Dogs Demystified

Dogs Demystified

A Handbook for All Things Canine


Our animal chaplain spoke with a cognitive ethologist to get the best information possible on how to love and communicate with our canine companions.

Sorry, cat lovers: Dogs are the most popular animal companions in America. Yup, according to estimates from the American Pet Products Association and the American Veterinary Medical Association, more than 65 million households now include a dog—42 percent of them coming from pet shops and about 40 percent from an animal rescue, sanctuary, or shelter.

Yet few of our canine companions come with a thorough instruction manual, which can lead to a lot of confused humans and perplexed dogs. Luckily, although the internet is notoriously ruled by cats, an abundance of ideas can be found regarding the best way to cohabitate with dogs too. Still, it can be hard to know what advice to trust when opinions conflict.

Enter Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., professor emeritus of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder and prolific author whose books include the dog-focused titles Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do, Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible, and A Dog’s World: Imagining the Lives of Dogs in a World Without Humans.

His latest project, Dogs Demystified: An A-to-Z Guide to All Things Canine, closes the “my dog didn’t come with a handbook” gap. I recently reached out to Bekoff to improve my dog knowledge. Here’s what I learned.

An Interview with Cognitive Ethologist Dr. Marc Bekoff

Sarah Bowen: Dogs Demystified is what you call a “canidpedia” or encyclopedia-style book, which is quite a different format than the other 30-plus books you’ve published. Why did you choose this format?

Marc Bekoff: Dogs Demystified largely focuses on dog behavior—what dogs do and how and why they do it—to help readers see, appreciate, and respect dogs for who they are and not what we want them to be. I chose this format because I wanted readers to be able to find a specific entry if they had specific questions, but I’ve learned some people have read it from the beginning to the end and got a lot out of it because many of the entries are related to others.

As a cognitive ethologist—a scientist who studies the inner lives of all sorts of nonhuman beings, including dogs—I wanted to introduce readers to animal research itself. In a conversational, nontechnical way, the book’s entries explain research terms and how science is conducted.

What are some of your major messages?

A large part of demystifying our canine companions is understanding how they sense their world, and I hope this guide helps readers get eye-to-eye, nose-to-nose, and ear-to-ear with dogs. Getting a good handle on what is happening inside a dog’s head and heart is how we can minimize the border between them and us and greatly improve dog-human relationships. When we can do that, we are better able to help dogs be dogs—to do what comes naturally—in a world where many aspects of their lives are often controlled and compromised by humans.

I also stress there is no universal dog, and we must be very careful about making statements such as “dogs do this” or “dogs don’t do that.”

It’s essential to recognize dogs as the individuals they are—each has their own personality—and it’s highly educational and exciting to recognize and appreciate their uniqueness. Even littermates can be extremely different shortly after birth.

Why is it important to understand the diversity of dogs’ inner lives?

Dogs have rich and deep emotional lives, and we must honor and respect this bona fide scientific fact whenever we interact with them. Treating dogs as if they don’t have emotions is anti-scientific; it damages the relationships dogs form with us and other dogs.

In reality, dogs are always learning from humans. We often place unrealistic social expectations on them, especially homed dogs, who are constantly being asked to do what we want them to do. Most of the time, when dogs misbehave, they’re simply doing whatever they have to do to be dogs. Training is a form of education; it’s not a way to program dogs so they always please us.

Giving dogs some extra tender loving care is really good for them and for us. I agree with renowned singer and songwriter Emmylou Harris who told me, “Dogs are a sacred responsibility, dogs make us better humans, and dogs are one of the Universe’s best gifts.” When people embrace these ideas, the world will be better for dogs and people.

We also need to realize that around 75-80 percent of the estimated billion dogs who live on earth are free-ranging or feral. We need to study these latter populations to get a better handle on the cognitive, emotional, and moral lives of dogs because studying “homed” dogs in controlled laboratory setups tells only part of their stories.

If there is one overarching learning about dogs that readers take away from reading the book, what do you hope it would be?

It’s really hard to come up with “one overarching learning,” but if I’m pushed, I’d say that taking a dog into your home and heart is a huge commitment and a life-changer—like having a child—so, if you don’t think you’re ready, then it’s best to wait until you are. The same can be said about cats, and “cat people” also will get a lot out of many entries in the book.

Giving dogs as many freedoms as possible—giving them lots of choices and agency. Getting their consent before we ask them or make them do something is essential for having a solid, two-way, enduring relationship.

My hope is that increased understanding will foster more caring. A dog’s feelings matter to them, and they should also matter to us. We should take the perspectives and emotions of dogs into account in every aspect of our shared lives.

Want more canine-inspired wisdom? Read “Walking the Divine Fido: How Dogs Can Help Us Heal and Inspire Prayerful Practices.”

Dogs Demystified

Enjoying this content?

Get this article and many more delivered straight to your inbox weekly.