'Joking' tome about dogs is nasty, unsupported by facts
by Marc Bekoff -
The Truth About Dogs: An Inquiry Into the Ancestry,
Social Conventions, Mental Habits and Moral Fiber of Canis familiaris by
Stephen Budiansky. Viking $24.95. 263 pp.
When I began reading "The Truth about Dogs" I thought
that someone was going to tell it like it is at last; that I was going
to learn that the beliefs people held about "humans' best friend" and
the feelings people have about the nature of the deep and reciprocal
interrelationships between dogs and humans would be shown true.
I was wrong. Rather, I learned through the tiresome use
of cute phrases, slippery writing, convoluted arguments, uncritical
evaluations of data, insulting statements about researchers with whom
author Stephen Budiansky disagrees, ignorance of the work of numerous
scientists who have studied dog behavior and sweeping
over-generalizations that dogs are social parasites who prey upon human
frailties and insecurities.
According to Budiansky, a correspondent for the Atlantic
Monthly who has written previous books on animals, dogs are "biological
freeloaders" who "... have got us exactly where they want us, and we ...
go along with it all." He concludes that, "We didn't choose dogs. ...
They chose us, and we're stuck with them." Budiansky also claims that
dogs are constructed by the human need for connection and love and
really don't do much for humans other than to create an image that they
really care. But he also notes that "No one has actually done a study of
It would have served Budiansky and his readers better to
wait for studies to be conducted, for in their absence his claims are
thoroughly vacuous. And, in fact, there's much scientific evidence that
shows that dogs are very important to humans as social companions and
for helping people heal from physical and psychological illnesses.
Budiansky notes early on that he will likely engender
the wrath of many readers. Thus, he writes, "So let me hasten to add: I
am joking. Mostly." If so, then why a book at all?
But it becomes clear that Budiansky has an agenda that
goes well beyond that of writing off dogs as social parasites. For
example, he wields a sharp scalpel when he writes about an unnamed
"pseudo-intellectual" feminist social theorist who used ethological data
to advise an American presidential
candidate to act like an "alpha male." Why is this
"pseudo-intellectualism," whereas Budiansky's own guesses, his own
pseudo-scientific views about the behavior of dogs, are not? There's a
disturbing double-standard here.
In his final sentence, he lays his thesis bare: "Lets
face it: If dogs truly were human they would be jerks. As dogs they are
wonderful." Personally, I wonder why individuals who unconditionally
love others would be called jerks.
All in all, Budiansky continually undermines his own
credibility by using nasty innuendo and arrogance. There's no reason to
be insulting and nasty, especially considering that no one, Budiansky
included, really knows the truth about dogs. Nobody reading this book
will, either. Dogs are complex beings whose psyches, moral fiber and
behavior aren't easily understood. Unfortunately, an uncritical reading
will lead readers to draw numerous unfounded conclusions that are
presented as if they're hard-and-fast facts.
Budiansky's high-profile book, like ill-prepared
fast-food, is a major disappointment.
Marc Bekoff (firstname.lastname@example.org)
teaches in EPO Biology at the University of Colorado. He has studied
dogs and their wild relatives for over 25 years.
Go on to Not Dairy
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