogs and other animals do this, there's nothing weird about it from their perspective. 

Later in his book Budiansky notes that dogs most likely do not have a "theory of mind ... an ability to imagine what others are thinking, perceiving, and feeling." (pages 177-178) Instead, they are being driven by having formed "fairly simple associations." Even 17 years ago this reductionist and mechanistic view of other animals was not widely accepted, and now we know just how wrong he was (please see, for example, "Theory of Mind and Play: Ape Exceptionalism Is Too Narrow" and links therein). 

All in all, those who study other animals don't call their behavior "inane" or "weird" when they take into account the fact that other animals do things that make sense to them. We are obliged to figure out why they do what they do, rather than write off their behavior from a human perspective that discounts how other animals sense their own world and deal with social and other matters. The reason so many people find studying other animals so fascinating and challenging is that we need to work hard to get into their heads and hearts to figure out why they do what they do (for more discussion about the nature of ethological studies please see "Ethology Hasn't Been Blown: Animals Need All Help Possible"). 

"Let’s face it: If dogs truly were human they would be jerks. As dogs they are wonderful."

At the end of his book (page 238), Budiansky claims, "Let’s face it: If dogs truly were human they would be jerks. As dogs they are wonderful." Given what preceded this dismissive view of dogs, his conclusion is not all that surprising. 

Simply put, I found The Truth About Dogs to be a major letdown for the reasons noted above and others. Like ill and hastily prepared fast-food, The Truth About Dogs was, and remains, supremely unpalatable and a major disappointment. Revisiting it didn't change my mind and in some ways, after regretting that some people wanted to rekindle discussion about this book, I'm glad they asked about it. This book not only misrepresents what we knew about dogs back then, but it also robs dogs of their spirit and soul, of who they truly are as individuals. As I've written before, there really is no "the dog," so sweeping generalities are necessarily misleading and put out false information that easily can be misused by people who just don't know what we really know (please see, for example, "The Messes Dogs Make: Science Shows 'The Dog' Doesn't Exist"). 

Readers and dogs beware

Dogs are not uniformly parasites who prey upon, and exploit, human frailties and insecurities. They're also not thoughtless and mindless robotic automatons. It's neither fair nor honest to represent dogs in this dismissive manner, and I can only hope that people pay close attention to what we have learned over the past 16 plus years about these amazing beings. There is so much information that can be used on dogs' behalf to increase our understanding and appreciation of them as unique and fascinating individuals. This information is good for them and good for us. There is no need to look at human-dog interactions as a constant power struggle. 

Cute and slick prose, writing off dogs as social parasites, and misleading reductionism don't work, but in a number of places they're still offered up as the "truth" about dogs. Fortunately, based on detailed empirical studies, these views are rapidly disappearing. I'm glad Ms. Kruilik wrote "Eager to Please?" and I'm glad she agreed to be interviewed. I'm also glad a few people asked me about The Truth About Dogs so that we can really put out facts, based on empirical research, about these amazing beings. Readers and dogs beware of uninformed "truths" and how and where they lie. 

Anonymous and ad hominem comments will not be accepted. 

Some pertinent references

A large number of short essays on dogs can be seen here, here, here, and here. And, below are some references that contain a wealth of information on the behavior of dogs and their wild relatives.

Bekoff, Marc. 2014. Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation. New World Library, Novato, California.

Berns, Gregory. 2013. How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain. New Harvest, Boston. 

Bradshaw, John. 2014. Dog Sense: How the New Science of Dog Behavior Can Make You A Better Friend to Your Pet. Basic Books, New York.

Coren, Stanley. 2005. How Dogs Think: What the World Looks Like to Them and Why They Act the Way They Do. Atria Books, New York, New York.

Derr, Mark. 2004. Dog’s Best Friend: Annals of the Dog-Human Relationship. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Grimm, David. 2104. Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs. New York, New York. 

Hare, Brian and Woods, Vanessa. 2013. The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter Than You Think. Plume, New York. 

Horowitz, Alexandra. Editor. 2014. Domestic Dog Cognition and Behavior: The Scientific Study of Canis familiaris. Springer, New York.

Horowitz, Alexandra. 2016. Being a Dog: Following the Dog Into a world of Smell. Scribner, New York.

Horowitz, Alexandra and Bekoff, Marc. 2007. Naturalizing anthropomorphism: Behavioral prompts to our humanizing of animals. Anthrozoös 20, 23-35. 

Kaminsky Julianne and Marshall-Pescini, Sarah. Editors. 2014. The Social Dog: Behavior and Cognition. Academic Press, New York.

Käufer, Mechtild. 2014. Canine play Behavior: The Science of dogs at play. Dogwise Publishing, Wenatchee, Washington.

Lorenz, Konrad. 1981. The Foundations of Ethology. Springer-Verlag, New York, New York. 

Miklósi, Ádám. 2016. Dog Behaviour, Evolution, and Cognition. Oxford University New York. 

Pierce, Jessica. 2016. Run, Spot, Run: The Ethics of Keeping Pets. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Serpell, James. 2017. Editor. The Domestic Dog: Its Evolution, Behavior and Interactions with People. Cambridge University Press, New York.

Tinbergen, Niko. 1951. The Study of Instinct. Oxford University Press, New York, New York. 

Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation, Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation, Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson). The Animals' Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce) will be published in April 2017 and Canine Confidential: An Insider’s Guide to the Best Lives For Dogs and You will be published in early 2018.

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