Reviewed by Antonella Townsend
There might be a case for thinking dogs are blessed with an emotional intelligence that exceeds their beloved humans. At the very least they are a great source of comfort to those who share their lives. So it behoves the human race to spend some effort in understanding their devoted companions. Making Dogs Happy is book that will help the reader do just that. It is jammed packed with insights into canine minds, each chapter has several beautiful, full-page (19.5 x 24.5 cm) photographs, and so would be an asset to any coffee table. That said, this book is not just stylish with basic information, it comes off the back of solid research. The authors are well qualified. Dr Melissa Starling holds a PhD in dog behaviour, personality, emotions and cognition. Professor Paul McGreevy is one of only three veterinarians recognized by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons as a specialist in veterinary behavioural medicine.
Melissa and Paul refer to their book as an informal look at the science of making dogs happy. They explain that generalisations can be made about dogs but that they are also individuals, capable of bucking trends and doing their own thing. This, of course, heightens the need for dog owners to interpret their precious pets’ behaviour.
The ten chapters in Making Dogs Happy cover: what makes a dog happy, what dogs want/don’t want, how to know if your dog is happy, dogs’ optimism, pessimism and stress, how to be your dog’s best friend, dogs as social acrobats, choosing the right dog for you and caring for a dog from puppy to old age.
There are some amazing dog facts that aid easier understanding of the canine. Everyone knows that dogs have a brilliant sense of smell, but the ratio of dog to human ability is hard to even imagine. A dog’s sense of smell is 10,000 times stronger than humans, for some breeds it is as much as 100,000 times stronger. Dogs can sniff out scents of which we are totally unaware. Sniffing other dogs’ urine or faeces can impart: age, sex, reproductive status, kinship and genetic differences. Therefore, going for a walk is not optional. Apart from the benefits of exercise it is equally important for mental health – it’s dog television, narratives abound on every blade of grass.
What a dog wants and needs is not dissimilar to human requirements – safety, food, water, exercise and comfort. However, perceiving what a dog considers unsafe can be tricky. Melissa and Paul discuss this subject over several chapters using differing contexts, they list the dog behaviour that signals unease and strategies owners could use. They also discuss how a dog handles humans, or other dogs, invading their space, or worse a loss of control, when for instances a small child hugs a puppy too long. A dog’s first message is gentle, often misunderstood as acceptance, to quote Melissa and Paul, when a lick is a shove (p.44). The dog messaging system can escalate, resulting in humans thinking the dog is misbehaving, when in fact it is human misbehaviour.
How dogs manage social situations, both human and canine, is discussed in ‘Dogs are Social Acrobats’. Melissa and Paul compare domestic dog behaviour with ‘free-range’ dogs that is dogs that live in groups scavenging a living within human settlements, commonly seen in third world countries. This is an interesting chapter, illustrating how dogs are socially adaptable and skilful in widely differing contexts.
Training a dog is vital for domestic harmony and Melissa and Paul discuss learning theory and instrumental conditioning. As stated above dogs must feel safe or they are just not going to be paying attention, regardless of the motivator. The ‘motivator’ is usually food. Cheese and roast meat are both very motivating, but for some it’s playing with their favourite toy. Whatever the motivator the dog should receive his reward immediately after he has performed well. Various techniques are discussed and demonstrated.
Melissa and Paul impart their knowledge with humour; between them they have many amusing dog anecdotes. This is a very worthwhile book for anyone who owns, is thinking about acquiring a dog, or as a gift for a dog owning friend. Dogs are individuals and to enjoy them it is a good idea to learn how to understand them. They are sensitive loving creatures and deserve our best behaviour.
By Dr Melissa Starling & Professor Paul McGreevy