Decoding Your Dog: A Book Review

Decoding Your Dog is a new book from the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, edited by D. Horowitz and J. Ciribassi, and it has a lot going for it. I have some quibbles too, but let’s start with the good news. Without question the best part of the book is its continual reminder to dog owners that 1) you don’t need to get “dominance” over your dog to train it, and that 2) most aggression is motivated by fear, not a desire to become a pack leader. This point is made by multiple authors in a variety of chapters, and is a welcome addition to the chorus of progressive trainers and CAABs who are fighting the good fight against the misuse of the concept of dominance.

There is a lot more to cheer about. Authors Herron and Melese do a good job of explaining that behavior is the result of an interplay between nature (genes) and nurture (environment and learning). The first chapter by J. Neilson on canine communication is very useful; any and all attempts to educate the general public about “reading” visual communication are welcome indeed. Ironically, my only criticism of the otherwise excellent chapter on children and dogs by V. Tynes is that it suggests that adults should always “supervise” children and dogs, but doesn’t emphasize how important it is that the adults are able to read signs of discomfort in the dogs themselves. Just being in the same room isn’t enough. See for example, Robin Bennett’s excellent article on Why Supervision isn’t Enough.

More things to love: A chapter on mental exercise by M. Klinck, and several relatively thorough chapters on specific behavioral problems like separation anxiety, noise phobias and aggression. I especially like that chapters begin with a well-written and illustrative story about a particular dog, and that the format, with lots of side bars and some photos, makes its length less of a challenge than it might be for the general reader.

However, the book has some problems. For example, here’s the definition of learning in the training chapter: “Learning is defined as acquiring knowledge by instruction.” Oh dear. Does that mean your dog can’t learn to get into the garbage unless you teach it to? Or that cats won’t learn to associate the sound of a can opener with dinner without a trainer present? The fact is that even single-celled animals can learn, so an animal doesn’t even need a brain to learn, much less an instructor.

Here’s another problematic example from the text: “Wolves can’t be all that smart as a species or they wouldn’t have become endangered over much of their range, while dogs are thriving…” Again, oh dear. First off, a “species” can’t be smart, only individuals within the species can be. Second, there is virtually no correlation between the intellectual abilities of a large predator like a wolf, and its success in the world. Wolves are deemed by many people as destructive at best, and satanic at worst (yes, people still actually say that). Ironically it is their very intelligence that makes them so good at preying on domestic livestock, and is one of the many reasons that they have been eliminated from much of the country.

I also have a few quibbles with some of the training advice. Owners are told to lure their dogs into a sitting position and then say “sit” when the dog’s rump touches the floor. If using lure training, I suggest that no verbal cue be given until the dog is sitting reliably to the lure, and then have the owner say “sit” before beginning the luring motion.

That said, one can always find multiple examples of things they like and points they disagree with in a book this size (319 pages without the glossary and index). Overall, I’m thrilled that the veterinary behaviorists are adding their voices to the movement toward effective, benevolent and science-based training techniques. That’s why I was happy to write a blurb for the book, which is at the top of the list on the book’s back cover. I wish though, that the book wasn’t quite so relentless in its promotion of veterinary behaviorists themselves. The subtitle of the book is “The Ultimate Experts Explain Common Dog Behaviors and Reveal How to Prevent or Change Unwanted Ones.”  I have had the honor of spending time with some of the world’s top behaviorists and trainers, and I don’t know one of them who would describe them self as “the ultimate expert.” But it continues: The Introduction by Steve Dale begins with “Veterinary Behaviorists are like super heroes.” Phrases like “Veterinary behaviorists have learned that most owner-direction aggression actually stems from anxiety…” are frequent within the book, seemingly implying that, if not for veterinary behaviorists, we wouldn’t know that.

I suspect this wouldn’t be quite so notable if I wasn’t aware that a small number of veterinary behaviorists have worked to change the laws such that only veterinarians would be allowed to treat serious behavioral problems. That would make it illegal for any dog trainer or PhD certified applied animal behaviorist to work with dogs with behavioral problems, no matter what his or her background and expertise. It’s true that I have worked with many veterinarians who are extremely knowledgeable about behavior, and it has been my pleasure to exchange information with them, but the fact is that many general practice veterinarians are still pushing the “dominance” theory of training. In addition, they have had little or no training in canine ethology, learning theory, or treating serious behavioral problems with classical and operant conditioning. Which makes a law that any and all veterinarians are better equipped to deal with behavioral problems than anyone else a bit, well, problematic.

Exactly who is qualified to treat serious behavioral problems is a great question, and one I partially answered in an earlier blog. I sense another blog coming on in the near future: With all the certifications and multiple letters behind people’s names now, how does one decide where to go for help? I’ll elaborate on that in another blog later on in the winter. But for now, kudos to the veterinary behaviorists for working so hard on Decoding Your Dog. I just hope they can get all of their veterinary colleagues to read it.


MEANWHILE, back on the farm: We are back on the farm now, after a two-day getaway to the canyons of Palm Springs. A few weeks ago I got a bee in my bonnet (gotta love that phrase) and decided I needed a break from winter. Thirty minutes later I found some crazy-cheap airplane fares on Hotwire and a wonderful place to stay on Yelp. We arrived at midnight Friday night, and left at 7 AM Monday morning, so I’m not kidding that it was a two-day getaway.

We went to Palm Springs because it is so reliable sunny, and because we’d heard about the beauty of the Indian Canyon hiking trails just south of the city. We spent much of Saturday hiking in and out of Palm Canyon, whose oasis of running water and ancient palm trees was even more remarkable given their contrast with the drought-dry brush of the surrounding hills.  The drought is in full evidence in the area, and it was hard to see all the vegetation outside of the canyons either dead or dormant. But that made the canyon even more special. Here is Jim in Palm Canyon, illustrating the scale of these remarkable, native trees:

jim Palm Canyon Sm


More news: I’m working on a new book. I predict it will be a smash, because it is a diet book, and don’t all diet books turn into best sellers? Here are some of my suggested eating plans, based on our weekend away:

Breakfast: A massive serving of Eggs Benedict, OR Smoked Salmon + Cream Cheese + bagels + some of husband’s pancakes + lots of fresh fruit.

Lunch: Large quantities of salty snacks, followed by small mountains of chocolate.

Dinner: Rack of lamb with root vegetable mash + rosemary foccacia bread + sticky pudding with ice cream (and don’t forget the rum mojito, all at a great place called Copley’s) OR ridiculously good, greasy hamburgers at a burger dive called Woody’s with fantastic live jazz + onion rings + sweet potato fries + coleslaw. More chocolate.

That’s what I ate, and I lost two pounds.

Of course, it could it be hiking my ass off (who knew that phrase was so literal) in between all the eating that had an effect. We only went about five miles each day, but there was lots of up and down on each hike. On Sunday we hiked straight up a mountain that went up and up and up, and about halfway to the top I stopped and considered calling in a helicopter. You know, the kind that hovers over head while a guy who looks like Daniel Craig descends on a wire and encircles you in his manly arms and lifts you to safety. (Or should that be in a different book: “Animal Behaviorist begins writing bodice rippers…”)

In reality, I had my own handsome hero by my side. Parts of the trail were so steep that you simply had to use your hands, especially when you take the wrong turn and end up pondering the difference between rock climbing and “hand hiking.” A bum wrist made it impossible for me to use my right hand to clamber up the rocks, and so when needed, Jim pulled me up by the other hand or I might not have made it. If memory serves, there was an occasional push from behind too, but we’ll keep that part to ourselves.

Here are some more photos from our hikes, and our truly wonderful reprieve from the cold and snow. I love Wisconsin, and I love winter, but I wouldn’t mind if it was just a little shorter and a little less brutally cold sometimes. (It has remained extremely cold here, 14 below this morning, highs in the single digits, but on Wednesday it is predicted to get up to the 20’s. People will be outside in shorts. Seriously. Note that the collective term “people” does not include me in this case.)

Love this cactus, perched on a cliff overlooking the canyon.

cactus Palm Springs Sm


The person in the photo isn’t Jim, it’s a young man who “hiked” the trail at a youthful lope. Oh my. My camera caught him just as he was about to run over the hill. He gave me yet another excuse to stop and catch my breath. Good boy, good boy.

Jogger on PSpr hike








  1. Kat says

    I just finished reading this book today. It has been my car book; the one I pick up to read while waiting for (fill in the blank). I had a real love/hate relationship with it. So much good information, so much
    self -promotion and a few places that set my teeth on edge. Behavior that works is repeated; that’s the one key to behavior that I thought could have been highlighted over and over but wasn’t. I found the overall style rather irritating since it was clearly a bunch of academics trying to write for the general public. Often I got the impression that some of the authors didn’t have a lot of respect for the general public since it felt like they were dumbing down the presentation. Of course some of that may be because I’m both a member of the general dog loving public and a trained academic as a result I may be overly sensitive to information presentation.

    All in all it was worth the time I spent reading it and would be a good resource for novice dog owners but it isn’t one I’ll be recommending to my dog savvy friends unless they are dealing with one of the specific behavior problems discussed.

  2. says

    Thanks for the pithy review, as well as (and most importantly) the chuckles! I am a transplanted Midwesterner (Go Badgers! Go Illini!) and there’s something about your insightful comments combined with humor that just resonates with me. Did you get a chance to visit The Living Desert? Anyway, I’m glad that you enjoyed your visit to my adopted home of Southern California. Although I drool over your photos of your farm in Wisconsin, I must admit that I don’t think I could handle those winters anymore. (I spent every summer of my youth outside of Minocqua WI)

    Good on you for pointing out the drawbacks in, what sounds like, a book that had great potential. I continue to feel great frustration toward veterinary professionals who can’t or won’t take the proper scientific stand on behavior issues.

    I once commented to my own veterinarian that I have the great luxury of actually observing dogs in their homes and learn a lot about them that way. She said, “oh, I would NEVER want to be able to do that! Way too complicated. It’s easier to just write a prescription.” Then I realized how hard my job really is! Still, I wouldn’t give it up for anything.

    Thanks again. You help keep me going! :)

  3. Erin James says

    I read the book and for the most part found it useful and well written. I share your concerns however, as well as noticing that too often the reader is instructed to consult a Veterinary Behaviorist with their problem dog. I believe there are fewer than 60 of these behaviorists in the U.S., so the possibility of there being one handy is remote. I did love that they so often repeated the mantra that the dominance theory has been disproven and dogs who show aggression are likely fearful and not trying to be ‘dominant.’

  4. Gordon says

    It’s been a good, long while since I’ve been to Palm Springs….but do they still park the aircraft out on the ramp and the boarding is done outside…no jetways or anything? I recall the long covered sidewalk thing with numbered “gates” going out to the ramp (I refuse to misuse the word “tarmac” which everyone and every news outlet seems to do). Just wondering if they still have that set up out there?

    Glad you guys got to get away for even a couple of days.

  5. Karen London says

    I have tremendous respect for your insight and I consider your review of this book to be brilliant. Thanks for sharing what the book has to offer while gently pointing out some of the serious issues and concerns.

  6. Nic1 says

    Trisha, thanks for such an informative and honest review. I have a lot of respect for Sophia Yin, who is a veterinary behaviourist. I’m not sure why some vets hold the opinion that they are the only professionals suitably qualified to tackle behaviour problems in companion animals. Strange really and kind of arrogant to be honest. It’s like assuming that a medical doctor is the only professional deemed capable of dealing with people who need psychological and emotional support, such as bereavement counselling or counselling at work to help overcome a problem with confidence. My own experience with vets and behaviour was jaw droppingly poor. But good to hear that there are some vets out there who are starting to learn themselves about behaviour, er, even if they are unable to articulate the definition of learning clearly. Gosh, i’m a cynic… 😉

  7. Rose C says

    I haven’t read the book. I wanted to initially but then hesitated wondering if it would be worth it. I mostly wanted to see how they presented the information and facts — if it is clear, simple, and interesting enough for the general public. I’m not sure how much self-promotion there is in the actual contents (as mentioned, I haven’t read it yet) but I was happy to see they came up with the book and that the cover says it is by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. I was hoping that would at least catch the attention of the novice or casual dog owners, most of whom probably still thinks that veterinarians are the ultimate ‘go to’ professional for ALL types of dog issues, including behavioral problems. I happened to have attended the book presentation seminar/book signing held by two of the authors/editors. I mostly wanted to hear a veterinary behaviorist’s take on dog behavior (just out of curiosity). Based on what was presented that day, I thought it was pretty spot on for the general public, if at least to provide basic information and bring awareness. I think it depends on one’s degree of knowledge and which angle he or she is looking from. Professional trainers, behaviorists or dog behavior savvy people, could definitely see certain aspects that can be (or should be) challenged while to those who have little to no prior understanding of dog behavior, this could be a good starting point. I sure do hope, though, that it will be a more collaborative than competitive relation or association between veterinary and non-veterinary behaviorists.

  8. says

    I found the first chapters so weak in the chest (how to train a sit, the stupid wolf and a few more things…), that I almost stopped reading (especially after all the “superhero” stuff of the lengthy introduction. At that point I was really angry, because – if THAT ist the best there is, oh dear!!!

    It get’s better, but I think, the introduction and the first 3 or 4 chapters need major editing.
    In Germany we have also veterinary behaviorists. Some are great, but others I wouldn’t even show a foto of my dogs. Obviously, the title isn’t everything…

  9. glauber says

    Thank you for the review. The author owns the local veterinary practice where i live, and i will probably buy this book sooner or later. :) Good to know what to expect.

    I just finished reading “Listening to Dogs” by Jon Katz (ironic name?) and liked it very much. The gist of the book is, “when it comes to dog training, listen to your dog, and be your own guru”. More later maybe, i have to run.

  10. glauber says

    More about “Listening to Dogs”: Katz’ philosophy of training is that you should rely on yourself, your own ideas and instincts, when it comes to training. Go to the experts or a book only for specific problems. He affirms several times that he doesn’t want to be taken as an expert, but he does set up some basic preconditions for training: working for brief periods at a time, keeping it simple, using few words, etc. He talks against dominance theory. He urges the reader to be aware of what we bring to the training – our emotional baggage, frustration, impatience, being the most important things to overcome when training. He cautions strongly against anthropomorphising (sp?) dogs or projecting our emotions on them. He sees dog training as a spiritual exercise of mutual respect and inter-species communication. He includes the best assessment of Cesar Milan that i have ever seen, one that i happen to agree with (so it’s right :)).

    It’s a short book and well worth the time spent. with it, IMHO.

    Disclaimer: i have no connection to the author; the book was a birthday gift from my dear wife.

  11. says

    It was great to see a review of this book, I bought it for a friend of mine for her birthday and haven’t heard from her so am guessing she has her reservations. I haven’t bought it for myself yet-was intending to, so at least I now know what to expect. It is a pity that so many people in this sphere call themselves “ultimate experts” as in my experience that is not true. Thanks for the heads up.

  12. LisaW says

    Thanks for the well-balanced review. I’ve looked at this book but didn’t buy it, there was just something that made me hesitate.

    After much searching for the right vet when our dog started having physical issues that were affecting the behavioral progress we had made, I was very lucky to find a great holistic vet that has a positive, rewards-based training background and is wonderful with our dogs. I also have the very good fortune to have a local vet behaviorist who has been invaluable to us. We all work together on issues that come up
    — physical and behavioral — it’s the health triad. The three of us and my dog actually had an update meeting together one day, it was very helpful and assuring to have us all in the same room after we had been working on different treatments/PT to see how we all were doing. I will always appreciate their willingness to go the extra mile. It’s been amazing to have the expertise of these two professionals that are very compassionate and collaborative.

  13. MeredithS says

    Re dominance theory(ies): Does There’s No Such Thing as a Free Lunch when applied to dog training fall under dominance theory? I’ve seen it discussed in both contexts, but I’m curious about what you think?

  14. Becky says

    MeredithS, I would strongly suggest that you check out Kathy Sdao’s book, “Plenty in Life is Free: Reflections on Dogs, Training and Finding Grace.” Trisha wrote a short review blurb for the book. I found it so compelling and meaningful (right up there with Trisha’s books!) that I have shared it with friends and colleagues in the rescue group with which I work.

  15. MeredithS says

    Thanks, Becky. I will do that. I think I find it confusing that many well-known dog trainers/authors write books in which they recommend positive approaches to training but sometimes those positive, reward-based approaches are also based on letting the dog know ‘who’s boss.’ Example: the dog growls at its owner when the owner gets on the bed where the dog is laying. The recommendation is to start a process of training the dog to realize that he/she is not ‘the alpha’ (these are quotes from a book but I’m going to leave the name of the author out because it’s not just one author who uses this approach) — usually by making the dog do something before it gets anything like: dinner, petting, treats, walks, etc. That sounds to me like dominance theory in action but it is presented as positive, reward-based training, hence my confusion. This is probably off-topic to the book review but brought it up in my mind — something I’ve been wondering about for some time.

    Also brought up because I took some nosework classes w/police- and military-trained instructors who were uniformly (no pun intended?) committed to requiring the dog to work for everything. One of the non-military class members who trains dogs for scent-work for the military told me that if her dogs don’t respond quickly enough to a command, they might miss their dinner that day… Interesting spectrum of techniques…under the same rubric.

  16. Nic1 says

    Kathy Sdao is a breath of fresh air. And her understanding of learning theory and benevolent and effective application in companion animals is very reassuring. NILF reminds me a bit of the ‘rank reduction’ programmes in the Dominance school of thought. It would, I imagine, make life rather stressful all round. Teaching your dog to offer an incompatible behaviour in return for access to resources is a useful way to teach your dog manners to succeed in the human world. Almost a form of communication. But for the dog to have to offer something EVERY time? Like Kathy says, plenty in life is free, particularly in a loving and empathetic household.

  17. Robin Jackson says

    Kathy Sdao’s PLENTY IN LIFE IS FREE had a profound impact on Grisha Stewart (BAT training), who revised her own protocol for a bossy dog after reading Kathy’s work. Grisha now calls it the “Say Please” protocol, and it’s a pretty good example of how the concept can be applied without wandering into dominance territory:

    I particularly like this passage:

    “Never put training over a consistent, loving relationship with your dog. This version of the Say Please Protocol is a way of living with your dog that will help him behave better because he gets many chances to practice training, for a variety of rewards, and he won’t have to come up with his own way to ask for what he wants. left to their own devices, dogs tend to use doggy ways to get what they want – bolting, taking, barking, etc.”

    I think many behaviourists and behavioural consultants have a similar concept even if they don’t use the same names for it. Good manners for both kids and dogs are about teaching them what behaviours will be rewarded. Not about intimidating them or scaring them into doing nothing.

  18. Jerri Blackman says

    Thanks for the review. I just bought the book, haven’t started to read it yet. You’ve given me food for thought.

    I just stumbled across your blog today (March 3, 2014). So glad to see it! I thoroughly enjoyed The Other End of the Leash.

    Tucson, AZ

  19. Dena Norton ("Izzee's Mom") says

    After reading this blog post, I decided to read the book. I’m finding plenty to like in it, and find myself rolling my eyes at a few things. But well worth reading, so far.

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