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Be The Dog — Secrets of the Natural Dog Owner by Steve Duno

January 10th, 2009 · · Book Reviews


What constitutes a “natural” dog owner? In this context it seems to mean an individual who has an intuitive understanding of dogs and a realistic set of expectations with regards to dog behaviour. It is the kind of dog person who can develop a rapport with an animal that can appear to be virtually psychic when in fact it is based on a very subtle kind of body language. This kind of body talk expresses intention and may be something as discreet as a shift in one’s centre of gravity, an almost imperceptible  leaning. These are the people who speak dog.

Steve Duno defines the phrase “Be the Dog” as meaning one must learn to imagine the world as it is perceived by the sensory equipment of a dog. In other words,  adopt the dog’s point of view which makes being a dog owner something like method acting. It also requires fluency in canine body language and an  almost psychic ability to know what your dog is about to do. One must establish oneself as a confident, capable and fair leader. All this plus a recognition of how vital social connections are to both dog and human. This is the starting point and the good news is that while it is definitely true that many natural dog owners are just born that way, it is a state to which we can aspire. Steve Duno says that education and the drive to empathize are key.

The author proceeds to reveal “The Seven Secrets of the Natural Dog Owner”.  Secret number one: not all dogs are created equal. This chapter gives good advice on choosing a dog. Many facets of the evaluation process are presented from genetics to a basic puppy temperament  test, to the suggestion to learn as much as possible about your dog’s history and heredity and then  based  on what you know determine if you can meet this dog’s needs.

The second chapter presents a brief account of the pack as a social construct then proceeds to set forth a sensible plan for impressing upon your dog the fact of your leadership.  This is achieved through the consistent application of the rules and the avoidance of coddling.

Chapter three is a detailed description of how dogs function and how use this knowledge of their mental processes to support your role as leader. It also deals with some common problems separation anxiety, for example. Steve Duno discusses the inherent value in cultivating an attitude of “calm indifference” towards your dog and explains why it works. He also addresses the idea of dog as autonomous being: “The idea that dogs maintain a certain sense of behavioral autonomy apart from human design differs somewhat from the more common assertion that a dog’s actions are completely determined by breed and instinct, and by what humans teach him to do. I do not think this. I maintain that some decisions your dog makes are based upon his ability to weigh personal desire against pack necessity. In effect, the domestic dog often makes reasoned decisions on the spot, born of his own sense of protocol.” For the record, I agree.

Training is the topic of the fourth chapter. The author gives solid suggestions for ways to maximize your dog’s capacity to learn.  He stresses repetition and reinforcement as key in the process of  building a dog’s verbal ability. Even learning tricks can boost your dog’s  ability to learn.

Chapter five discusses the ways in which one can enrich a dog’s environment. Socialization is very important to dogs. They need positive interactions with both humans (of varying ages, sizes and types) and both playful and calm times with other dogs under supervision.  Increasing the exposure to various sensory stimuli is also recommended. There are lots of easy and practical suggestions on how to do this from leaving a radio on when you go out, to hiding tasty treats in the backyard. This can be fun for both dogs and humans.

The sixth “secret” is all about health and safety. The biggest (no pun intended) health issue for dogs is obesity. Duno discusses exercise  in a general way as the cure for the fat epidemic and in particular a number of different forms of exercise suitable for different types, ages and sizes of dogs. His views on dog food are reasoned and moderate. He compares kibble with the raw diet and gives balanced, intelligent advice. The concept of “enlightened supervision” is introduced, in a word, it is supervising proactively rather than reactively.  This is where speaking dog comes in handy. There is also a brief word on what to expect from a veterinarian.

In the final chapter of the book Steve Duno states ” We expand the idea of life purpose to include the abstractions  of philosophy, art, politics and religion. But dogs have no such constructs; they simply want to do what dogs do best, as often as possible. Their pragmatic goal-driven nature remains as true today as it did ten thousand years past. As a natural dog owner you should honor that spirit.” Part of the role of dog owner is to facilitate the dog becoming fulfilled or endowed with purpose, be it by lure coursing, agility, mushing or tracking. By its very nature fulfillment is particular in nature and must be a custom fit for each dog.

Be The Dog is one of the best of the recent crop of dog books. Steve Duno writes in a clear and literate way on a topic that he has mastered. There is a great deal to learn from this book.

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