BOOKS: The 100 Silliest Things People Say About Dogs

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 2009:

The 100 Silliest Things People Say About Dogs by Alexandra Semyonova
Published by Hastings Press, England in
association with The Carriage House Foundation
(Postbus 10 308 2501 HH Den Haag, The
Netherlands), 2009. Downloadable at
269 pages, paperback. $25.00. Download: $15.00.

“I wasn’t exposed to all the stories dog
people tell until I got my first puppy,”
behavioral scientist Alexandra Semyonova relates
in her introduction to The 100 Silliest Things
People Say About Dogs. But then Semyonova “read
every book I could get my hands on and talked to
many trainers. All sources agreed that dogs live
in a hierarchy, and that they spend all their
time being either dominant or submissive to each

“I was told I needed to make sure I was
the Alpha Leader,” Semyonova recalls. “I should
always go before my dog through a door. I had to
eat before I fed the dog. The dog wasn’t allowed
on the couch, since the Alpha wolf always lies
on the highest spot when the pack is restingŠMost
of the trainers also urged me to train the pup
with punishment.
“My doubts began,” Semyonova explains,
“when I started to have many and various dogs in
the house and to observe their group behaviour
for long periods of time, in groups with ever
changing composition. There was no dog who
always lay on the highest spot. It was always a
different dog who was first to go through a door.
They seemed above all interested in being
considerate to each other and avoiding arguments
where possible. None of my own observations
confirmed any of what the experts had told me.”
As a scientist, Semyonova “decided to
delve deeper into the literature. I also started
my own research project.” The 100 Silliest Things
People Say About Dogs “is based on real live
observations of real live dogs, in their natural
surroundings, 24 hours a day, seven days a
week, for fourteen years.”
Semyonova learned that “The dog’s social
system is based on a few simple rules of
politeness that are aimed above all at not
disturbing the peace.”
Almost everyone who has studied street
dogs, or almost any dogs who are at liberty to
be themselves among other dogs, has reached the
same conclusion. Yet few pet keepers and dog
trainers seem aware of this finding, valuable as
it is to understanding how best to teach and
motivate a dog.
Instead most embrace the fallacy that as
Semyonova puts it, “The dog is a descendant of
the wolf, and because of this we should regard
him as a sort of tame wolf.”
Responds Semyonova, “Our ancestors
didn’t tame the dog at all. The dog most likely
tamed himself.”
Meanwhile, Semyonova points out, wolves
“didn’t exist yet when the dog began to split off
into a new species.” The ancestral dog “had
already split off from the wolf family line some
200,000-500,000 years ago,” Semyonova recounts,
who “probably looked somewhat like the dingo and
other primitive dogs who still live in the wild
Emphasizes Semyonova, “The dog is not a
wolf. If you want to know about dogs, you have
to study dogs. But aside from this, we don’t
have much knowledge about wolves in the first
place. The stories that are told about them are
all too often hunters’ tales and jailers’
anecdotes-basically nonsense, based on myths,
fantasy, imagination, speculation,
projection, lies and/or poorly designed
research; or by watching them behave in a
habitat that is decaying and disappearing right
under their feet.
“The dog evolved at the rubbish dump,”
Semyonova determines. “He didn’t need to kill to
eat. Aggression not only lost its function, but
actually became a threat to the dog’s survival in
our proximity. The killer bite disappeared from
the dog’s natural behaviour pattern.
“Dogs are anything but pack animals,”
Semyonova continues. “The whole reason the
domestic dog does so well living among us humans
is that she adapted herself to a different life
than the pack life. Dogs wander alone around the
rubbish dump or the back alleys, looking for
food. When dogs do form groups, the members are
not related to each other, didn’t grow up
together, met each other as adults, and formed
their easy friendships. Their groups are
fleeting collections of acquaintances. Of course
a dog becomes attached to other dogs she knows
well-but she has no aversion to strangers, and is
glad to turn them into friends.”
Semyonova also refutes the common belief
that dogs are strongly territorial. “The only
thing all dogs seem to claim,” Semyonova
observes, “is a sort of personal zone. Inside
[the zone],” a dog “moves around the dump
without bothering about strangers. The dog might
keep more distance from a stranger than from a
familiar dog, but he does this without trying to
claim the whole dump as his own. Free-living
city dogs tend to travel around within a
relatively small range, but this range is also
not a territory. A city dog will defend a
vestibule or a clump of bushes where he sleeps,
but he does not defend his travelling space.
Even in agrarian regions, where food is less
abundant, dogs who know each other do not defend
their ranges or their dumps from
strangers….Once dogs have met a stranger
several times elsewhere, the stranger can often
join the group at the sleeping spot. Dogs do not
claim a territory as defined by biologists.”
Semyonova takes critical note of the
influence of Nazi trainers and theoriests on
conventional beliefs about dogs, especially
ethologist Konrad Lorenz, who mostly studied
geese, but wrote about dogs to make money.
“Unlike some others who stood at the
roots of animal psychology as a science,”
Semyonova points out, “Lorenz never had problems
with the Nazi authoritiesŠLorenz worked at the
Race Policy Bureau. In 1942 he participated in
examining 877 people of mixed Polish-German
descent, selecting who would and who wouldn’t go
to a concentration camp to be murdered. He
believed firmly in superior and inferior races
and consistently expressed great contempt for the
latter. He believed in a strict, hierarchical
society, in which an absolute authority ruled to
whom all owed obedience,” and projected this
view in his writing about dogs.
Normal dogs, Semyonova observes,
“don’t live in a hierarchy and aren’t interested
in controlling each other’s behaviour beyond
demanding ordinary politeness.”
What is usually described as dominance
behavior, Semyonova argues, are just mechanisms
for developing mutual trust. Once dogs trust
each other, she says, they don’t bother with
these rituals.

Dangerous dogs

“The domestic dog is a highly
non-aggressive species,” Semyonova continues,
“but this doesn’t mean there is no such thing as
a truly aggressive dog. Plenty of dogs exist who
are, by nature, aggressive, and there are
plenty of others who have learned to be
aggressive. There are definitely dogs who use
their weapons without restraint, and who do
inflict serious to deadly damage. These dogs
are, by definition, abnormal.”
Semyonova cites in particular, “The
fighting dog breeds (the pit bull/American
Staffordshire terrier, the English Staffordshire
terrier, the English Bull terrier, the American
Bulldog etc.). These dogs have been bred either
to fight to the death in the pit, or to tear
apart a bear or a bull who was tied to a tree.
Since most dogs won’t bite unless severely
provoked, breeders selected for dogs who would
attack unprovoked-and not only that, they wanted
dogs who would go on attacking once they started,
even though they met no defence. Don’t let
anyone tell you that this is past tense, or that
these are now household breeds, or worse yet
that they have always been household breeds.
They are working breeds that are still bred and
used for killing purposes.”
Semyonova puts into a separate but
related class “Other breeds (the Presa Canaria,
the Dogo Argentino, the Fila Brasiliero, the
Boerboel etc), who have been bred to have a sort
of general, unbridled aggression not only toward
animals, but also toward humans.” These are
typically mixes of pit bulls and mastiffs. The
Dogo Argentino and the Fila Brasiliero,
Semyonova writes, were bred by slave owners “not
to catch and return escaped slaves, but to rip
these slaves apart on the spot as a lesson to
other slaves. In order to make them able to do
this, they were bred with a body mass so large as
to make resistance futile. This body mass also
means that by the age of about four months, they
are too large for other dogs to teach them to
shun aggression. By the time they are
adolescents, it can be lethal for another dog to
try to discipline them or teach them anything at
Warns Semyonova, “When you are dealing
with a dog from one of these two categories, you
are dealing with dogs who have genetic defects.
They have been bred to have different brains and
different body structures than normal dogs. They
are also not at all like our romantic wolf, who
does hunt and use his weapons for real, but
wouldn’t think for a second of wasting scarce
energy on pointless aggression.”
Observes Semyonova, “a certain kind of
man (and, increasingly, woman) likes to have
these dogs in the house, proud to show all the
world that s/he’s capable of keeping one of these
dogs under control, and smiling condescendingly
at visitors who are frightened of the ‘sweet’ pit
bull/ Presa/Dogo/etc. However, this sweet dog,
who you think is so nice because he smiles the
brachiocephalic smile at you all the time,
will-once triggered-kill your child.
“There are huge economic interests
involved when we talk about these breeds of
dogs,” Semyonova acknowledges. “The breeders
and the various kennel clubs are not inclined to
be honest about the kind of dog they have
created. They tell us that despite at least 200
years of careful selection for the willingness to
fight to the death, there is no such thing as a
fighting dog. On the other hand, where it’s to
their advantage to do so, they cheerfully claim
that all kinds of other breeds most certainly do
have genetically determined characteristics that
you can rely on if only you buy their puppy.”
In a boxed subsection, Semyonova notes
that “Most of the discussion about these breeds
is about whether they are dangerous to humans. To
me, an equally important tragedy is what these
breeds are doing to other dogs since they have
become so popular. Many, many more dogs than
humans have been maimed or killed since the
fashion started, and I have never understood why
people who claim to love dogs seem unconcerned
about this.
“The myth that you can raise a killing
breed dog to be ‘sweet’ is mostly aimed at
preserving these breeds by claiming they aren’t
always dangerous to humans,” Semyonova continues.
“This myth has contributed to an ongoing
slaughter of ordinary household dogs,” for
example at dog parks, where Semyonova herself
has witnessed pit bulls killing other pets. “It
has also led to a revival of the dogfighting
culture in many countries,” Semyonova adds.
“Shame on the humane societies and ‘scientists’
who have contributed to this.”
Semyonova is no less critical of almost
every common approach to dog discipline and
training. She acknowledges trainer Cesar
Millan’s success, but points out contradictions
between much of what he does, quickly getting
positive results, and the explanations he gives
his audience on television and in books,
frequently repeating conventional belief.
“Dogs run their relationships on the
basis of trust, not dominance, violence and
punishment,” Semyonova emphasizes over and over.
“People who try to dominate dogs must be
suspected of being infantile, blind and petty.
I hope this book will help us behave towards our
dogs as good friends should,” she concludes,
“without feeling ashamed of it. We will
affectionately try to understand and consider our
dogs’ needs and longings, happily seek
compromises with them, and thankfully answer
their friendliness with the same coin. We will,
above all, not punish them, but rather help
them when they don’t understand what we want.”

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