by Dr Myrna Milani, DVM

This is a book to help potential dog guardians think about all the issues they could face someday, the book to prepare them to be responsible dog guardians, the book to PREVENT dogs from needing to be RESCUED or from leading sub-standard lives. This book should be required reading for anyone contemplating taking a dog into her/his home.


by Myrna Milani, DVM

reviewed by Pam Green, © 2000

THIS IS THE BOOK I WISH I HAD WRITTEN MYSELF !!! Yeah, this is pretty close to what I would write if I wrote a book to alert potential dog guardians to all the issues they could face someday, the book to prepare them to be responsible dog guardians, the book to PREVENT dogs from needing to be RESCUED or from leading sub-standard lives. It's that and it's probably more than I could ever do because Milani understands (and has some sympathy for) some owner viewpoints that are totally alien (or totally repugnant) to me but which are all too common.

Dr. Milani is a veterinarian who has spent over 20 years in dog behavior consulting (after a number of years in general medical practice that apparently left her somewhat frustrated as to how best to help her patients and clients). Her thesis is that the keys to satisfaction or failure in dog-relationships lie largely in knowledge of the owner : knowledge of the realities of the dog and knowledge of oneself, including honest recognition of your own limitations. We all have limitations and we set ourself up for trouble when we ignore them.

This book guides you through thinking about everything you should think about before you ever get your very first dog and that you should probably re-think at intervals as your life develops and changes. It is a book for people who are willing to think and who are willing to be honest with themselves -- and if you are not, then please don't get any dog .

Part I : finding the Dog You Want

As in all of Dr Milani's books, the emphasis is on exploring your overall attitude towards dogs and asking yourself what attitudes are derived from knowledge of dogs and which are derived from your wishes, emotions, and other non- knowledge sources. "Know thyself!" said Socrates, and so says Dr Milani ! (And her questions, like his , can make the person being interrogated uncomfortable at times, but her goal like his is the discovery of vital truths.)

So the very first chapter, "In a Mirror Dimly" deals with recognizing your own attitudes and how they affect your relationship with your dog. Every combination of person, dog, relationship, and environment is unique, so you have to be able to think about and recognize what can or can't work beneficially for both you and your dog in your unique relationship and situation.

(Musings from your reviewer : Hmm, sounds sort of like marriage , doesn't it ? Considering that over 50% of marriages fail and break up in less than 5 years, and considering that in marriage the two parties have the advantage of being of the same species and being able to talk to each other and have the capacity for rational thought, maybe it is not so surprising that such a high propoertion of dog - human relationships fail and break up before the dog attains middle-age. The difference of course is that when a marriage of humans dissolves, usually both parties can go their own way self-sufficiently --- as the song says "got along without you before I met you, gonna get along without you now !" --- but when a dog is divorced and cast off by the human partner, it's like being divorced by Henry VIII : all too often the result is death for the dog.)

Chapter 2, "Form , Function, and Selection", deals with thinking about breed functionality -- ie bred in drives, behaviors, etc and how these fit or don't fit your own life. how to evaluate a breeder, rescuer, or other source of a dog -- how to relate their expertise to its relevance to your own life situation and needs. Warnings against choosing a dog based primarily on its appearance are reinforced by discussion of Belyaev's experiments in breeding foxes for tameness, unexpectedly revealing that changes in behavior are accompanied by changes in physical form.

Chapter 3, "Inner and Outer spaces", helps you to analyze your home environment and your attitudes towards it, your social environment and attitudes (visitors, etc), and how these relate to a dog's needs and adaptability. It is essential to recognize the dog's inherrent drive to protect the territory and how this job can become overwhelmingly anxiety producing for less confident dogs.

Chapter 4, "A Meeting of the Minds", focuses on understanding your attitudes towards pack leadership and why a reasonable leadership attitude is essential to successful relationship with your dog. There is more than one style of leadership, and you have to figure out which style works best for you and understand which kinds of dog will respond to that style. Having confidence in yourself and in your ability to be a benevolent and capable leader is crucial to all sucessful leadership. Dr Milani points out that the vast majority of dog behavior problems (especially BITING !) as well as a lot of dog health problems arise out of inadequate or inappropriate human leadership. She says that the vast majority of dogs that bite are less confident dogs who have been thrust into a leadership vacuum left by humans who have abdicated the leadership role. However she also warns against the mistaken notions some people have of leadership and "dominence" as meaning "domination" and "domineering" and other similar attitudes of bullying authority or violent enforcement of authority, attitudes that can create serious problems. (This is a concern shared by many thoughtful writers on dog behavior and dog-human relationship problems : the best discussion is probably that of Patricia McConnell in "The Other End of the Leash.") there is also a good discussion of "the bystander effect" in which when a high ranked pack member is disciplining a lower ranked member, others jump in to help punish the offending lower ranked member. I've seen this plenty of times with my own dogs, especially in the form of the highest ranked bitch jumping in with unholy glee to help the highest ranked male dog subdue an opponent. Unfortunately this can also mainfest as a dog jumping in to help a human parent physically discipline a human child.

Part II : Keeping the Dog You Find

Part II asks you to think about all the issues that you will face afterwards and to do so before you get the dog.

Chapters 5 and 6 concentrate your thoughts on how to select a training program that fits your own abilities and attitudes andthoughtgful analysis of those training devices that too many frustrated owners seize on as a "quick fix" --- and why nothing works as a quick fix , though some of the same devices can be useful as an integrated part of a well thought out training program used with adequate thought and skill. (And I have no quarrel with her opposition to these devices when used in ignorance or impatience etc -- because I've given much the same advice on so many occasions : basically you just don't hand a scalpel to a third year pre-med and invite him to try his hand at brain surgery.)

Chapter 7 is about how to design an exercise program that fits you needs and the dog's. You definately want to think about this aspect before you choose a dog because it doesn't work to pair a tri-athalete with a couch potato or vice versa. All dogs and all humans benefit physically and mentally from some degree of excercise and most of us underdo it rather than overdo it. For the resourceful person, there are ways a physcially limited person can create excercise outlets for a more active dog.

Chapter 8 helps you to understand different approaches to nutrition and how human attitudes about food, especially equating food with expression of love, can generate a bellyful trouble and pain for dog and person. Obesity and improper nutrition creat serious health problems for dogs as they do for humans.

And finally, chapter 9 is about understanding your own needs and limits and attitudes that affect veterinary care and how to find a vet whose practice style suits your own personality and other needs, and how to have better communications with that vet. That dirty 4 letter word "cost" also gets a good share of attention, as failure to be honnest with yourself and your vet about financial issues can buy you a world of hurt. Dr Milani is a great advocate of preparedness and prevention in health care as in all other aspects of life. Prevention is easier, more pleasant, and less costly than is having to cure a problem that might have been prevented.

Finally, in Chapter 10, "A Dog to Keep Forever", she describes how to do regular home health exams that are also a behavioral and relationship checkup as well as a very benign way to improve your dog's acceptance and trust in your leadership. This chapter focuses on those issues that arise or change as the dog proceeds through its lifespan, from puppyhood through adolescence, social maturity, the mellow middle ages, and finally the inevitable issues related to the dog's old age and death (the issues of impending loss are considered in exquisite detail in her later book "Preparing for the Loss of Your Pet" , which I also heartily reccomend to all as something you should read while your dog is still relatively young and healthy !) One addition that would fit in well here would also be some consideration of issues related to the owner's aging, especially possible drastic health failure, and possbility of owner's death preceeding that of the dog and the need to provide for the dog's continued welfare should these misfortunes arise. Other major owner life changes, such as marriage, divorce, children, and moving in an out of the away-from-home workplace could also be considered here. Or perhaps the owner life issues should have their own chapter.

in conclusion

THIS IS A BOOK THAT EVERYONE SHOULD READ BEFORE GETTING A DOG. This is one of the books that every BREEDER and every RESCUER should read, keep a loaner copy available to ASSIGN as reading for all prospective buyers/adopters and "there will be a quiz at the start of our next session", ie discuss major issues with the prospective adopter.

(I've also made similar comments about a few other books, especially "Responsible Dog Ownership" by Kathy Diamond Davis and "People Pooches and Problems" by Job Michael Evans. Also more recently "The Other End of the Leash" by Patricial McConnell. I still consider these books essential reading also. These books and Milani's complement each other. This trinity plus a couple of good books on rearing and training, such as my favorite "Mother Knows Best" by Carol Lea Benjamin, and the wonderful "How to Teach A New Dog Old Tricks" by Ian Dunbar, would prepare anyone for good dog guardianship -- or convince them to stick to goldfish or maybe even just to the AfterDark aquarium module as the pet for which they are willing to be responsible guardian.)

This is not a well written review, but the book is damn well written and the material is absolutely essential and very much on target. I really can't think of anything in it that I would have any significant argument with ---- merely the footnote that some bits of advice that are absolutely on target for the vast majority of dog owners might not apply to those with many years of expertise and special training interests, but that footnote would apply to almost any book on dogs ever written.

I hope I get to meet Milani or at least write her a fan letter to let her know how much I liked the book. Plus maybe one or two small suggestions for additions to later editions -- eg including the "long line" aka "check-cord" aka "dragline" in her discussion of valuable low tech training aids that most people can understand and use with good effect and indeed that probably belongs in almost everyone's training toolbox -- offhand that's the only omission that springs to mind. (Update : I did get to attend her wonderful seminar "Taking the Bite Out of Canine Aggression" in spring of 2003. I think one may hope that this seminar will eventually be published as a book of its own; it brings together many areas of knowledge that are seldom seen in relationship to each other and to the subject of canine aggression. ) Dr Milani has her own superb website , the link to which is given on my Farewell page. (Why don't I give the link on this page? because you'd leave me and might never come back!)

To all of you, if you have any interest in dogs (and you must or you wouldn't be browsing my site) DO READ THIS BOOK and re-read it every couple of years. If you were only going to read ONE book about dogs, THIS should be that one !


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