Book Review: The Social Lives of Dogs, by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas


I try to read all the popular stuff on dogs to keep up with what  people at events are talking about.  While I  am not a fan of Cesar Milan,  you could find worse information on dog training… don’t get me started on Barbara Woodhouse..or the Koehler Method.  While these  ‘old timers’ have been discredited, unfortunately, Milan is all over  the place thanks to National Geographic, and  you can find Woodhouse’s No Bad Dogs and the Koehler  book all over  the place.

Lots of people take issue with Marshall Thomas because she is not a ‘professional’ animal behaviorist or fancier, and she allowed her dogs to breed.  Well, I bet we have issues with a lot of people we call friends.  I enjoyed The Hidden Life of Dogs, and I enjoyed this book  as wellI will add that I also enjoyed  The Harmless People, her book on the !Kung of  BotswanaHaving Asperger’s Syndrome, I am endlessly fascinated  about how communities work our social interactions.

Marshall Thomas is a phenomenal writer.  She writes clearly,  and describes what she has witnessed. She really is a pet lover, and while I would take issue in  allowing dogs to  breed indiscriminately in our modern, urban society, she explains dogs relations  to each other, and to humans, and this is what is important.

There are a lot of books written about dog training, and raising a puppy, but there is not  much written about multiple dog/pet households, and how dogs work out hierarchies and interactions.    Many of my clients started with  one pet, then  chose a companion for their first pet.  Sometimes it works out, often it doesn’t. Pets really have to choose their own friends, and pet owners can’t decide who will be dominant.

Marshall Thomas describes how  these particular animals came into her household, and what the social dynamics were among them.  Some  people might think she is anthropomorphic, but if you read and understand what she is saying,  if you are a dog owner, you will recognize what she says is true.

This is NOT a book on dog training. It is about relationships.  However, in her  Appendix, she  addresses control of dogs, and I would suggest this to anyone who  plans to work with dogs.  She is absolutely right.  She also has a separate appendix on keeping parrots.  While the books is really about dogs and their relationships to other sentient beings,  this appendix is also extremely valuable, and I am glad she  put it ion the  book.  So many people who   go for owning exotic dogs also go for  other exotics without thinking of the ramifications.

This book was published in 2000.  There is nothing out there like it.  Her anthropology training helped he  describe what she observed:  dogs being dogs.

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