Animal Writes
25 February 2001 Issue
Anyone Have a Muzzle?

'Joking' tome about dogs is nasty, unsupported by facts
by Marc Bekoff - [email protected] 

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 this ..."

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 ([email protected]) teaches in EPO Biology at the University of Colorado. He has studied dogs and their wild relatives for over 25 years.

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