Finished this book: The Hidden Lives of Dogs by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

Cover of The Hidden Lives of Dogs by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

Cover of The Hidden Lives of Dogs by E. M. Thomas

This book is a reflection about the author’s many years of living with dogs, during which time she eschewed formal training, preferring to let the dogs develop naturally, make their own decisions, and learn from each other. Elizabeth Marshall Thomas wanted to figure out what dogs want, and to see how dogs would behave when left primarily to their own devices. Her observations, and her synthesis of all those observations over the years, are quite interesting, but they are so grounded in very particular views not only of dogs and kyno-human relationships, but also very specific ideas about human culture (that is, the one Thomas knows), that some of her conclusions and ruminations seems odd to me.

I am not going to point fingers at anyone for being anthropomorphic about non-human animals. I don’t know anyone who has had a relationship with an animal who could honestly claim to believe that animals have no thoughts, feelings, goals, preferences, or opinions. All of us people, whether winged, finned, or be-legged, are thinking and feeling beings. And if some of the non-humans seem a bit limited in their thinking and feeling to us? Well, I would urge you to take a human baby as an example: their goals and desires are limited compared to that of an adult, but they are nonetheless valid goals and desires expressed by a thinking and feeling little animal who is capable of learning.

So Thomas’s recognition of dogs as conscious individuals with a drive to live their own lives is not what bothered me. What bothered me was how specifically Thomas imposed her own cultural values upon her interpretation of the dogs’ behaviours. For example, she refers to some pair-bondings between dogs as marriages, and refers to Maria as Misha’s “wife,” and her discussion of the relationship between those two dogs is laden with (older) Western notions of marriage and the roles of men and women, which are seriously inapplicable to dogs. Another example is her heavy emphasis on “ownership” of property when it comes to wolf dens and prime locations, as opposed to “occupancy.” Ownership is culturally-laden in a way that the more observational occupancy is not.

I first read this book about ten years ago and some of it stayed with me all this time. Partially because I thought it was an interesting experiment, and partially because I thought Thomas was at times exaggerating, misguided, and irresponsible. Most of her dogs were intact for at least part of their adult lives, and she allowed multiple breedings. While I disagree with the North American obsession with spaying and neutering all companion animals, I believe very strongly that absolutely no companion animals should be bred unless the animal has proven itself in a particular field, has excellent genetics (hips and eyes, to start with), an excellent and stable character, a mate with similar qualifications, and there’s a lineup of of a dozen potential owners who want pups from that particular mating. I’m all about responsible pet ownership, and until I moved to Canada, all my dogs were intact, but none of them have been bred, not even when three intact females went into heat at the same time and the two intact males were sick with longing. (Caveat: I came to this philosophy over time, and there was one hilarious attempt at a breeding before I got so strict about this—which I’ll write about soon).

All this long aside  to say that I’m not pointing fingers at the author for not spaying / neutering, but I am disappointed that she would allow multiple breedings before choosing to spay. I know she was trying to see what they would do when left to their own devices, but that decision leads to generations of puppies, and that’s just unacceptable.

The other thing she did was let some of the dogs roam at will, especially Misha. She raves on and on about his marvelous sense of direction, his clever navigation of highways and traffic, the range of his wanderings, and so forth. She also talks about how she’d sometimes follow him on a bicycle (although she’d lose him in traffic on occasion). She talks about how she knew how he and other dogs would use the centre of residential streets as their path because she could see their tracks in the snow, and so forth. I call bullshit. First of all, try—just try—to follow a loose dog on your bicycle. Just try to find a loose dog who actually travels down the middle of a road or indeed in any straight line without being distracted by poles, trees, fences, rabbit trails, etc. (and when did she see this? One single time after a fresh snowfall when she was managing to keep up with him on her bicycle? Please). After multiple times of being called by people to go pick up Maria who’d plunk herself by a random front door when roaming, did the author build a better fence? No, she found it charming that Maria knew she’d show up every time to take her home. Again, I can understand wanting to observe canine relationships and choices, but not at the expense of their safety—and deliberately letting them roam in an urban area (in stated willful defiance of leash laws) is totally a safety issue, not only for the dogs but also for traffic, cats, small children, your relationship with your neighbours, and so on.

Maybe the “exaggerating” quality of the book wouldn’t have bothered me so much if she’d qualified some of her claims. She tells the story of another group of dogs (not her own) in which the dogs howled every single morning without fail at the sunrise as soon as they saw the red disk of the sun start to come over the horizon. Every day? So it never rained or snowed or was simply cloudy or foggy—ever? I know it’s a little nitpicky thing, but it makes her observations and conclusions less credible when she says always and never about things that are so obviously not always or never.

Some of her observations and speculations were, however, quite fascinating. She described seeing Misha cross streets not at corners, for example, but halfway down, and speculates that this was so that he would only have to deal with potential traffic from two directions rather than four. Also, her observations of the love and irritation and attention-seeking and affection and play amongst the dogs were quite beautiful.

On the other hand, Thomas’s understanding of the relationships among dogs is heavily (perhaps totally) informed by outdated notions of dominance. Her sources at the back of the book are all quite old (1973 and older, with the sole exception being one book from 1986), even though the book was published in 1993. The sources include an old wolf study by David Mech which he himself has now refuted. It feels sometimes as if Thomas is massaging her observations to make them fit into  the rigid view of pack hierarchy to which she subscribes, especially as dogs age or move in and out of the pack. I think her experiment would have made more sense and been more useful if her observations weren’t so biased by these preconceived notions. A more fluid and situational understanding of dominance would have helped her make more sense of what she was seeing.

Toward the end of her experiment, the author basically had a very large pen built in which the dogs lived, and she spent time there just sitting with them in their environment. She notes that by this point the dogs did not interact much with her. It makes sense to me that after years of Thomas’s observation and minimal involvement, this pack of dogs would be far more interested in their social contacts (the other dogs) than in a mere observer. Dogs, like people, need a certain amount of interaction to build relationship. Speaking as an introvert, I know that the amount can be quite minimal—but it is still essential. I am glad that Thomas had an actual pack of dogs so that they could interact with each other, otherwise this social understimulation on her part would be actively neglectful.

One of her conclusions is that what dogs want is each other. She bases this on their preference for interacting with each other rather than with her. But she did not go out of her way to interact with them, either, so I feel this is a false conclusion. I believe that what dogs want is what we want: a reliable, supportive, friendly social network. If you never teach your dogs, work with them, integrate them into your daily life in a meaningful way—then of course they will prefer the companionship of other dogs, who are making those efforts. Lack of interaction leads to lack of attachment, so what Thomas is describing is a failure of connection rather than an innate preference.

Thomas does not speak of cuddling with the dogs, brushing them, having deep emotional attachments to them, or otherwise being involved with them. However, she provides veterinary care, and one of her dogs, when giving birth, finds her “safe place” on Thomas’s bed, indicating a certain amount of connection. This book reminds me in a way of one of those old ethnographies where the westerner goes into another society to make observations, while ignoring or severely minimising the impact her presence has on the people observed. So I get the impression that Thomas was more involved with her dogs than she lets on, but tried to obscure that in order to support her her story as observations of dogs rather than interactions with dogs.  At least, I hope very much that this is the case. I do also appreciate that Thomas wanted to allow the dogs to make their own decisions as much as possible (I’ve written before about how I try to do this as well), but I do wish she’d exercised a little more common sense about keeping them out of danger in that process.

Overall, I appreciated Thomas’s interest in and observations of her dogs, but I did not find her to be a reliable reporter and interpreter of what she saw. I know my negative opinion is heavily influenced by how much I disapprove of how she treated her dogs: allowing them to roam in traffic at their own risk, not preventing random matings, not engaging a trainer or vet to help with Violet’s crippling anxiety toward the end of her life (as far as she tells us), refusing to interact and teach them in ways that would create and maintain the social and affectional bonds that improve life in any pack, and so forth.

When we take dogs in, we have a responsibility to give them the best life possible. As with children, dogs are nearly completely dependent upon us for food, shelter, guidance, medical or other outside interventions, social interaction, entertainment, protection, etc. In my opinion, Thomas failed quite significantly in the areas of guidance, protection, and interaction / engagement.

The Hidden Lives of Dogs by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, 1993. ISBN 0395669588.


(Edited around 1400hrs Jan 2 2016 to get rid of “fluff text” at the bottom of the post.)


4 thoughts on “Finished this book: The Hidden Lives of Dogs by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

  1. La Quemada

    What a great review! Of course as an owner of two delightful young dogs, I am fascinated by this experience and what she noted, but I also really appreciate your comments. I agree that she seems to have imposed her own notions of relationships (and property) onto animals that perceive things quite differently.
    I’m just about to read The Emotional Life of Animals by Mark Bekoff. Have you read it? It’s my book group’s choice for January, and I’m looking forward to it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. nissetje Post author

      I agree. Dogs are absolutely fascinating, and I love watching their interactions. Three dogs is the perfect amount, I feel, because that turns the group into a pack. But I can’t handle / afford three shepherds now that I’m on my own. Sigh. I guess I just wish she’d done her observations in a safer and more compassionate way. One of her premises seems to be that dogs are indeed complex, feeling creatures, so doing an experiment which fails to meet their basic needs seems unethical to me.

      I have not read the Bekoff book, but I googled it and it looks interesting! Please let me know what you think of it!


  2. La Quemada

    I was thinking about this more last night, and it’s sort of weird that she wanted to do an experiment on what dogs do if you leave them alone, given that dogs are domesticated animals. That means that their nature is already very much shaped by their interaction with human beings, which is normal for them now. It’s not the same as studying gorillas in the wild. Even if she didn’t interact with the dogs very much, it doesn’t make them comparable to wild animals. I can’t tell from your review if she really considers the difference between a domesticated and a wild animal, but it seems like that would be important to think about as well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. nissetje Post author

      Yes! I agree! Dogs are not wild animals, not even feral packs. I went back to the introduction of the book to grab a couple of quotes for you to explain in her words what she was trying to do:

      “I wanted to see what they would do when free to plan their own time and make their own decisions. However, I don’t pretend that my experiment was scientific, or anything more than a casual (if lengthy) observation.”

      “I gave food, water, and shelter, but after my project began I made no effort to train them, even for housebreaking or coming when called.”

      She talks a lot about dog consciousness and emotions in her intro, and I get the feeling that at the time she was doing this experiment, that was still contentious. She never claims that dogs are wild animals or that the urban environment is some sort of natural habitat. And she definitely spends more time on the “wolfy” Huskies and dingo crosses than on the pugs in her pack.

      Not sure what it all means. Glad to hear you thought about it further. It’s sticking with me as well!



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