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Great Thinkers on Dogs
Six leading canine researchers talk about their work.
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Adám Miklósi & Patricia B. McConnell
Adám Miklósi & Patricia B. McConnell

I think you would have fun playing Mad Libs with your dog’s life, filling in the blanks to match Siena or Diego’s unique personality and interests. After all, your intimate knowledge of your dog is unparalleled. You know what he thinks of the neighbor’s dog, and whether he prefers balls to sticks or carrots to apples. But our canine experts also know your dog, albeit in a different way. Scholars who focus on canine behavior, cognition and wellbeing, they collectively have more than a century of experience in the fields of veterinary medicine, animal behavior, animal welfare, zoology, anthrozoology and psychology under their belts. Read on to find out what they think about dogs, and what they want you to know.

What common misconceptions do people have about dogs?

McConnell: Often it seems that we get things backwards with dogs. Sometimes it seems like people think of dogs as furry people, when they’re not. The flip side is that there are similarities between dogs and humans, and people need to be compassionate and understanding of what a dog is going through; those are often the times people dismiss the similarities.

For example, dogs need social contact and social approval, and a lot of what they do is motivated by fear. These are all very human ways of being, and I think people forget to extend these attributions to dogs; instead, they ascribe other motivations, like wanting to be dominant or trying to beat the system. On the other hand, dogs can be less like us than people tend to think. We use hugging to communicate love, approval and maybe support, whereas dogs often see that as threatening.

Otto: That dogs are perfectly happy to sit on a couch all the time. I think they learn to adjust to that, but are they reaching their potential? And is the relationship reaching its potential? I love teaching tricks because you can spend five minutes a day with a dog or a cat and do things that stretch their brains and change your relationship. I think that is such an important piece of the relationship, and it’s something we’re not routinely giving our dogs.

McGreevy: That dogs want to please humans—almost as though dogs are hard-wired to makes us happy. This beguiling notion paradoxically excuses all sorts of abuse when people interpret training failures as willful disobedience. Dogs want to have fun with us, for sure, but that doesn’t mean they get their kicks from being slaves to our needs, wants, desires and foibles.

Horowitz: That dogs understand right away what’s going on in a household. In other words, if you say something once, it’s somehow clear to them how they are supposed to behave, what you’d like them to do and how the day is going to go. Dogs are pretty flexible, and they adapt fairly well, but a lot of what we call misbehavior is just lack of mutual understanding: ours of the dog’s needs and abilities and theirs of what we expect of them. I find that a bit disheartening.

Another misconception is the alpha dog concept. For some reason, the concept of the hierarchy of the pack was a compelling idea that stuck and was popularized. It’s not only really damaging and simplifying, it’s wrong by analogy.

Miklósi: That the dog is a wolf and also that the dog is a child. I like to say that dogs are dogs, and that’s the most difficult way to try and conceptualize dogs!

Bradshaw: That dogs are reconstructed wolves. I keep coming across journalists who interview me and still believe the old stuff about keeping a dog in its place—that the dog wants to dominate you and take over your house. They’ve read this stuff, taken it in and believe it to be true. Ultimately, it’s bad for dogs. When I speak with people, they seem interested to learn that the UK military trains dogs, whether patrol or sniffer dogs, with play as the reward; punishment-based training has been phased out. When people hear that marines know they can train a dog better by playing a game than by hitting, they take note.

What’s your framework for thinking about the dog?

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