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The Social Lives of Dogs

Thomas, Elizabeth Marshall Author

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In her absorbing bestseller, The Hidden Life of Dogs, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas provided fascinating answers to the question "What do dogs want?" It turns out that more than anything, they want the company of other dogs. Now, in this frank and moving sequel, she explores how, despite this desire, they have beautifully adapted to life with their human owners. If they can't belong to a group with similar dogs, they will establish or join one with other members of the household, whether those members are men, women, children, other dogs of different ages and breeds, cats, or birds. And, contrary to our assumptions that we wield the power in our relationships with our dogs, it is they who are teaching us new behaviors -- even settling disputes in ways we are unaware of.

No one writing today about dogs and people has Elizabeth Marshall Thomas's skills as a classically trained anthropologist and popularizer. What she has observed and analyzed will be illuminating to all of us who have wondered about our pets' behavior. Do dogs have different barks that mean different things? How does Snoopy recognize as family people he sees only once a year? And why does Misty bark at strangers she sees every day? What factors contribute to making a dog difficult to house-train? Why do certain dogs and cats get along so well? How do animals train each other?

Thomas explores these questions by taking us into the mixed-species groups of her own household, particularly the lives of her remarkable dogs, with their differences in breeding, early training, and personality. Misty, a purebred, had been kept in a crate, alone, for most of her first year; lonely and insecure, she was afraid of grass and stairs, which she had never seen. Ruby was abandoned, having been pronounced untrainable. Pearl had lived with Thomas's son in his large household, and on her arrival at Thomas's house, she behaved like the well-mannered, self-possessed being she was. And Sundog, the most loyal, self-confident, courageous of all, accepted the arrival of each of these new dogs, but had made a group consisting of himself and Thomas's husband, so the others sorted themselves out without him. Each of these dogs, like any other, wanted more than anything to belong to a group, and how they organized themselves into felicitous relationships without any input from their owners is the most compelling of Elizabeth Thomas's many findings.

Few dogs get to live with their chosen loved ones; they are slaves to our desires. We convince ourselves, however wrongly, that we know what's best for them. The Social Lives of Dogs presents marvelous evidence of the power of the group. And those of us fortunate enough to be given the trust of any honorable dog will have our lives enlarged.

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Review:

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, who has written evocatively on the ways of dogs ( The Hidden Life of Dogs) and cats ( The Tribe of the Tiger) at large, here turns her attention to the particular canines--and other animals--with which she shares her home.

Marshall's narrative begins with the arrival of an unfortunate, highly intelligent creature named Sundog, who, excluded from the somewhat constricted worlds of her older dogs, is forced to take his place in the next available pack--that of Marshall and the other human inhabitants of her New Hampshire home. "Perhaps we were not his first choice, but he took us," Marshall writes of Sundog learning his proper place in their order and they in his. Much as domestic dogs enjoy each other's company, Marshall hazards, when in the presence of humans each becomes a competitor for attention and food. Humans, in that world of small rivalries, become not so much alphas or pack leaders--as so many books have it--as they do "sources of life," providers of food and security. Such power can corrupt, of course, and at points Marshall observes that popular methods of dog training--or dog control--can do more harm than good, at least as far as a dog's emotional well-being is concerned.

Through her tales of Sundog, Misty, and her other dogs (and cats, and parrots), Marshall explores how fulfilling a life among animals can be. A little softer on the scientific explanations that drive her other books, Marshall's narrative shares the anecdotal richness of her earlier work. Any human who is curious about how dogs think and how the worlds of dogs and people intersect will find much of value in her pages. --Gregory McNamee

About the Author:

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas is also the author of The Tribe of Tiger, The Harmless People, Warrior Herdsmen, The Hidden Life of Dogs, and the novels Certain Poor Shepherds, Reindeer Moon, and The Animal Wife. She lives in Peterborough, New Hampshire.

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