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How to avoid a bad dog book and love the great ones

My plan for this post was to list my favourite dog books. But as I started to list dog book after dog book, I began to see a pattern emerging. I was lisiting my life in books. Remembering the books that I loved as a child. Through to when I started to learn about training. And then got caught up in behaviour. Next came rescue work and specialist training. I remembered the times I was lucky enough to spend with many of the authors here and what I learned from them. I can feel that nostalgic wave washing over me!

No horrific books

I’ve decided not to include the books that horrified me. The ones that demonstrated such lack of empathy and understanding as they advocated punitive and down right abusive ‘training’ techniques. I don’t want to give those titles the slightest whiff of promotion. However, I do recommend that trainers, behaviour specialists, rescue and veterinary professionals read everything. You can learn as much from books that advocate methods or thinking that is alien to you, or with which you fundamentally disagree, as those that you love. But you have to read them with a questioning, critical mind. To be fair, I believe in this approach for all reading. But it’s especially important when weeding out advice that could cause harm, physically, mentally or emotionally.

Sarah Whitehead

Some authors are so good that it was difficult to choose single books to highlight. A shining example of this is Sarah Whitehead. Sarah is prolific in her writing with around 30 books to her name. By the time I’ve written this blog post she’ll probably have published another couple of books! Writing on everything from living in a city with your dog to life stage advice, whatever you need to know, Sarah is likely to have a book on it.

Clever Dog

Difficult though it is, I’m going to highlight two books. First is her best selling ‘Clever Dog – The Secrets your Dog Wants you to Know’ [affiliate] This is a wonderful book that focussed on building understanding and harmony between dog and human. Looking at some of the clients that have come to Sarah for behavioural help, Sarah takes us on a journey to unravel many of the canine mysteries that baffle so many dog lovers. It is written in an easy, conversational way that makes it hard to put down once you’ve started reading. I’ve also listened to the audio version – in one hit! Sarah’s books are written to be understood, to be accessible to everyone.

The Solutions Set

The second book I want to recommend is actually a series of short books that you can get as a set from Dogwise. Aptly named the ‘Dogwise Solutions Set [affiliate], it includes 5 essential guides:

The Puppy Survival Guide
The Adolescent Survival Guide
Gentle Hands Off Dog Training
Mind Games for Dogs
Small Paws (about pups and small dogs)

This set is perfect for new dog owners/guardians. (I don’t love the term owner but I struggle with guardian. I’m still looking for the perfect term!) Quick reads, to the point, with practical advice for problem prevention, and solutions.

Minimising the dreaded jargon and sharing her knowledge in a practical, effective and productive manner is one of many things Sarah and I have in common. We first met at an Ian Dunbar weekend in the early 1990’s. Which takes me nicely on to his book ‘How to teach an old dog new tricks’ [affiliate] This was the first dog training book I’d read that actually started to reflect my own approach to working with dogs. It was much more about understanding and cooperation than the ‘I say, you do’ books that had been available before then. I still have my signed copy of the book which at that time was a spiral bound, typewritten version. 30 years ago, it was revolutionary.

Great deals on all my online courses!

Culture Clash

A few years later, Ian launched the first US APDT (Association of Pet Dog Trainers) conference in Florida. And that is where Sarah and I first encountered Jean Donaldson. This was before her now classic book Culture Clash [affiliate] came out (first published by Ian’s company James & Kenneth) This book took the dog world by storm. With her no holds barred style, Jean Donaldson told it like it was (and is) She shattered the view of Disney dogs. To expect our dogs to behave like Lassie, and the like, was unrealistic. And unfair. It was a brave book, typical of Jean. I found her to be brilliant and inspirational. I still remember many of her sage words of advice from that conference so many years, decades, ago. One of my favourites is ‘You want your dog to behave just as well in the street as he does in the kitchen.’ It’s still true that many dogs give you their full attention and offer all sorts of behaviours when you are preparing food, all unbidden. To have that intense focus at other times is still a goal well worth setting. Like Sarah’s, I recommend all Jean’s books.

American & Canadian authors

Learning from trainers across the pond opened up a whole new world of possibilities that I hadn’t found in the UK. In the early days I was discovering and meeting the likes of Karen Pryor, who wrote another classic ‘Don’t Shoot the Dog’ [affiliate], and Pamela Reid ‘Excel-erated Learning’ [affiliate]. Both books described behavioural processes and how learning works in fresh, obtainable formats. Later I went on to study more hefty tomes by luminaries such as Murray Sidman ‘Coercion and It’s Fallout’, James O’Heare ‘Aggressive Behaviour in Dogs: A Comprehensive Technical Manual for Professionals’ and the wonderful 3 volumes Handbook of Applied Dog Behaviour and Training [affiliate] by Steve Lindsay. None of these are easy reads.

But the book I still find extremely taxing to read is the seminal Affective Neuroscience’ [affiliate] by Estonian neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp. I’m not ashamed to admit that the Panksepp book is my canine War & Peace. I’ve never managed to read it cover to cover. But all of these densely packed books really deliver when you take the time to study, question, test and digest the immense amount of knowledge and information these academics have shared. I will warn you though, the Lindsay and Panksepp books aren’t cheap, so if you can pick them up second hand or even ask a generous relative to gift them to you that would be perfect. I’d suggest ordering them at your local library, but you will want to study them for some time so that might not work. But if you want to see if they are worth the money, then get along to your local library before making the investment.

Ray Coppinger

An academic who had no problem being understood was the glorious Ray Coppinger. This man oozed charm. He was great company. Always challenging, funny and thought provoking. One of my all time favourite books is Dogs, A New Understanding [affiliate] which he wrote with his wife and colleague Lorna Coppinger. For me, meeting Ray was like meeting God. To have been in his orbit and to have sat at his table was life changing. I’m not suggesting that you will feel quite as transformed by reading his book, but I do strongly recommend you read it. Questioning the origin of domestic dogs, dispelling old myths and replacing them with compelling new evidence was, and I believe still is, a fascinating treatise. Sadly no longer with us, Ray’s legacy will remain.

Sue Sternberg

Sue and Ray could be described as a Dream Team. Their work on projects such as the Mexico City Dogs Of The Dump: A Look At Resource Interactions [affiliate] is fascinating. Sue is a rescue/shelter specialist. Her work with shelter dogs is phenomenal and has written some great books on the subject. Successful Dog Adoption [affiliate] is perfect for people looking to get a dog from rescue. It highlights what behaviours they should look for, which they should avoid and which they should covet. Her eye for observing and knowledge for interpreting dog behaviour is second to none. She lives and works for dogs, travelling around the world to learn more and share her extensive knowledge. The road trips we shared across America are some of the best times of my life. The title of another of Sue’s books says it all: ‘Serious Fun – Play Like a Dog‘ [affiliate]. And I can tell you – we did!

Sophia Yin

Another pioneer who is much missed is the late Sophia Yin. I never got to meet Sophia. But her astonishing output is there for everyone to use for many years to come. Sophia was a veterinary surgeon who wrote what I consider to be a must have manual for every veterinary practice: Low Stress Handling, Restraint and Behavior Modification Of Dogs & Cats – Techniques for Developing Patients Who Love Their Visits. Her legacy includes courses on this too, plus some excellent DVDs. I have the one on low stress handling for cats – I’m still refining my technique!

Fiction books

You might wonder why none of the dog books I’m recommending are fictional. The simple answer is because I’m squeamish. The instant there’s a hint or possibility that an animal could be hurt or distressed, I’m off! I can’t bear it. But learning about why and how animals behave as they do and helping discover and develop ways to help them, that’s a whole different story. In my childhood I was horse mad. I read all the Josephine Pullein-Thompson books about pony clubs and camps. Then I read Black Beauty [affiliate]. I was devastated. The cruelty described in the pages of what is now regarded as a children’s book (!!!) has stayed with me to this day.

I followed that with Walter Farley’s The Island Stallion. Growing up watching Westerns with my dad, quicksand was always terrifying. Cowboys were always getting sucked into the ground never to be seen again. Well, in the Island Stallion a horse falls into quicksand. I was beside myself. So upsetting. I won’t spoil the ending for anyone who wants to find out if the horse escaped the quicksand. But with the quicksand, the fighting with other horses, the actions of men trying to tame him, my days of reading animal fiction were numbered.

So there it is, a gallop through some of my favourite books. I’d love to discover what dog books would be on your favourites list.

How to spot red flags when choosing a book

And since we are in the festive season, I thought I’d end with a few more recommendations if you are looking for a book for your dog loving friends and family this year. As a step for a hint, when it comes to choosing dog books there are a few red flags to look out for. I like to skip to the section on teaching sit. If the author recommends pushing the dog, restricting her with a lead or collar, I put the book back on the shelf. If the book passes the first test, I head for the chapter on ‘problems’. Anything advocating physical punishment is rejected. And finally, check the index or appendix at the back of the book. If the words dominance and leadership pop up a lot, it’s probably best to give this book a miss.

Dog book gift recommendations

All the following books pass the three tests.

For those with a new puppy: Easy Peasy Puppy Squeezy – Steve Mann [affiliate]
For those with senior dogs: Older Dog? No worries! – Sian Ryan [affiliate]
For folks who like to deep dive into training and behaviour: anything by James O’Heare, e.g. Empowerment Training [affiliate]
For non-professionals, and new trainers: How Dogs Learn – Mary R. Burch & Jon S. Bailey [affiliate]
For those interested in gaining a deeper understanding of dogs: anything by Alexandra Horowitz, e.g. Being a Dog: Following the dog into a world of smell [affiliate] or Temple Grandin , e.g. Animals in Translation [affiliate]
And of course, for those who want to learn scentwork Detector Dog – Pam Mackinnon

Please note: This post contains affiliate links. This means that I get commission at no cost to you if you buy using the links. You can read the full disclosure here.

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