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Canine Behavior: A Photo Illustrated Handbook
Woof and Word Press (Dist. by Dogwise), 346 pp., 2008; $49.95
Buy this book.

Math pop quiz: If a picture is worth a thousand words, then how valuable is Barbara Handelman’s Canine Behavior: A Photo Illustrated Handbook with its thousand pictures? The answer is “too valuable to put a figure on it.” Nothing else out there captures so much diverse canine behavior in photographs, or has close to the quantity of photos. Handelman’s training as a photographer is clear—the composition, clarity and perspective of her dog photos are wonderful. (Though it would have been lovely if all of them could’ve been reproduced in color, nonetheless, the photos illustrate their points despite the fading and loss of contrast that results when color photos are printed in black and white.) As a bonus, the book includes many of Monty Sloan’s extraordinary photos of wolves.

If the photographs are the great strength of this book, the weakness lies in the fact that, though Handelman writes from an ethological perspective, she is not a trained ethologist. Consequently, she has regrettably absorbed and passed on ethological information that, though erroneous, is often considered correct by many dog trainers. For example, there are errors in her description and identification of fixed-action patterns, and she has a tendency to combine fear and submission into a single concept. Regardless, I’m impressed by her thorough coverage; she has capably synthesized a great deal of information, and her knowledge, which is considerable, gives strength to this wonderful book.

Handelman has done a real service to the field of canine behavior by using the comparative approach so common among ethologists. As she notes, “Prior to discovering Monty Sloan’s Wolf Park photos and the ‘Wolf Ethogram’ … [I] had not considered that there might be very close similarities between the communication signals, displays and expressions conveyed by the various canine cousins.” It is impressive that she took this idea, a staple among ethologists, and ran with it. I hope her perspective spreads through the dog world. There is much to be gained from a comparative approach to canid behavior, yet many trainers take a foolish pride in confining their interest to the domestic dog.

The book is organized and laid out in a manner that makes it a pleasure to read; it is also well indexed, which adds to its value. I like this book and appreciate what it offers: descriptions of an extensive array of canine behavior considered across multiple species, and the best collection of canine photographs I’ve ever seen assembled in one place.

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 55: July/Aug 2009

Karen B. London, PhD, is a Bark columnist and a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist specializing in the evaluation and treatment of serious behavior problems in the domestic dog.

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