New in Books

July 27, 2008 at 12:56 am 2 comments

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

I don’t read much fiction, so I tend to be pretty darn choosy about what I do read.  David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is proving to be well worth my time.  It’s a fascinating book that weaves bits of Skakespeare’s Hamlet, Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain, Scott and Fuller’s Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog  and Vicki Hearne’s Animal Happiness into a coming of age tale set in a kennel in rural Wisconsin during the 1970’s.  I’m thrilled to report that the book avoids the quirky adorableness, purely positive political correctness and glorification of indulgent dog owners who act as mere spectators in their pet’s lives – that far too many of the dog-related novels written today have tortured me with.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is most definately not a feel-good story, and at 576 pages it isn’t a quick, easy read.  But it does provide a fascinating look into the lives of rural Wisconsin and the lives of dog breeders and trainers.  The kennel and training routines depicted in this book are some of the most authentic and insightful depictions of this life I’ve read in a work of fiction.

As many of the reviewers on amazon.com have noted, I agree that (as good as it is) the book could have been much improved by a more thorough editing.  But, unlike most of those reviewers, I wasn’t put off by the long, detailed descriptions of the Sawtelle’s day-to-day activities with their dogs.  I found them fascinating.  It’s obvious that Wroblewski is well-read on the subject of dogs.  I’d love the chance to sit down and chat with him.

UPDATE July 27, 2008:  This interview with Wroblewski was just published in today’s Minneapolis Star Tribune.  It just reinforced that gut feeling that I’d like him.

Dog Behavior, Evolution and Cognition

Eotvos University in Budapest, Hungary is the Mecca of canine ethological studies today.  The work being done there is brilliant and ground-breaking.  So, of course, this new book by Adam Miklosi, the head of the school’s Department of Ethology was a must read for me.

From the author:

Until now, the study of dogs was hindered by the view that they represent an ‘artificial’ species, but by accepting that dogs are adapted to their niche, as are other ‘natural’ species, comparative investigations can be put into new light.

From a review in Current Biology:

Whether one is a behavioral geneticist, a population biologist, a psychologist, an anthropologist or just a dog lover, one cannot help but wonder about the lives of dogs and our lives together with them. But even though Darwin began the Origin of Species with examples of dog domestication, and Pavlov’s dogs were the first to reveal to us classical conditioning, until now there has been no place to obtain answers to questions such as these that are based on rigorous scientific research.

Adam Miklosi’s new book aims to fill this gap and will be a landmark contribution to the study of animal behavior, evolution and cognition. Over the past decade there has been an explosion of interest in dogs and it is this work that Miklosi uses to provide us with the first modern scholarly review of all there is to know about dogs — and the first review of scientific research on dogs since Scott and Fuller’s pioneering book Genetics and Social Behavior of Dogs published in 1974.

Miklosi himself has been at the center of the surge in research interest on dogs over the past decade. So there is no one in a better position to write the first modern review of dog behavior, cognition and evolution. He has played a leading role in the work of the largest research laboratory working exclusively on dog behavior and cognition, at Eotvos University in Budapest, Hungary. In many ways this book is also a tribute to the hard work of his colleagues. Miklosi and his team have published scores of empirical papers on all aspects of dog behavior and cognition that test phylogenetic, ontogenetic, and even functional explanations of behavior. 

The book is organized into eleven chapters. The first two summarize the history of canine research and discuss conceptual and methodological issues related to the study of behavior. Each of the next eight chapters has a theme: dogs in human society; dogs in comparison to other canids; genetic versus archaeological evidence of domestication; the perceptual world of the dog; physical and environmental cognition in dogs; canine social cognition; behavioral development; and temperament and personality in dogs.

Also from Current Biology:

This new book is a testament to the bright future of research on dogs. Miklosi has made the case for how important the dog is becoming in the study of animal psychology. The days of dogs being considered artificially created animals for use in conditioning studies have given way to the recognition of the dog’s rich social life requiring it to adapt to the most complex primate of all. With the increasing costs and ethical dilemma often created by keeping nonhuman primates in laboratories, dogs may provide a particularly attractive option in the future for psychologists interested in studying the cognitive processes in nonhuman animals (pet dogs are recruited for non-invasive research as in studies of humans). Miklosi’s new book will be a central fixture in all future work on dogs, as it will be the first place that students and experts alike will go to review unfamiliar topics or search for new research ideas. And it is not just researchers who will benefit. The book will be essential reading for all those using dogs as helpers for the handicapped, assistants to law enforcement, or just those who want to understand their best friend a little better.

If you are a dog lover or a student of animal behavior – you NEED this book.

A Dog In Hand: Teaching Your Puppy to Think

This book written by George Gates, DVM is a lovely little guide to using pressure/release touch to control and calm your pet.  Temple Grandin writes:

As a person with autism, I can relate to Dr. Gates’s use of hand pressure to calm and train puppies.  Pressure applied to large areas of my body induced relaxation.  These methods work because they imitate the natural behavior of a mother dog teaching her pups.

This insightful book contains an abundance of practical information on puppy behavior.  The use of these methods will help prevent future behavior problems in adult dogs.

In this surprisingly short and simple book, Dr. Gates writes about the way that modern society has become removed from nature and animal husbandry – and the impact this has had on pets and pet owners.  He talks about the difference between love and respect, and discusses why just rewarding good behavior and ignoring bad may feel good, but it won’t instill respect — or show a young animal that you really care about it.

Along with several good examples of how to use touch to restrain, settle and calm your pet, there are a lot of little gems of wisdom in the book.  Gates says:  “The easiest thing in the world is to say yes; there is never resistance to yes, while there is always resistance to no.”  And, “If a puppy is allowed to do any and every thing he wants to do and no one says no, how will he believe that any one cares what happens to him?”

Limits and boundaries may not be the current fad in dog training – but they’re a vital part of raising any youngster (human or canine) to be a functioning part of society. 

It is perfectly natural for young animals to resist authority, and perfectly natural for their elders to require them to submit to authority.  Their resistance is driven by a need to learn the trust and respect they need to acquire necessary skills of self-control.  Imposing our will on them gently but firmly, teaches young creatures how to control their excitement and anxiety through trust and respect.  And it is a vital part of any partnership.

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Entry filed under: behavior science, books, dog training, dogs, science. Tags: , , .

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. draabe  |  July 27, 2008 at 2:04 am

    I can’t wait to get to Sawtelle! The second book you’ve written about looks interesting, too.

  • 2. Andrew  |  July 28, 2008 at 1:43 am

    Finished the Wroblewski book last week. And yes, we enjoyed the same things… I would have loved even more on their training, for example.

    best
    A+M+M+J

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