For the Love of a Dog

Patrick McDonnell Mutts
Another of Patrick McDonnell’s Mutts strips

Patricia McConnell’s book For the Love of a Dog is one part training manual and one part love story. It is a study of the behaviour of our companion animals and of ourselves, but mostly of our relationships with each other. 

Much of the early part of the book is about dogs’ body language and what it tells us about their emotional state. McConnell concentrates on four primal emotions: fear/anxiety, anger, joy and love. Here is a summary of the signs (the book has photos that illustrate them):

  • a closed mouth, ‘frozen’ (stiff) body or wide open ‘whale’ eyes (with the whites visible on the side) – anger or anxiety
  • open mouth, loose body, or squinty eyes with crows’ feet – friendly, relaxed
  • a turning-to-face you with closed jaw – distress, warning
  • looking away from you – submission, deference, desire to defuse tension
  • a cocked head – curiosity
  • a low growl or deep bark – anger or aggressiveness
  • a shifted forward stance – alertness, confidence
  • a shifted backward stance – defensive, fearful
  • a frown or yawn – anxiety or fatigue
  • a wrinkled nose or scowl – disgust
  • corners of the mouth pushed forward – confident, aggressive
  • corners of the mouth pulled back – fearful, defensive or submissive
  • tongue flicks – anxious, seeking appeasement

Just as we need to be observant of dogs’ body language, and careful to note the signs rather than projecting how we would feel (or think we would feel) in their circumstances, we also need to be aware of our own body language and how it is being interpreted by, and influencing the emotions of, our dogs. That means we should avoid wearing sunglasses or large hats that can conceal or misrepresent our feelings, approach dogs we don’t know as they do (from the side without making direct eye contact, walking loosely with mouth open and relaxed, breathing deeply and evenly, and cocking our head). We can be sure that, though we may be unobservant and inattentive of dogs’ body language, they are very attentive to ours.

We also need to avoid gestures and words that mean nothing, or different things, to animals. Hugs, for example, are generally distressing to dogs, since they block view and constrain movement and hence are ambiguous in meaning to dogs. When our words say one thing but our tone of voice or body language conveys something else, the dog will respond to the latter, even when the words are those s/he has been trained to recognize. McConnell has no use for the show-’em-who’s-boss school of training that has recently come back into vogue. There is no substitute, she says, for positive reinforcement and gradual, patient repetition of lessons, not to the point of intellectually exhausting your dog.

As I read this book, it occurred to me that everything McConnell says about how we signal to and relate wordlessly to our animal companions applies very much to how we relate to other humans as well. “Accurate, objective observation is a skill that requires practice, but it starts with asking your mind to focus on what you see, not on what you think it means”, she writes. This is precisely the instruction we are given in cultural (and customer) anthropology training, to learn to better appreciate and understand our fellow human beings. And she goes on to explain in Lakoffian terms how we can misinterpret our dogs by failing to get outside our own ‘frames of reference’, describing a woman who was convinced her dog’s misbehaviour was an attempt to ‘test’ her, when it was merely a reflection of the dog’s ignorance that that behaviour was not acceptable.

The latter part of the book explores the four primal emotions. The chapters on fear explain the Darwinian advantage of shyness/fearfulness (shades of my last post) but note that shyness combined with other traits can lead to aggressiveness. Fear can be genetic, nurtured (deliberately or accidentally), or the result of trauma. Genetic shyness can be overcome with gentle, gradual, patient conditioning. McConnell explains how to do this in the context of dealing with separation anxiety and excessive barking when someone comes to the door.

The chapter on anger/hatred presents an interesting hypothesis that fortunately doesn’t extend to humans: Competition as puppies for mother’s milk and attention teaches a tolerance for frustration, and puppies from a ‘litter of one’ tend to be intolerant of frustration and prone to outbursts of anger/hatred as they grow older unless they are carefully trained. A good test is to gently roll a relaxed puppy after play over on his/her back and hold him/her in that position for a short while — puppies that become very aggressive in this situation will likely be difficult to handle as they become full grown. Just like some people, some dogs need to learn anger management, and this requires considerable expertise (a series of progressive, positively-reinforced ‘stay’ exercises for impulse control is explained in an appendix to the book to help with this). The danger here is that dogs will learn from the model we show them — if we show anger in our training and response to them, it will reinforce the acceptability of such behaviour, no matter what we do to discourage it.

The chapter on joy/happiness lays out the conditions that make our dogs happy: fresh water and good food, of course, but also companionship, physical and mental exercise, consistency and clarity in our behaviour toward them, respect for their individuality, physical contact (at the right times, the right way in the right places), and a sense of security. Our happiness and theirs is mutually contagious and self-reinforcing, and, as with humans, sometimes the anticipation of happy events is as joyful as the event itself (which is why the ‘clicker’ employed just before a reward is given, works so well as a training tool).

The final chapters deal with dogs’ capacity for love, jealousy, grief, self-awareness and problem-solving. Of all the personal stories in the book about McConnell’s beloved dogs, the one I found most moving (perhaps because it reminded me so much of my story and feelings about Chelsea) is one of the last. Here’s an extract:

About a week before [Luke, suffering from debilitating kidney failure as a result of a lengthy tick-borne bacterial illness] died, I began to feel that my efforts were harassing rather than helping him. Accepting that I couldn’t save him, I switched to hospice rather than hospital care. I emptied my calendar and spent my last week with him, soaking up the touch of his nose, the smell of his fur, the pink of his tongue. I sat long hours with him in the sun up in the pasture, full of the bittersweet emotions that accompany love and grief. At the end, we slept together in a makeshift bed on the living room floor. That’s where the veterinarian and I helped him pass on, peacefully snuggling up against me, nothing but bones and a shockingly beautiful black-and-white coat.

After Luke died, I was dumbstruck with grief, stumbling through the next months in a haze. I felt as if I’d been hit by a train, as though I’d been physically as well as emotionally injured. None of my senses seemed to function as they had before. The colors of the earth were different, wrong somehow, although I couldn’t quite say how. I coped well enough, seeing clients, running my business, tending to my farm. But a day didn’t pass when I wasn’t heartsick and hurt and angry, and that I didn’t agonize over whether there was something I’d missed, something I could have done to save him.

McConnell goes on to relate evidence of the immense grief experienced by Lassie, another of her dogs and Luke’s best friend, in the months after Luke’s passing, laying to rest any doubt that animals feel the same emotions, and in their own way at least as deeply, as humans.

This is a book for anyone who wants to understand our animal companions better, either to solve behaviour ‘problems’ or just to begin to fathom our own species and its relationship with the natural world. In his books, Jeff Vail talks about how the world is better represented by connections than by the things connected, and McConnell’s book is mostly about our connections with dogs, and through them with nature, and our true selves. Read it and discover how much we can learn from, and feel mutually about, creatures who have no need for our strange and imprecise tool of language.

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3 Responses to For the Love of a Dog

  1. Carroll says:

    Oh, this is a *wonderful* book! And so interesting to read your quite analytical review having read it a few years ago myself and remembering now only the “story”. Thanks for the reminder that I must dig this one back out of my shelf to pass along to one of my dog-loving friends.(And, enjoy yourself in London!)

  2. Pearl says:

    Fascinating. I have automatically approached an animal I didn’t know like this but reading it makes sense to a conscious level.

  3. While McConnell makes the case for dogs having emoti (something I think every pet owner knows intuitively), there is one scientific study that showed that dogs had the same neurochemical response to interaction with their people as the people had. When dog and human played and cuddled, the brains of both released oxytocin, the neurochemical that creates the experience we call love. If you accept that emotions involve physical states (the accepted scientific explanation), then you can say that dogs share this emotion.

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