The Dog's Mind


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Bruce Fogle is a vet, and a prolific writer who is well known for his general guides to dog and puppy care. The Dog's Mind was first published in 1990. It is very accessible. Fogle is good at explaining complex topics like genetics, and how the brain works, in a way that most people can understand. He is very skilled at writing for the general public, and he was an infuential writer in the early 1990s, even in the early 21st century.

The Dog's Mind was a key influence on Cesar Millan. Fogle also influenced Karen Overall's writing, in particular her Clinical Behavioural Medicine for Small Animals (1997, Mosby). Re-reading this book, it is easy to see why. Fogle can negotiate technical topics with ease, he can be funny, lyrical, as when he describes canine play, and even passionate. He obviously likes dogs, so enjoys writing about them. So yes, despite its flaws, this book has much to commend it, both as a good read, and as an important milestone in writing on dogs.


However ... this book should come with a couple of health warnings for people who buy it in order to understand dogs; firstly Fogle's treatment of aggression is confusing and unhelpful, and secondly he makes rather too much of some dubious research on breed and behaviour. While The Dog's Mind was up-to-date in 1990, now it is a classic, and if you want help with understanding canine aggression, or choosing a dog, look elsewhere, and just read it for fun.

Fogle defines aggression in eight ways, dominance aggression, possessive aggression, fear aggression, protective aggression, inter-male aggression, predatory aggression, idiopathic aggression and learnt aggression.

Fogle's symptoms of 'dominance aggression' include a dog objecting to being disturbed, to having someone approach his food, and to being petted. Fogle classifies 'fear aggression' as the opposite of 'dominance aggression'. However, owners of dogs that don't like to be petted may well see fear in their dog, a dog that is spooked, highly aroused, in 'fight or flight' mode, not wanting to fight, but prepared to do so if pushed. When Fogle talks about 'dominance aggression' he is not talking about the dog walking up to a human sitting on the sofa, and saying 'Get down human, that's my space', he's talking about a dog that objects to having to leave a comfy spot. And Fogle does not mention that sometimes owners shove sleeping dogs roughly off sofas, or yank them off by their collars, and are then surprised that the dogs react badly to being woken, or having their collars touched.

When dogs object to behaviour they see as intrusive, this often shows that they don't trust the person who is intruding. This lack of trust may arise for many reasons, not necessarily rough handling. The problem may be partly genetic. Wolves tend to go into 'fight or flight' mode much more easily than dogs. Dogs are generally much more easy-going than wolves, but some are more easy-going than others. Easily spooked dogs, or dogs with a tendency to go into 'flight or fight' mode very easily, need consistent leadership, careful handling, and a lot of work to build up trust so that they learn to relax and accept the owner as leader. Owners aren't always as consistent, careful or as trustworthy as they could be.

Much of Fogle's advice on preventing 'dominance aggression' could actually undermine trust, and make aggression more likely, for example taking a pup's food away in order to 'dominate' it. As many authors have since noted, dropping food into a pup's bowl is a better approach for teaching the pup to relax about approaches to the bowl. Some of Fogle's advice on 'fear aggression' could help owners unspook some dogs. However, he argues the dog should be given rewards for not showing fear aggression, and this assumes that the dog knows what he is being rewarded for!

There's another problem with Fogle's notion of 'dominance aggression'; it is highly unlikely that a dog wanting to sleep undisturbed, or eat its dinner in peace really wants to be the alpha. Subordinate wolves also try to defend what they have. Fogle also saw a dog seeking a cuddle as trying to be dominant, yet wolf cubs seek cuddles from dominant wolves. There was a fashion back in the early 1990s for seeing all sorts of behaviour as 'dominant', but the reasoning was often flawed.

Fogle's category of 'possessive aggression' is mainly related to aggression between dogs that live together, or between dogs and children in the home. Fogle sees 'possessive aggression' as a sort of dominance aggression, which arises when there is no clear pecking order. He argues that kind owners who punish bullying dogs are making the problem worse by not allowing the dogs to establish a hierarchy. However, he argues that if dogs are jealous of children, the dog should be taught that the children are dominant. Fogle's advice is to choose easy-going breeds - which is sensible, but his view that owners should reward a bullying dog by petting him before they pet a 'submissive' dog is not sensible.

Fogle's next category, 'protective aggression', is also problematic, because it includes such a wide range of behaviours, from nursing bitches being reluctant for anyone to handle their pups, to guarding toys, chasing cars, and biting the postman. Fogle gives some fairly sensible advice on training dogs to behave well when visitors arrive, though his suggestion of smacking the dog as a punishment is not sensible, because an overexcited dog may bite in response to a smack.

'Intermale aggression' is a much simpler category, but Fogle is wrong on two counts in the way he describes it. Firstly, he doesn't see fights between bitches as important. However, owners report they're far more difficult to deal with than fights between dogs, which tend to be brief spats. Secondly, today it's recognised that the big benefit of castration is not so much making a dog less likely to attack others, which the dog may already have learnt to do, but in making the dog less of an attractive target for attacks.

The last three categories are predatory, idiopathic and learnt aggression. 'Predatory aggression' is a term that is no longer used. Dogs are predators, it's inbuilt, rather than 'aggression', and feels good to the dog, whereas aggression tends to involve stress. True, as Fogle says, dogs have to learn that some animals are not prey, and the best time to teach this is in puppyhood. Fogle mentions dogs that suddenly attack, in an out-of-character way, in his discussion of 'idiopathic aggression', which he sees as probably linked to an inherited trait. What's surprising for a vet is that Fogle doesn't mention in this chapter the many medical conditions which may lie behind aggressive behaviour, including brain tumours, though later in the book, he does note that illness can affect behaviour. In his discussion of learnt aggression, Fogle lumps together highly trained police dogs, selected for their stable personalities, with unsocialised guard dogs.
However, a well-trained, stable police dog is likely to be very safe with the general public, while an unsocialised guard dog, who only sees the owner, and may be kicked or beaten as a method of control, is potentially very dangerous if allowed loose and in contact with the public.

Owners who want to understand and treat canine aggression will find more helpful advice in Steven Lindsay's Applied Dog Behaviour and Training, which came out 15 years later and is reviewed on this page. Lindsay separates aggression into two main categories, in the home, and against outsiders. Owners, Lindsay stresses, need to help their dogs learn to cope, by providing leadership and developing trust. Both obedience training and games can help. Fogle recognises how important play is for dogs and wolves in Chapter Six, but does not explore play between dogs and humans, giving the traditional advice that owners should not play tug with their dogs. Lindsay, in contrast, prescribes tug and fetch games with a release or drop command, to help teach dogs self-control. As Lindsay notes, after an aggressive episode, communication between dog and owner often breaks down. The owner may try clumsy attempts to punish the dog, to show the dog who is boss, rather than recognising that owner-behaviour may have encouraged the dog to be aggressive. Training games can help to relax the owner as well as the dog, helping the owner to understand and communicate better with the dog. Lindsay is also much better on child-dog relationships, stressing the need for supervision, especially of toddlers, who can plague dogs.

Both Lindsay and Millan note that owners sometimes dump their emotional baggage on dogs, constantly caressing them, and wheedling, entreating, or begging the dog to obey. This can lead to dogs becoming what some trainers describe as 'brattish'. This is a human dimension which Fogle misses in his chapter on agression, though curiously he does note in Chapter Ten on anxiety and phobias that owner personality affects canine behaviour. Being 'brattish' may look like dominance, but the two are not the same thing. Likewise, some dogs are very pushy, and they need owners who are not pushovers, but being pushy just means telling your owner in no uncertain terms what you want, it's not the same as wanting to lead the pack, nor are all pushy dogs aggressive.

Many dog people see the canine pecking order as important, and refer to groups of dogs as 'packs', including Millan. However, despite being a fan of Fogle, Millan doesn't reward canine bullies, he sensibly rewards the best behaved dog. As many writers have pointed out, it isn't usually the top dog who does the attacking, but the wannabe. Sometimes humans create unstable situations by favouring one dog over the rest, often a small dog, which emboldened by its owner's attentions, and possessing an inflated sense of its own importance, proceeds to be obnoxious to other dogs in the household. The other dogs may well object. Rewarding bullies is not sensible, and nor is creating bullies by giving one dog far more privileges than the others. Despite Fogle's claim that 'dogs don't expect to live in equality with other dogs' (p117) dogs do have a sense of fairness. Grossly favouring one dog above the rest upsets the group as a whole. Dogs can wait patiently for their turn, but if you have two dogs and just give one a titbit, the other asks 'Where's mine?'. If you have three dogs, and have to take out two dogs and leave one behind, it can help to give the abandoned third dog something interesting to occupy itself with. When it comes to the crunch, what counts is that all dogs who live together see their owner as leader, but leaders can be considerate.

Fogle's comments that owners should not favour the 'submissive dog', but instead first pet the bully, in any case raise the question of whether a dog that refuses to fight when provoked is submissive, or well-mannered. Say an owner introduces an ill-mannered bullying youngster into the home, and that dog attacks a well-behaved older dog, which dog is 'dominant'? If the owner backs the bully, the youngster is able to dominate the well-behaved dog. But the owner can obedience train, exercise, and play training games with the youngster until he becomes more civilised and co-operative, at the same time ensuring that the youngster knows his place when he is together with the older, better behaved dog. Rewards are given for good behaviour, not for bullying, so the oldster gets rewarded first, and the youngster learns to take his cue from the oldster.

Letting dogs fight it out so they're able to work out their hierarchy is dangerous, and undermines the owner's control. If one dog attacks another, that dog needs to get the message from the owner that such behaviour is unacceptable. If two dogs fight, both need to get the message that Fighting Is Not Allowed. A top dog is not an 'alpha'. The 'top dog' is the right-hand dog of the human leader, and sets a good example for the other dogs.

Groups of dogs vary enormously in terms of how quarrelsome they are, and whether or not they have clear hierarchies. Some dogs can get on very well without a clear pecking order. My two older dogs are littermates, and you'd expect from Fogle's analysis that there would be sibling rivalry, but they've always got on very well. They are very playful. As Fogle notes in his excellent account of play in wolves and dogs in Chapter Six, play encourages co-operation. They played chase and wrestle games up to the age of ten, when one developed arthritis. Other groups of dogs may have a clear hierarchy which helps them get on with each other. Then there are quarrelsome dogs which may or may not have a hierarchy, where the owner needs to intervene a lot. Fogle does not explore the great variety of group dynamics one can find within groups of dogs that live together, and for all his emphasis on owner dominance, he underestimates the importance of the owner providing leadership in a multi-dog household.

Lindsay gives much more detailed advice than Fogle on ensuring that dogs behave well with strangers. This topic deserves more space than Fogle gives it, since a bite to a stranger has far more serious consequences than a bite to the owner. In short, Fogle isn't helpful if you want solutions for an aggressive dog. If you're worried that your dog is aggressive, find a competent professional to help you, and read something more up-to-date.

The other key weakness in The Dogs' Mind is in Fogle's discussion of breeds and behaviour. He starts out well, in Chapter One, noting how rapidly one can introduce undesirable characteristics into a breed. He also notes that breeding for appearance can lead to the creation of dogs that are neither useful for work, nor desirable as pets. For too long, 'pet quality' has often meant either the sound-shy, easily spooked dogs, or the show rejects which have not been bred for temperament, so are often unfit for any role. In this, Fogle voices concerns which are only now being taken seriously.

However, in Chapter 12 on breed and behaviour, Fogle forgets his previous comments on variability within breeds, and presents some rather dubious research published in 1985 by Ben and Lynette Hart, that groups dogs into seven clusters, according to their reactivity, trainability and aggression. German shepherds are described as 'very high aggression, very high trainability, and very low reactivity' (p179). Now German shepherds have a large gene pool, and there are enormous variations within the breed. As anyone who knows the breed can attest, some German shepherds are very easily spooked, others have more stable personalities, so this doesn't really tell you much about German shepherds. Akitas are classed in the same group as German shepherds, yet anyone who has trained dogs from both breeds can attest that Akitas tend to be more of a challenge to train. As Fogle notes breeds can change rapidly over time, and can vary a lot from one country to another, eg the US and the UK. Breed guides, then should be taken with a pinch of salt, especially guides written by someone who lives in another country.

Anyone choosing a breed needs to talk to people who own dogs of that breed now, rather than relying on a dated breed book. They also need to talk to owners in their own country, though it is interesting to compare what they say with the experiences of owners from another country. Today it's easy to do this, through joining a breed forum on the internet. It is also important to investigate any prospective pup's ancestors, to find out how long they lived, what they were bred for, and what their temperaments were like. For too long, 'pet quality' has been a derogatory term. Soft-hearted pet owners have been expected to care for the rejects from the world of working and show dogs. Today pet owners have become more demanding, but it has taken a long time for Fogle's message to be heard.

One of the big problems with The Dog's Mind is that Fogle doesn't link together themes in the book strongly enough, for example, his earlier comments on breeds and behaviour with his later chapter on breeds, or his earlier discussion of the benefits of play with his recommendations for treating aggression. This is also true for his discussion of anxiety, excitement and phobias in Chapter Ten, which could be more strongly linked with his discussion of aggression. Fogle makes some very important points in Chapter Ten, especially that an impoverished lifestyle, and mixed messages from owners can create anxiety. 'Impoverished' here means impoverished from the point of view of the dog, for example, dogs need to explore the world, and use their noses, and they benefit from contact with other dogs, who can understand them better than we can. A dog confined in a house for long hours is in a very impoverished environment. Dogs need exercise, a point made strongly by Millan, and they need mental stimulation, which can come from long walks which allow them to explore, and also from training games played with owners. A dog living in an impoverished environment who also receives mixed messages is very likely to develop behavioural problems, not just anxieties, also aggressive behaviour towards the owner.

Dogs allowed to fulfil their needs as dogs are much more relaxed, and much less likely to develop behavioural problems of any kind. Dogs' needs include having a trustworthy leader who sends consistent messages. Dogs also need mental stimulation, a point very strongly made by Janeen McMurtrie, a trainer with an interest in canine cognitive research, whose Smartdogs blog is well worth exploring (there's a link to her blog at the end of the review of Lindsay's Applied Dog Behaviour on this page). Playing training games with dogs can both give the dogs mental stimulation, and help repair trust between dog and owner. There are other ways of encouraging dogs to use their brains, but training games are the most accessible for owners.

So, much of what Fogle says is still relevant, and he makes some very important points. If the book lacks coherence, it is partly because over two decades have elapsed since it was written, and it has taken dog professionals a long time to make the connections that Fogle failed to make in 'The Dog's Mind'. Fogle is an entertaining writer, and if you like dogs, you will find the book an enjoyable read. Just find yourself a good trainer or a behaviourist with an understanding of training if you are worried about your dog's behaviour, and do some serious in-depth research online if you are choosing a dog.

Alison Lever

Thank you to Rugby, who taught me that if the book doesn't fit the dog, trust the dog.

Further Reading
Steven Lindsay, Applied Dog Behaviour and Training vol 3 2005 There are various Cesar Millan books reviewed among the dog books, including one on this page.