Book Review: The Hidden Life of Dogs

Hidden Life of DogsI read this book the first time shortly after it was first released in 1993. Elizabeth Marshall Thomas is a trained anthropologist who applies her observational skills to her dog pack. Her book, The Hidden Life of Dogs, chronicles her experiences with her own and friends’ dogs over the course of decades in a very personal and touching series of anecdotes.

What endeared me to the book from the very beginning was her statement in the introduction:

Do dogs have thoughts and feelings? Of course they do. If they didn’t, there wouldn’t be any dogs. That being said, however, a book on dogs must by definition be somewhat anthropomorphic, and reasonably so, since our aversion to the label is misplaced. Using the experience of another species has been a useful tool to many of the great wildlife biologists. The more experienced the investigator, the more useful the tool. Consider George Schaller’s observation of a mother leopard and her son: “At times [the two leopards] had ardent reunions, rubbing their cheeks and bodies sinuously and licking each other’s face, obviously excited and delighted with the meeting. Witnessing such tenderness, I realized that these leopards merely masked their warm temperament and emotional depth beneath a cold exterior.”

Having experienced the remarkable ability of pets (both my own and others’) to acclimate to human mores and accurately reflect our emotions back to us, it was refreshing to read an author who took my view of their innate sensitivity. In fact, a biology teacher I had otherwise regarded quite highly lost a not insignificant measure of my respect by dismissing pet interactions with a “they’re just animals” kind of epithet. In the 80s and 90s, in fact, I regularly read biologists’ reductionist accounts of animals’ existence that completely minimized their emotional significance.

I’ve seen a trend in the opposite direction in more recent years, but Marshall Thomas was the first I had read to seriously address the complexity our animal companions experience in their internal lives. Her ability to capture a poignant moment of cultural conflict between humans and dogs leads to such compelling passages as:

Misha understood the importance of a cool demeanor and so did the young wolf, but Misha’s adversary, the big Saint Bernard, did not. His passion and intensity on behalf of his owners eventually proved too much for them, and they took him to the local humane society. Supposedly, he was offered for adoption. But most people don’t want a huge dog with very strong feelings. No one took him. That humane society was also a dog hospital, where a dog’s emergency later took me, and there, to my surprise, I recognized the Saint Bernard, who was standing helplessly in a little wire cage. Our eyes met. His face brightened, because, I think, he recognized me. I saw that he very much hoped I would help him, but alas, I could not. Scheduled for execution, he was waiting to be drained of blood to provide transfusions for dogs more fortunate than he, dogs who were wanted by their owners.

In her pursuit of her experiment in letting her dogs just be dogs, she does let her dogs roam loose and procreate to see how they behave themselves when freed from human rules and constraints, which, I grant, is a worrying way to approach the responsibility of pet ownership. However, she focused so completely on finally discovering what it was that her dogs wanted from life that this potential objection really only occurred to me in very belated hindsight.

For those who are interested in well-drawn observations about how dogs interact, both with other dogs and humans, this is a quick but moving read. For those who are looking for guidance on training or best practices in raising a well-adjusted pet, look elsewhere. For myself, I like re-reading this book periodically particularly for the links she draws from her time observing wild wolves on Baffin Island and her insights into natural canine inclinations. And I love that she recognizes that every individual of a species has only a small answer to the puzzle of what drives behavior and learning, so no one dog will correctly stand in for all dogs, while experience with many dogs still doesn’t answer every question we might have about them.

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