Monday March 06, 2017

Susan Juby on her must-read books for pet lovers

The author of The Truth Commission shares her favourite books about our four-legged companions.

The author of The Truth Commission shares her favourite books about our four-legged companions. (Delgado Photography)

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In recent years, researchers have discovered that animals are more intelligent than previously thought. They comprehend facial expressions, develop deep bonds with their owners and even grieve when they experience loss.

Susan Juby, author of YA books like The Truth Commission, has an Australian cattle dog named Rodeo. In order to gain a better understanding of the way dogs think and act, Juby reads books on animal psychology. Here are her recommendations for books that delve into the minds of our four-legged companions.

The book that divulges the intelligent minds of dogs

The Intelligence of Dogs

Dr. Coren knows a few things about how dogs think. He was one of the first to write about the interior lives and intellectual abilities of dogs. He's a psychologist and a trainer. He starts off by answering the fundamental question which these days seem self-evident: "Do dogs think?" And in the book he gives this cogent history of the dog's evolutionary path, the human relationship with dogs. He examines early scientific theories on animal behaviour. He's got a canine IQ test in there. I'm going to administer that to our dog, Rodeo, just as soon as I've taken it a few times to make sure I can pass.

The book that explores the lives of working dogs

Being a Dog

If you're the sort of dog person who likes to take things to the next level understanding-your-dog-wise, I recommend Being a Dog: Following the Dog Into a World of Smell by Alexandra Horowitz. This is an examination of the olfactory system of dogs and the role scent plays in their lives. It reveals just how sensitive and accurate a dog's sense of smell is.  She tells us that explosive detection dogs can smell as little as a picogram, which is a trillionth of a gram, of TNT or other explosives. She has fascinating chapters that take us into the world of working dogs, specifically the Working Dogs Center, which is part of the University of Pennsylvania's veterinary school. The trainers there are raising and preparing dogs for jobs like border security, bed bug detection, military service, and police work. It all centres around the dogs' sense of smell and developing this drive to maximize that scenting ability. This working life of the dog — I know I like to speculate that our dog could have been a high-level working dog — but after reading about high-level working dogs, they don't lay around all day getting snacks, lavish praise and random massages. So it is a different kind of life. 

The book that suggests that pets are just like us

Pets on the Couch

This one's full of case studies of animals that suffer from mental health and emotional conditions that are very similar to those experienced by humans. So the sameness of these psychiatric conditions and their treatments has led Dr. Dodman to develop an approach that he calls "one medicine." It emphasizes the similarities between species rather than the differences. He's a vet and an animal behaviourist, and he gives the reader case studies of horses with obsessive-compulsive disorder, and he writes about war dogs that come back from the battlefield with incapacitating post-traumatic stress disorders. If you've ever had an animal that exhibits self-injurious or destructive behaviour, you know how helpless it can make you feel. And until recently, there was very little help for animals with psychological problems and they usually paid the ultimate price. He writes that the "number one killer of animals in North American is bad behaviour." But thanks to his work at Tufts University in his research lab and vet clinic, there are now a lot more solutions for animals in psychological and emotional distress.

Susan Juby's top animal book picks:

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Susan Juby's comments have been edited and condensed.