Book Review: Tales of Two Species, by Patricia B. McConnell, Ph.D.


Notice the Afghan Hound taking her half out of the middle. What do you think the Whippets are thinking?

Because I work with dogs, I am  often being warned that  a certain dog is a biter, or I am asked by others if I ever get bitten.  Yes, it happens. The statistical odds are that  if you  work with a bunch of ‘strange’ dogs whom you get familiar with in a hurry, some are not going to like what you are doing to them.  For me, it is important to read the dog’s body language and understand  what stresses dogs, what they fear, and  how to alleviate stress and fear.   I  am bitten in fewer than 1 per cent  of the encounters I have with dogs.

You have to wonder about who is getting bitten and why.  Are they reaching into a cage to grab a dog?  Patting a dog on the head (many dogs HATE that)? Hurting the dog?  Trying to do something to the dog when they are both on the floor (the dog’s territory)?  Are they trying to take a dog out of someone’s arms (how scary is that—to be picked up and them  handed over…you could be dropped)?

I learned a long time ago to NEVER take a dog from an owner’s arms.  Most dogs will bite either because they are ‘protecting’ the owner or are afraid. Best to put a slip on the dog’s neck, have the owner put the dog on the floor, DON’T MAKE A CEREMONY OUT OF LEAVING, JUST TURN AROUND AND GO, have the dog see the owner go, and  most dogs will then follow me  calmly ans quietly.

If you groom dogs, you  have to learn how to ‘train’ dogs.  You have to learn to understand dog behavior and be able to tell that when a dog’s eyes are red, he yawns or licks his lips, puts his ears back, or growls (of course!), the dog is stressed.  Yet these days, ‘dog lovers’ enter the pet industry with no knowledge about dogs.  The owners of the businesses are retailers or marketers, or just plain capitalists,and they aren’t  training staff in safe handling techniques.  From anecdotal evidence, it seems that less than  half the dog groomers  working now have  some background in either some sort of conformation handling or performance —meaning  training a dog one-to-one in obedience, rally, agility, or another dog sport.  It was at a dog show that I learned to  teach a dog to defecate on command (see my blog, “Housebreaking the Difficult Dog”).  But I also learned—-from being  with hobbyists and fanciers, that not all dogs could be pet dogs.  The statistical odds are, with so many dogs being bred, and we have to include the ‘backyard breeders’ producing dogs, that there will be temperament ‘aberrations’.  Often you can tell  around the  time the dogs are weaned, if you use the Vollhard Temperament tests:  some dogs don’t like being picked up or rolled on their backs, some  are afraid of loud noises, some react with a bite if you pinch the webbing between their toes.

A responsible breeder will  evaluate her pups and either cull (that’s right—kill…euthanize)  dogs that will require exceptional care for life…or the biters, or at least won’t sell them as pets.    But we still have too many people who think , “It’s all in the way you raise them,” and make excuses for temperament issues.  Just remember:  if a child is bitten, that family may choose to never again own a dog—-or at least a dog of the breed that bit.

What is genetic, and what’s environmental?  Dr. McConnell has written about 35 essays that address dog behavior issues and how to understand  dogs. Her  essays on reactive dogs are particularly valuable.

I don’t want to discount  Dr. Horwitz or Dr. Coren and the valuable  books they’ve written about dogs.  Both have contributed enormously  to our understanding of how dogs experience  life, as has Temple Grandin.  However, this particular book includes  training methods that will be very  helpful to  anyone  working with dogs on a daily basis.  It is very well written and edited, and I plan to give it as a gift to fellow dog professionals for a long time.

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