Best, Short Dog Book Ever – Nicholas Dodman’s “The Well-Adjusted Dog”

March 17, 2009

well_adjusted_dogDr. Nicholas Dodman, Director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at the Cumming School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University has produced a small gem of a book, The Well-Adjusted Dog.

There’s more good, solid information in its 250 pages than in a whole host of other books written by dog ‘experts’ who have little or no credentials in the science and study of canines (Cesar Milan, I’m looking at you).

“Your job as a dog owner,” Dodman writes “is to try and understand your dog’s life fro his point of view, and to lead and protect, not to dominate, punish, and force a dog into submission, as popularized on too many of today’s TV shows.”

When this book comes out in paperback, I can see giving out multiple copies to neighbors and fellow dog owners, rather than trying to answer their questions myself.

One of the first and most vital points he makes is his belief that most dogs are under-exercised and bored out of their minds.  (From my own experience I think this analysis is on the money). This leads to a multitude of behavioral problems including barking, inappropriate chewing, aggression, tail chasing, licking to the point of skin damage and more.

The average dog needs a minimum 30 minutes of aerobic exercise a day, every day. How many dogs do you know that meet that requirement?

Given that behavioral problems are the primary reason dogs are surrendered to shelters (the majority of whom are fated for euthanasia/destruction) proper handling of these issues may be essential to save the life of someone’s pet.

What I especially appreciate is his easy prose style and the clarity of his thinking even in controversial areas like herbal treatments and nutraceuticals. Here’s a sample of his writing about alternative medicine for dogs:

“Homeopathy—wherefore art thou, homeopathy? Though it’s popular in Europe, I have serious concerns about this branch of alternative medicine. The theory, of course, is that a little does of what ails you does you good. I can see how the concept applies to vaccination and desensitization to allergens, because inoculates stimulate an immune response—but I can’t see how it applies in other situations. Various homeopathic behavioral remedies containing microscopic concentrations of herbal products are now on the market.”

“One such remedy — anti-anxiety drops— was originally developed by an Irish veterinary practitioner who whipped up a dilute concoction of herbs to treat mastitis (inflammation of the udder) in cows. Being a large-animal vet, cows and mastitis were dear to his heart. In a moment of brilliance, he decided to bottle the cattle remedy for use in dogs to treat what else but . . .anxiety. And thus anti-anxiety drops were created. Whether the product actually works is doubtful, but bottles of the stuff are flying off the shelves. Naturopaths are positively swarming for it. Testing of this product presumably went like this:

  • Take a worried-looking, baking dog and film him.
  • Put the anxiety drops on his tongue.
  • Wait until he has calmed down.
  • Film him again.
  • He’s calm.
  • It’s a miracle!

The point they seemed to miss is that the only mental state that can follow a disturbed one is calm. It’s just a matter of time.  I sent a sample of the anti-anxiety drops to the Department of Biochemistry and Experimental Therapeutics at Tufts medical school to see whether I ws missing something about the ingredients. The reply came back, ‘Nick, there’s virtually nothing here. It’s water.’ I guess that’s the point.”

Dodman also has constructed a pyramid Hierarchy of Canine Needs (adapted from psychologist Abraham Maslow’s triangle of human needs) that neatly summarizes what you as a caring dog owner should be striving towards. See how close you are coming to these goals with your own dog. Click image for larger size.

The bottom line: Buy This Book!


Peanut Dogs for those with Severe Allergies

February 26, 2009

We’ve all read about the rise of severe peanut allergies over the past 25 years. Lots of jokes are made about this by those who don’t suffer from it. I’ve made a few myself.

But if you’re as allergic as eight year old Riley Mers — who has a scar on her foot from the time a peanut shell slipped into her sandal and burned her like an acid — you wouldn’t make jokes about it. Riley has also struggled to breath from inhaling peanut reside too faint for a human to smell.

But not too faint for a dog to smell.

Add another category of the amazing things are canine pals can do for us and meet the Peanut Detection Dogs.



Riley’s dog, a Portuguese water dog named Rock’O was trained by Bill Whitstine, a Certified Master Trainer at Florida Canine Academy in Safety Harbor, Florida. Whitstine usually trains detection dogs for the threat of bombs, drugs, flammable materials and bed bugs.”This really is a bomb dog for this child,” said Whitstine, “because the peanut is a bomb for her.”

For more on Riley’s story go here.

Using Your Dog to Find Love

February 23, 2009

“A lot of people are more emotionally touched when you do something for their pet, more than if someone brings flowers on the first date,” says Stephanie LaFarge, director of counseling services for the ASPCA and an expert on the human-animal bond.

In Heavy Petting: When animals dog a new relationship the AP’s Linda Lombardi writes about the issues (read: conflicts and connections) that modern singles with pets are coping with today.

leashes_lovers_logoLeashes and Lovers is an online community devoted to connecting dog lovers for friendship and possibly more. I can certainly think of worse ways to start a relationship. At least this one doesn’t involve alcohol.

Kids, go ask your parents how wasted they were when they first met at that club/bar/party/wedding. See how well that worked out for them?

Having a mutual interest in canines might be a better foundation to build a life together. It’s not weird or sick like Litterboxes & Lovers, Where Crazy Cat Ladies Meet their Disturbing Male Counterparts, for example. 

Update 2/24: But there’s a great  deal more than just connecting with other dog lovers available on the Leashes and Lovers site — Blogs, Forums, a Directory of Dog Products & Services, Training Advice & Tips, Photos, Videos, News, Events, an E-zine and more. So you don’t have to be a dating single to use the many resources on this site.

I’d say that this is another example of the ongoing development of contemporary Dog Culture,  like The BARK magazine. For thousands of years dogs have been an integral part of human society as partners, work mates and companions. Today they are being recognized for their important contributions to our lives in ways that highlight this as never before. Now go hug your dog and give her a treat — she deserves it!

“The Story of Edgar Sawtelle” – a brief review

January 14, 2009



My taste in prose has always tended toward non-fiction. And I’m much more in tune with work like Ted Kerasote’s excellent Merle’s Door: Lessons from a Freethinking Dog than I am with the more sentimental (and just plain dumb) Marley & Me. I mean, John Grogan and his wife are both journalists and yet they seem to have absolutely no interest in educating themselves about dog behavior or finding a suitable trainer for Marley.

Because I’m known in my neighborhood as a ‘dog person’ a friend pressed his copy of Edgar Sawtelle on me with much encouragement. I tried hard to subtract all the hype, the Oprah Book Club selection and the vehemently divisive reviews and forum comments on Amazon. I wanted to read it as if I knew nothing at all about it and had just stumbled across it.

As I read I grew immersed in the world David Wroblewski creates and found that at 560 pages, it went surprisingly quickly. There are insights into both canine and human behavior than anyone with much experience of either will recognize. As a Shakespeare fan, I liked the loose connection with Hamlet.

(Of course, we all know that the bumpkin Will of Stratford-on-Avon didn’t write a word of Shakespeare’s canon; the real author was Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, but that’s a tale for another entry.) 

I loved the dog-centric nature of the book (esp. the parts with Almondine, who is the Ophelia counterpart) and enjoyed the writing style; it seemed one step removed from realism, slightly mythic. 

The ending, which seems to raise the most controversy among readers, didn’t strike me as out of tune with the rest of the work. Perhaps because, due to the parallels with Hamlet, I was expecting a downer ending.

After all, in the play all the major characters are dead by the final curtain having been run over by a truck. (“I could tell you more, but suddenly I am run over by a truck.”—Michael O’Donoghue, “How to Write Good”). 

So don’t let all the hype turn you off, as it nearly did me, Edgar Sawtelle is worth spending time with.

Communicate with your pets telepathically?

November 20, 2008

I’ve posted about Dr. Fox previously and here’s one of his newspaper columns from this past week where he encourages readers to submit their stories of communicating telepathically with their pets. Click on the article thumbnail for a readable version.

Communicate with Your Pets Telepathically?

Telepathy is a term coined by Frederick W.H. Myers in 1882 in an article for the Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research. Literally the word means “distance feeling.”

Personally, I don’t think that Dr. Fox or the letter writers in this column are guilty of incompetence or fraud. I accept that they truly believe in the accuracy of their impressions. The real question is, is that belief enough for anyone else to accept that their perception is accurate? Their are many possible explanations that do not require telepathy to be real, in order to account for this perception. It could be simply that these pet owners (and Dr. Fox) are engaging in self-deception or wishful thinking.

There’s another category of possible error that should be mentioned: subjective validation. This is, almost definition, the problem with animal telepathy. We only have the person who believes in the telepathic communication reporting that it is taking place.

In 1994 a British dog owner, Pam Smart claimed that her dog Jaytee, a terrier, was able to psychically sense when she was coming home, according to reports of his behavior by her parents. Jaytee achieved world-wide fame when he was featured on the World of the Paranormal TV show and Channel 4’s Absolutely Animals

Four years later the results of a scientific study were released and stated that “Jaytee’s love affair with sitting by the porch has more to do with passing cats, playing children and cars whizzing by.” Their conclusion was that “In all four experiments Jaytee failed to detect accurately when Pam Smart set off to return home.” Here’s a BBC article on the case, Psychic Dog Phenomenon brought back down to Earth.

Dogs can read emotions: Tell me something I don’t already know

October 30, 2008


Dogs are the only animals that can read emotion in faces much like humans, cementing their position as man’s best friend, claim scientists. Research findings suggest that, like an understanding best friend, they can see at a glance if we are happy, sad, pleased or angry.

This comes from a report in Britain’s Telegraph. for the full article go here


Pet Owners: Live Longer & Healthier?

October 22, 2008

How Stuff Works weighs in on the subject of the health benefits of pet ownership, here. We’ve written about this topic before and there are dissenting opinions of precisely how much of a benefit there may be.

When looking at this I think it is wise to always remember these words of Bertrand Russell from 1959:

“When you are studying any matter never let yourself be diverted either by what you wish to believe, or by what you think would have beneficial social effects if it were believed. Look only and solely at what are the facts.”


Animals Communicating After Death: The Evidence?

September 25, 2008

BOOK REVIEW:  Dog Body, Dog Mind: Exploring Canine Consciousness and Total Well Being by Dr. Michael W. Fox

Dr. Michael Fox has a nationally syndicated column, “Animal Doctor” and is the author of at least 15 books about dogs, cats, pet foods, bioethics, ethology, genetically modified foods, therapeutic touch and massage for animals, among other topics. His bio says that he’s authored over 40 books in total.

His most recent book on dogs is Dog Body, Dog Mind: Exploring Canine Consciousness and Total Well Being (2007). He’s educated, experienced, obviously cares deeply about all animals. There’s a lot of good material in Dog Body, Dog Mind. For solid information on correcting behavioral problems, the existence of emotions and consciousness in dogs, diet and health care this is an excellent reference. I especially liked the final chapter, Chapter 22: In Praise of Mutts, which should be required reading for all members of the purebred dog fancy. 

Unfortunately, it is also packed with pseudoscientific claptrap.

It boggles the mind to consider how a deeply intelligent vet can write and, apparently believe, some of the silliness in this book.

In this regard, his book is much more dangerous than some of the outright nonsense written by pet psychics and others on the lunatic fringe of pet care and advice. Those can be dismissed entirely. But Dr. Fox’s work requires more careful dissection.

Let’s take a look at a few chapters from the middle of his book to show precisely what I mean.

Chapter 8: “Psychic” Animals and their Super-Senses

First, and most importantly, I must remind Dr. Fox that the plural of anecdotes is not data. His most outlandish statements are backed by stories he has received from his large audience of readers. There is no attempt by Dr. Fox to make any independent verification of the information he receives (at least none that he sees fit to mention in his book).

If you write to Dr. Fox, your truthfulness and accuracy are never questioned. He accepts your story uncritically even when you make extraordinary claims. And we all know that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, don’t we? There are no footnotes or sources listed, just an index. We have to take it on faith that Dr. Fox is accurately reporting what he’s been told and that his correspondents are correct in their interpretation of their experience.

You’ll find this device used over and over again in the chapters under consideration. Example: a woman from Florida writes him about her 55 year old father whom she says had no known major health problems. Her father’s dog displays a new habit of placing a paw on his chest, looking at him “straight in the eyes.” It’s not made clear how long this behavior went on, but sometime later the woman’s father dies in his sleep in the middle of the night. The cause of death is stated as “chronic lung disease.” She concludes that her dad’s dog knew what was wrong with him, while no one else did.

Dr. Fox declares this an instance of the dog’s “prescience.”

For anyone versed in logical fallacies this is clearly a case of retrofitting the conclusion to make surprising what is, after all, a common sort of behavior for a dog. One of my dogs has recently started resting his head on one of my feet. Should I rush to a podiatrist to confirm my Labrador’s obvious diagnosis of impeding bunion trouble?

First, let’s look at this story logically. Do you believe her account that a middle-aged man died of chronic lung disease and showed no symptoms whatsoever prior to his death? I’d say that’s highly unlikely. If he even had shortness of breath, this alone might have drawn his dog closer to him, sensing his distress. Let’s also note that “chronic lung disease” is a vague, catch-all phrase, not a medical diagnosis. Just what exactly did this man die of?

And how does she know that the paw on the chest proves that the dog “knew” of his master’s lung disease? Maybe the dog was actually diagnosing pending heart failure and got the whole thing wrong. Stupid dog.

Here’s another example of retrofitting (or creative interpretation) from earlier in Dr. Fox’s book. He tells the story of two animals who “brought themselves to us for treatment” at the Animal Refuge in South India that he operated for many years in India with wife. They were a dog with a broken back and pelvis and a water buffalo dying from a severe screw worm infestation. “Neither of these animals had ever been near our refuge before, yet somehow they knew it was a place where animals were cared for and healed” (my emphasis). This is a case of counting the hits and ignoring the misses.

Isn’t the explanation much more likely that instead of somehow knowing about this place of healing, these sick and injured animals just happened to wander in their pain and disorientation near the South India Animal Refuge? Ignored in this example are all the other sick animals who wandered around and died of their illnesses or injuries and never got anywhere near any sort of refuge.

Next Dr. Fox relates a few anecdotes about pets separated from their families who find them in places the pets have never been before. He tells of a “documented case” of a cow and a calf sold at auction in England, sent to separate farms. The cow is found the following morning at the farm where her calf is, many miles away. It may be documented, but Dr. Fox fails to provide any way for his readers to check up on that documentation.

Dr. Fox calls this phenomenon “psychic trailing” and cites the work of parapsychologist J. B. Rhine of Duke University. Dr. Fox should’ve done a little research to find out how thoroughly discredited Rhine’s research is before using him as an authority.

But wait, in the next section of this chapter Dr. Fox goes completely off the rails. You’ve got to read this in his own words to see how nonsensical his ideas are:

Simply put, we are all connected psychophysically with the sun, moon, Earth, the stars and with each other through the realms of the senses and the emotions. It is the emotional connection with his owner or family that forms a point in the space-time continuum, that enables the animal to re-orient from his home-base and find his family. I propose that the animal’s internal sun-time clock and geomagnetic compass are used, like a directional feeling-sensitive antenna, once the animal has aligned himself towards the emotional field of its owner/family. This field, which I call the empathosphere, makes the space-time continuum a unified field.

Next he claims that Albert Einstein theorized the existence of this new concept, the empathosphere, but failed to express it mathematically. Stupid Einstein. I’d like to ask Dr. Fox for the precise reference in Einstein’s work that supports this claim. He goes on to state that this existence of this field “in which all things are interconnected and interdependent” has been demonstrated by the “modern sciences of ecology and quantum mechanics.” I must not have gotten that memo.

Now I will admit that my understanding of quantum mechanics is very limited. But I propose that Dr. Fox has no understanding whatsoever of this very complex theory for him to cite it as proving the existence of this “empathosphere” idea of his. Quantum mechanics deals with the strange behavior of sub-atomic particles and does not scale to the realm of ordinary human-sized interactions. QM is falsely cited by many practitioners of New Age and CAM (complimentary and alternative medicine) as offering support for their bogus theories.

Excuse me, I’ve got to brush all these protons off my keyboard before I can continue typing.

Dr. Fox states that we who live in Western industrialized societies have lost touch with these “supra-sensory” powers. He claims these powers were demonstrated by the aboriginal peoples of pre-colonial Australia and used for healing and “living in harmony for health’s sake.” Aside from the vagueness of this last statement, he offers no support for these “supra-sensory” powers.  Citations, Dr. Fox?

Chapter 9: Entering the Deep Heart’s Core: The Empathosphere

“When it comes to evaluating animal prescience and remote sensing—what is commonly regarded as psychic communication or clairvoyance—an open mind is called for. Let the facts speak for themselves. . .”

I agree absolutely with Dr. Fox on this point. He is quite right. Unfortunately, the chapter that follows these introductory lines contains not a single fact, just “my own observations and the anecdotal data of others.”

Again, not to nitpick but let’s be clear that anecdotes are just that, and not data. In science there is no such animal as “anecdotal data.”  There are thirteen unverified accounts sent to him by readers. Some of them are wonderful, deeply emotional stories, but they are not the facts that should be speaking for themselves.

Still Dr. Fox believes that these stories lay “the groundwork for launching into the next chapter, which explores the profound realm of animals’ ‘extraterrestrial’ or afterlife communication and manifestation from beyond the grave. . .” Cue the spooky organ music.

Chapter 10: Animals Communicating After Death: The Evidence

Now just suppose that dead animals could communicate and even manifest themselves physically (or, according to Theosophists, as an etheric double or astral body) to their human companions still living on the plane but grieving their departure terribly: What if this communication and manifestation could be verified? Would this not upset the apple cart of the nihilists, rational materialists, and those who think only humans have immortal soles and are special? The impact would be as profound as would the arrival of intelligent life-forms visiting us from outer space.

You’re darn right it would, Dr. Fox. I’d also think you’d be a strong candidate for a Nobel Prize or a MacArthur “Genius” grant (or at least a slimed copy of the Ghostbusters DVD). Ah, but here’s that old caveat: “. . .the following letters provide irrefutable proof” (my emphasis).

If you really had irrefutable proof, Dr. Fox, instead of 17 letters from grieving pet owners telling of various manifestations* your book would have been the publishing event of 2007, you’d be besieged with interview requests from the major media and a host of scientists and skeptics would be clamoring to review your evidence for themselves.

Dr. Fox, you could’ve been on Oprah!

And talk about burying the lead!  You’ve got “irrefutable proof” of the existence of consciousness and personality after death (even just for canines) and you put it in Chapter 10 of a 22 chapter book? I have to conclude that Dr. Fox is either not serious about this momentous claim or he understands perfectly well that what he presents does not rise anywhere near the level of “irrefutable proof.”

Back in the prehistory of the 1970s there was a magazine published by pornographer Bob Guccione called OMNI which mingled science fact with science fiction. I had a friend who hated this combination on the grounds that the presence of the fiction polluted the facts. As many hard science fans are also into sci-fi I thought his position was a little extreme. At least the fiction was labeled as such. But in Dog Body, Dog Mind there are no disclaimers and outright nonsense is mixed right in with solid scientific information. By doing so, Dr. Fox does a great disservice to his readers, many of whom will unquestioningly  swallow this mixture whole.


*And one photo of a dog with a semi-transparent patch of white above it that Fox concludes is a manifestation of “a fine, amorphous energy field of light, that could be one of the ways by which deceased animals may communicate to the living.” Obviously, Dr. Fox has never read any of  Joe Nickell’s excellent work on photographic frauds and misinterpretations. 


NOTE: A copy of this review has been emailed to Dr. Fox for his response. If he replies, I will append his comments to the review.

9/26/08: Dr. Fox has responded. Here is what he wrote (in total) “Joseph—you need a good dog. michael.”

I’d like to point out that this is, in effect, an ad hominem attack. He does not address even a single point I raised and assumes that my problem is, I don’t have a “good dog.” 

It is the equivalent of telling a feminist you disagree with that what she needs is “a good. . .uh, man.”

Dr. Fox, I have two wonderful Labradors and have also been involved in breed rescue groups and at my local shelter. My wife and I are responsible for saving the lives of 40 dogs over the past 5 years, fostering 23 of them in our home. This is, obviously, just a drop in the bucket given the pet over population problem in America today but, hey, we all do what we can.

It is not my lack of “a good dog” that is at issue here. It is the quality (and the truthfulness) of his thinking and beliefs that I have a problem with.

Dogs are amazing creatures and worthy of our respect and admiration without tarting them up with silly metaphysics, psychic abilities and ‘beyond the grave’ manifestations.

How to Communicate with a Dog

July 9, 2008

Dog Trainer Diane Canafax says many people intimidate dogs without even knowing it.

  1. The mistakes made are natural to the way people communicate face-to-face; however, canines, which are ventrally oriented, communicate with body language.
  2. For example, when people meet they look each other in the eye and shake hands or embrace. People take this same approach to meeting dogs, often leaning over to pet them, trying to show affection.
  3. “When you watch dogs, they approach each other from the side or back,” she said. “Direct eye contact is a challenge to them. When a dog leans forward they are insinuating an attack.”

The best way to approach a dog is to turn to the side with a hand outstretched and let the dog approach you, she said.

Physical differences also play into how dogs communicate.

  • Canines, which are more than four times as sensitive to sound than people are, can hear 80 feet away. People on average can only hear at a 20-foot radius, she said.
  • Canafax said when a dog doesn’t respond right away it could be tuning in to something outside of peoples’ hearing range.
  • Because of this yelling at a dog can lead to fear, while a whisper or high pitched “baby-talk” can insight a playful will-do attitude.

Sometimes Canafax will even put her forearms on the ground, copying her dogs “play bow” to get him to come.

“I use it as recall and communicate on their level,” she said. “It works beautifully.”

Dogs have limited “Theory of Mind” from the Telegraph, UK

May 15, 2008

I’m always careful not to needlessly anthropomorphize the dogs I encounter. But clearly the dog owning experience teaches us that they do have emotions, they do think, they dream. . .but how just far can we go along this path? Dogs showing an aversion to inequity?

Read these related posts from the British Telegraph here and see if their conclusions match your own. The comments below the article are also interesting. . .


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