Do you love dogs? Don’t miss “Our Dogs, Ourselves: How we Live with Dogs” by Alexandra Horowitz. Often, I love reading a nonfiction book written for middle grade children because while it’s informative and filled with fascinating knowledge, I don’t have to wade through pages and pages to get the information. It’s a quick and easy version of the adult book. And if you love dogs? This engaging and informative book is all about our bond with these amazing creatures — how we love them, how they return that love, and how we can best treat them.
I must admit — I loved this book. I love what Horowitz has to say, I love that she explains things simply but clearly, and I love that she obviously knows what she’s talking about. And the author educates the young readers (or in my case, an older reader) about what’s most important to know about man’s and woman’s best friend.
Horowitz writes about the paradox regarding how humans treat dogs. While dogs are property, “…we know that dogs can do things that a chair or a backpack or a book cannot. Dogs can want, choose, demand, feel. They share our homes and often our sofas and our beds. They are family, but they are still possessions.” Legally, that is. She goes on to explain that breeding dogs to look the way we want them to look has resulted in “short-nosed dogs who cannot breathe properly, small-headed dogs who have too little room for their brains, and giant dogs who cannot bear their own weight.” In the chapter dedicated to that subject, she writes about inbreeding and its dangers with specific examples.
“When close relatives mate with each other, it’s called inbreeding. Serious health problems start appearing more often among inbred dogs. They are far more likely to have fewer puppies, and their puppies are likely to have shorter lifespans.”
She gives several examples of breeds that have a genetic disposition to health issues that are caused by inbreeding and breeding for certain traits. The Rhodesian ridgeback is bred to have a bristly stripe of fur down the back, but that “unique ruff of fur leads to skin and nerve problems.” Dalmatians have been bred for a white coat with black spots, and their breeding has resulted in a greater propensity for deafness and urinary tract issues. Bulldogs can hardly breathe normally, they get skin infections from their many folds of skin, and because they have been bred to have huge heads, they must be born through caesarean section. She writes, “These dogs are suffering because people find their flattened faces cute to look at.” Anyone who sees our modern German shepherd can see that their backs are weirdly sloped, unlike the normal horizontal line of the back of most dogs. This has led to hip and back problems. Giant dogs have unnaturally short life spans. The Cavalier King Charles spaniel has been the object of numerous studies that show their skull is too small for their brain, resulting in a painful condition when the brain cannot fit in the skull. (Watch this “Adam Ruins Everything” video to see a fascinating but horrifying explanation of the terrible results of the history of breeding purebred dogs).
Horowitz also points out something very important: While we breed dogs for their looks, we also expect that dogs of certain breeds will behave a certain way. Are all golden retrievers sweet and gentle? Are all Dobermans aggressive and good guard dogs? Allow me to inject a personal note here. In my many years of handling dogs of almost every breed and size, the only dog that bit me was a golden retriever. And my own children grew up with rescue Dobermans who were gentle and sweet with them. The kids would even lock themselves in the dog’s crate with the dog. (Of course, they were all expected to be kind and considerate of all our pets and never mishandled them or provoked them).
What Horowitz shares is that “…members of the same breed are as different from each other as they are from members of other breeds. In other words, two border collies can be as different from each other as one might be from a Yorkshire terrier.” One puppy might be easygoing and the other have extremely high energy levels. Some will be obedient and others not so much. I have been telling others who are looking for a dog not to look at breeds, but rather to look at each individual dog. I always push rescue dogs versus purebred dogs. And I explain what a puppy mill is. Horowitz does this when she advocates for changing how dogs are bred. No one should buy dogs from pet stores because they get their puppies from puppy mills. “Puppy mills are high-volume breeders; puppies are often kept in unsanitary conditions; they are not allowed to spend enough time with people or with other dogs, sometimes not even giving them enough food or medical care.” I would add that they are inbred, taken away from their mothers too early, and often sick when sent to the stores.
The book is also filled with humor as Horowitz describes, in Chapter 6, “The Scientific Process as Practiced at Home Watching Dogs on a Thursday Evening.” First, we learn about the scientific process and making observations and a hypothesis. Once our original hypothesis is disproved, we need to come up with a revised hypothesis, or two or three. And so on. She then takes us through an example experiment using the scientific process. It’s very clever. Here are some of her revised hypotheses: “The dog is a person;” The dog is a wolf; “The dog is a spy.”
A huge problem with shelters is that many adopt a dog to anyone without making sure that the dog and the adopter are a good fit. Horowitz writes, “What if more shelters offered classes helping people understand how to train a dog — how to figure out what a dog needs — how to live with a dog?” That practice might result in fewer dogs ending up in shelters and fewer dogs being returned to shelters after a mere 24 hours in a new home. (Yes, that happens more often that you would imagine. Remember, it takes months for a dog to settle in and weeks for a dog to decompress after being in a stressful shelter environment.)
Who needs this book? Everyone. If you don’t have a dog, reading it will make you aware of what you are missing in your life: a loving creature who views you as a god, who wags his or her tail as soon as you are home, and who lives to be by your side. If you have a dog, you will greatly enjoy reading about why we love our dogs so very much. This is the kind of nonfiction book that kids will love reading because there are few children who don’t love dogs or want a dog. It should be in every school library. (As a teacher, I can attest to the fact that libraries need fabulous, engaging nonfiction books for children.) This is a wonderful example of nonfiction to use in teaching text features, too, features such as the index, the glossary, and the notes and sources. Horowitz is also the author of “Inside of a Dog,” all about what dogs think and what they smell. It’s another excellent choice for nonfiction reading about dogs.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, the publisher, for review purposes.