Monday, March 5, 2012

Book Review - 'Through a Dog's Eyes' by Jennifer Arnold

Quote from Publishers Weekly on the back cover

A “transformative,” inspiring book with the power to change the way we understand and communicate with our dogs.

Few people are more qualified to speak about the abilities and potential of dogs than Jennifer Arnold, who for twenty years has trained service dogs for people with physical disabilities and special needs. Through her unique understanding of dogs’ intelligence, sensitivity, and extrasensory skills, Arnold has developed an exemplary training method that is based on kindness and encouragement rather than fear and submission, and her results are extraordinary.

To Jennifer Arnold, dogs are neither wolves in need of a pack leader nor babies in need of coddling; rather, they are extremely trusting beings attuned to their owners’ needs, and they aim to please. Stories from Arnold’s life and the lives of the dogs who were her greatest teachers provide convincing and compelling testimony to her choice teaching method and make Through a Dog’s Eyes an unforgettable book that will forever change your relationship with your dog.

Jean Gill's Review

What a treasure for a dog-lover! A rich mix of anecdotes, teaching suggestions and thoughts on current research, based on twenty years' experience training golden retrievers and labradors as companions for people with special needs.

The opening chapter describes Jennifer Arnold's personal circumstances and the background to her life's work as founder of Canine Assistants, one of the USA's largest canine service associations. This personal context is the basis of the whole book and I found the author to be good dog-loving company, with extensive experience in a particular sector of the dog world. I trust her integrity and her anecdotes ring true, reminding us of how wonderful the relationship between dog and human can be, beyond the current explanations of science.

I was already fascinated by dogs' unexplained capacity to predict epileptic seizures, so it was interesting to read of how this emerges in the training of Canine Assistants. I enjoyed all the tales of how various service dogs have enabled their new owners to live fuller lives. My favourite chapter, however, was that on play; it made me want to rush outside with my Great Pyrenees and bounce. I've spent hours observing and photographing my own dogs' play habits, and I've never read such detailed, accurate accounts of dogs' play behaviour, with each other and with humans. I couldn't agree more with Arnold over the importance of play for both our species.

I already agree with Arnold's principles, especially in ridiculing the idea that we should behave like wolves. She gave me some useful supporting evidence for my views, and I was delighted to learn that alpha wolves in the wild feed the weakest in the family/pack first, thereby suggesting that even the 'behave like a wolf' brigade are wrong in their theories of food control and 'eating first' to dominate.

I also fully support 'choice training', teaching a dog to think and to choose the desired behaviour, and she gives detailed examples, all useful, of how she works. There are limitations though. I have been taught by a top dogtrainer how to put principles into practice and in my view Arnold's techniques will not work with all dogs.  She does warn the reader that the book is not a training manual for dealing with dog problems and she also states that you should get a trainer's help if your dog bites you or someone else, so this book does not pretend to cover all situations.

Arnold relies heavily on treats, works with golden retrievers and labradors, and matches the personalities of adult dogs with their new owners, and with their special needs. This is admirable but very different from establishing a relationship between any puppy/dog and any owner. I remember getting a Great Pyrenees after the death of my retriever, and discovering that chocolate buttons for dogs had lost their magic power, and toys were no better. Suddenly, I was not the wonderful dog trainer I'd thought myself; I was someone whose dog didn't come when called, and I'd run out of techniques.

This is an informative and enjoyable book on a particular sector of the dog world, and on specific aspects of training. If you're looking for a general book on training all dogs,  I'd recommend 'Gentle Dog Training' by Michel Hasbrouck. In the wider context of all dogs, I think Arnold is naive in some of her statements, such as her assertion that using the leash to force a position is wrong (e.g. 'sit' or to stop the dog jumping up) and that positive reinforcement will bring the dog to the desired conclusions of its own accord, eventually. (Believe me, if you've had 70kg of Great Pyrenees knocking your glasses off, 'eventually' is not a word you want to hear).

Although I would disagree over some specifics of training, I would love to debate these with Arnold, and I have the impression that she would enjoy that debate, and have excellent reasons for the way she works. As she points out, most dogs want nothing better than to please us and communicate with us, so those brutal modern methods which promote domination are to be shunned.

I couldn't agree more and I see it as a sad sign of the times that Arnold has been targeted for vicious criticism by those who feel their methods are threatened. In a letter published on her amazon page she wrote, 'At times I am straightforward to the point of bluntness about the wrongs we are doing to our dogs in the name of training. In some circles, I'm already being criticised for what I have written. I wish I could say that the unpleasantness doesn't bother me a bit. I can't. I am all too human. But it won't stop me. I owe dogs too much to be silent. We all do.'

Good for you, Jennifer Arnold. Keep up the good work.