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Dogs and Wolves: Dispelling Cesar Millan Once Again

A new book called "The truth about wolves and dogs" is a worthwhile read

Every now and again a book about dogs crosses my desk (and many do) that immediately catches my eye. Often it's simply the title or the cover photo that attracts my attention. Mark Derr's How the Dog Became the Dog was one of the more recent ones, as was Stephen Budiansky's The Truth About Dogs some years ago. Unfortunately, Budiansky's book had so many errors in it (see also) I immediately became wary and suspicious about any book that had the word "truth" in the title.

Nonetheless, a few weeks ago I was sent a copy of Toni Shelbourne's new book called The Truth About Wolves and Dogs: Dispelling the Myths of Dog Training and because it had the "T" word (Truth) in the title I cautiously opened it and began reading different parts of it. In a nutshell, I was very pleased especially with Shelbourne's candor about what we know and don't know and her dismantling of training methods that entail abusive behavior on the part of the human trainer, such as those used by Cesar Millan. I've already written about Mr. Millan's handling of a "problem" husky and when I recently reanalyzed the video a few weeks in more detail I stand by my conclusion that there was no reason to treat the dog as harshly and abusively as he was treated.

I'm not alone in really enjoying Toni Shelbourne's new book. One comment I found on Facebook noted that this book is a "comprehensive myth buster on the theories of dominance dog training and why you can stop striving to be the alpha." I agree.

My take on The Truth About Wolves and Dogs: Dispelling the Myths of Dog Training is that it is an easy read and a practical guide about who wolves are, who their descendants, our best friends, are, and how what we know about the behavior of wild and domesticated animals can be used to better understand them and to help us adapt to their worlds and them to ours. A significant take-home message is that dogs are not wolves. They are domesticated animals who have undergone their own unique changes as they became dogs.

I also found the discussions of dominance (it is not a myth) and the notion of alpha animals to be well grounded. In her cautious discussion of wolves (pages 32-43) Shelbourne notes, for example, "The truth is we are still figuring out how packs work." (p. 33) She also writes, "Pack hierarchy is fluid and nothing is permanent" and "Many factors affect a wolf's standing in their pack, and their personality." (p. 37) And, on the importance of play, a topic I've studied for decades (see also and) Shelbourne writes, "Play is really important. Many dogs are under-stimulated mentally and physically, and become bored and lonely on their own. A daily play session can make all the difference to your dog and your relationship with him. Wolves play throughout their lives at any opportunity: it's vital for group bonding." (p. 38) And, concerning appropriate discipline, "Very often telling off will only result in your dog misbehaving whilst you are around, or being afraid of you. Positive reinforcement - giving your dog a reward for doing something that you want him to - is much more effective in every case." (p. 41)

Among the practical tips I found useful can be found in the section titled "What make a good leader/handler?" These include (pages 41-43) a good leader never raises their voice, is calm in all situations, questions why they, rather than the dog are doing wrong, never uses physical violence, is patient, is willing to address their shortcomings, is proactive and a good problem-solver, is respectful to their dog, and is flexible. We control everything dogs do and relaxing that control will not make dogs take advantage of us and challenge who we are. Dogs are wonderful companions, indeed they are considered family members by many human guardians.

"Say 'no' to inappropriate training methods" and "let our dogs be dogs"

I also like very much how Shelbourne ends her book by imploring readers to "Say 'no' to inappropriate training methods." (p. 94) And her last paragraph says it all. Shelbourne writes, "Let's have a revolution and let our dogs be dogs. Let them be our faithful companions, acknowledge and welcome the fact they have thoughts, feelings and express themselves, just as we do." (p. 94) Amen.

This very well-illustrated book with many wonderful pictures of wolves and dogs accompanying the text will help you appreciate dogs for who they are, not who we want them to be.