BOOKS: The Hidden Life of Dogs
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November 1993:
The Hidden Life of Dogs, by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas.
Houghton Mifflin (215 Park Ave. South, New York, NY 10003), 1993, 148 pages,
hardcover $18.95. ISBN 0-395-66958-8.
Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, who
has studied primitive human cultures and
wolves, in The Hidden Life of Dogs casts
an anthropologist’s eye on a species in
some ways related to both. Like all such
experiential narrativeses, hers is less hard
science than informed observation. Her
interpretation of life among a family of
dogs (her own) is unashamedly anthropo-
morphic. She recognizes, too, the influ-
ence of her own emotional bonds and
weighs them in the balance. The result is
both informative and unexpectedly moving.
Fortunately for Thomas, dogs are
not particularly secretive about their habits.
Without direct human guidance, most will
just naturally do what dogs do best. And,
as she discovers, they don’t mind if humans
want to tag along. Her first subject, a
friend’s companion, wasn’t especially
bonded to her, and Thomas seemingly
exerted very little influence on his behav-
ior. Subsequently, dogs in her household
received no overt training and were allowed
to form their own hierarchy.
Dogs do go feral, of course, some
willingly, others by necessity. Alone or in
pairs, they seldom survive long. But packs
of dogs, bound by loose ties to “owners”,
neighborhoods, or other base camps, man-
age handily for long periods of time, in all
sorts of conditions. In time, the author’s
pack became almost feral, free to wander
afield in all seasons, free enough to con-
struct their own den in home territory.
But then, except for two pugs at
the beginning, her pack was primarily
huskies and some wild dog mixed breeds.
Huskies are especially hardy dogs, close in
behavior to the wolf, as Thomas aptly illus-
trates in several anecdotes. They’re affec-
tionate and expressive, can become vicious
if abused, and revert readily to feral ways.
A young dog like the subject
“Misha” may wander until he or she estab-
lishes a pack. “Our” husky mix, Sherman,
is content to stay home, but a sibling
patrols the village all night (as do other
dogs). Their mother went wild when the
pups were born, hunting deer for them until
she was destroyed. Any breed of dog, how-
ever, will join a pack if allowed to run free.
As people who live in towns without leash
laws will attest, packs can include spaniels,
dachshunds, boxers and beagles, though
they’re usually led by mixed breed females.
Like the wolf and the human,
each dog has her/his place in pack society,
as well as appropriate rituals. To the dog,
Thomas discovers, status is everything.
Without status a dog cannot mate, care for
her young or, in some cases, survive. The
plight of the dingo, Viva, and her doomed
pups is just one example. “From a dog’s
point of view,” she writes, “[it] was
unavoidable” that the dominant female in
the pack would kill Viva’s litter, to
improve the odds of survival for her own.
Though such situations may be difficult for
humans to comprehend––and read about
––to dogs they make perfect sense.
Thomas describes the dog’s per-
spective vividly and with great compassion.
At times her reactions veer from objective
to passionate, yet she always remains true
to her pursuit of the canine sensibility. The
Hidden Life of Dogs is lucid and well craft-
ed, often practical, occasionally spiritual.
It’s a celebration of life among dogs, each
with a unique personality, each a product of
his or her own species’ ethic.
––Cathy Young Czapla