The Hidden Life of Dogs

On December 6, 2007 by Eden M. Kennedy

The Hidden Life of Dogs by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

I’m stuck at my mom’s house with not much to read. It was either this or one of my dad’s books about Nazis.

The author put me off right away by saying you should never pay for a dog. I don’t agree, but whatever, we can still be friends. But then slowly she reveals more attitudes that don’t make much sense to me. She unashamedly broke local leash laws and let her dogs jump her fence and wander around the city (Cambridge, Mass.), marveling at their ability to either find their way home or, if they couldn’t, to find a porch to wait on until the distant homeowner brought themselves to read the tag of the strange dog at their door and called her to come get it. The homeowners of Cambridge were often put upon by Marshall and her canine behavioral “experiments.” Woo, they loved it when she had a couple of wolves come to visit. I’m sure the whole neighborhood enjoyed their “singing.”

She also let her dogs remain unneutered and breed indiscriminately. One day she came home to find that, of her two females that had just given birth, one had just killed the other’s litter. Nice. Well, that’s what their wolf ancestors did in the wild, right? The pack can only care for one litter at a time so only the dominant female’s pups get to live. Thomas seemed to have this pseudo-scientific mindset that made it okay for her to stand back and observe what her dogs would do if undisturbed by human ideas of right and wrong behavior, but that would have been a really good time to intrude.

I was excited to read this book at first, and it has got me thinking that it would be the right thing for us to get another dog so that Cookie can have a buddy. But in the end I found Thomas’s insights to be kind of shallow, her descriptions inadequate, and the demise of her dog pack a bummer. Yes, everyone dies in the end.



9 Responses to “The Hidden Life of Dogs”

  • I make people tell me if the dog dies or not in every movie I see or book that I read. I won’t see/read it otherwise. I really can’t handle that kind of heartbreak just because it makes a good storyline.

    Sad the book sucked, but it sounds like the person sucketh even more.

  • I read that same book at my own mother’s house, ironically enough, and was sort of struck by the same things you were. I am not a dog owner (small condo, very long work hours, two-year-old small person living in the house with us) but I am a devoted dog lover and have a hard time abiding the kind of stuff that Thomas puts forth. I highly recommend Pam Houston’s book of essays “A Lilttle More About Me,” and in particular, “The Bad Dogs of Park City.” She writes so fluently and effortlessly about everything, and with genuine affection for her dogs. “Sight Hound,” also by Houston, is really lovely as well.

    That said, it sounds like you might have some trouble making it to a bookstore anytime in the immediate future.

  • Kyre, in that case I would recommended that you avoid the book “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time”.. but then all the dog nastiness happens pre Chapter one. Still an issue?

    It really is a good book.

  • Um, yeah. I’ll stick with the Dog Whisperer I think.

  • Yeah, I read that book too, and I think the things I learned from it can be summed up as: dogs like to pee as high as they can on things; dogs like to visit other dogs.

    Other than that, I spent my time wondering at someone who let their dogs roam off leash. It seems illogically irresponsible.

  • Oh man, I bought that book at the library book sale a few months ago and I couldn’t agree more. It was such a disappointment – just like you said, not but self-indulgent pseudoscience. I’ve had one dog and I’ve had two, and two (if you match them right) are so much more fun than one, and not much more work. If you find a book called The Other End of The Leash by Patricia McConnell lying around your Mom’s place, that’s a dog book worth reading.

    And, on a more serious note, I’m holding your family in my thoughts – my father was in hospice care a little less than two year ago, and it was a tender, sad, and difficult time. Take care.

  • Curious Incident WAS a good book.

    I like all these other recommendations, guys, thanks. If anyone knows a good book about bulldogs in particular, I would love it if you let me know.

  • Yeah, that book SUCKS. I even agree with the first premise (you shouldn’t buy dogs) and still hated it.

    Have to second the Pam Houston recommendations. She’s amazing.

  • A great book about bulldogs is ‘So Your Dog’s Not Lassie.’

    Secondly, a recent study here in Australia showed dogs really don’t care about buddies, toys, exciting yards or whatever. They just want their owner. Having had multiple dogs in the past (used to breed Rhodesian Ridgebacks) I would never again buy a second dog unless the first one I had was already fully trained up to the standard that I wanted. They only learn bad habits from one another, not good ones.

    My current Ridgie completely loves being an only dog. I thought she’d be devastated when her mother died earlier this year, but she has thrived and her obedience has come along in leaps and bounds.