Unleashing Your Dog — Dr. Marc Bekoff
Unleashing Your Dog — Dr. Marc Bekoff
Our canine best friends bring limitless joy to humankind. Even if you don’t have a dog, you’ve met one on the street. You’ve seen one at a park. Or maybe, you’ve even seen their head sticking out of a car window. These intelligent animals have a lot to offer us — as long as we care for them the right way. In this episode, author and canine expert Dr. Marc Bekoff joins host Charles Mizrahi to talk about how we have — and should — interact with dogs.
- An Introduction to Marc Bekoff (00:00:00)
- The Evolution of Dogs (00:04:01)
- Pet Communication (00:07:46)
- Fear and Caution (00:15:13)
- The Responsibilities of Ownership (00:24:20)
- Pandemic Dogs (00:27:31)
- Common Misconceptions (00:33:46)
- Wolf Genes (00:40:05)
- Considering Dog Ownership (00:43:09)
- Unleashing Your Dog (00:47:11)
Marc Bekoff, Ph.D., is a biologist, ecologist, professor emeritus, and author. He researches animal behavior and cognition, human-animal interactions, and compassionate conservation. He’s also a fellow of the Animal Behavior Society and the co-chair of the Ethics Committee of the Jane Goodall Institute.
Marc has published 30 books, including Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do and The Emotional Lives of Animals: A Leading Scientists Explores Animal Joy, Sorrow, and Empathy — and Why They Matter. His work has been featured in Time Magazine, Scientific American, and BBC Wildlife.
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MARC BEKOFF: Dogs are a central part of human society. Throughout the world, even if you don’t have a dog, you meet dogs on the street — and people with dogs. The way in which people interact with dogs and other animals is reflective of the way they interact with human animals.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: My guest today is Dr. Marc Bekoff. Marc is professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado Boulder. He has published 31 books and won many awards for his research on animal behavior, emotions and protection. He’s also worked closely with famed primatologist Jane Goodall and is a former Guggenheim Fellow.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Marc’s latest book, which he co-authored with Jessica Pierce, is A Dog’s World: Imagining the Lives of Dogs in a World without Humans. I recently sat down with Marc, and we talked about how to understand these independent and remarkably intelligent animals on their own terms. Also, we talked about the joy that they bring to humanity.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Marc, I want to thank you so much for being on the show. I greatly appreciate it.
MARC BEKOFF: My pleasure indeed. Thank you.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: The name of your latest book that you wrote with Jessica Pierce is A Dog’s World: Imagining the Lives of Dogs in a World without Humans. So, before we even start, I saw this book a couple of weeks ago in The Journal — written up in the book review. I thought it was fascinating. And I saw that you wrote a heck of a lot of books on dogs and the emotional lives of animals. You wrote a book with Jane Goodall. What was it, thirty something books?
MARC BEKOFF: I think 31. Somebody said 36 this morning, but 31. A couple of them were multi-volume encyclopedias. I think they were adding each volume, which I don’t do because I’m not an academic. So, I don’t have to inflate anything.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Wow. Amazing. These 31 books all deal with animals, the world of animals and how amazing these creatures are.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, before we begin, I read this book and your other book, Unleashing Your Dog. I have a dog, and there is so much that I want to talk to you about. But here’s my question to everyone listening now who doesn’t have a dog: Why should they continue listening to this podcast?
MARC BEKOFF: That’s a great question, and I think it’s because dogs are a central part of human society. Throughout the world, even if you don’t have a dog, you meet dogs on the street — and people with dogs. The way in which people interact with dogs and other animals is reflective of the way they interact with human animals. So, dogs are steeped in human culture globally.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yes. So, I think you wrote that there’s 1 billion dogs in the world or so.
MARC BEKOFF: Yep. It’s estimated that there’s around 1 billion. People can’t really count them in certain places — we don’t even have great counts in the United States. It’s estimated to be about 900 million to 1 billion dogs — of which 75% or so are free-ranging.
MARC BEKOFF: So, one of the important messages in the book is that we shouldn’t be using homed dogs as a template for how dogs will do without us. And that’s an important undercurrent because most people are most familiar with what we call “homed dogs” — who have a bed, square meals and get vet care.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Right. So, I have a dog — my first dog — that we got nine and a half years ago. And I always wanted to get a dog, but situations never let me. Finally, one day my sons were pressing my wife for the 85th time, and she said: “Well, if you get a dog, it can’t be bigger than X.” That’s all they needed to hear.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: We had certain criteria to get the dog, so I got a dog. And I want to tell you my life — and the life of my family — has been so impacted. We’ve had this dog — it’s a Brittany, a gorgeous show dog — for nine and a half years. And we can’t imagine life without him at this point.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, what is the evolutionary magic? This animal was out in the wild — a teenage wolf — and it was continually bred by humans to become what dogs are. There were no pugs walking in the wild 20,000 years ago, right? So most of the dogs that we have today, except for a handful, are … What’s the biological term for “bred by men”?
MARC BEKOFF: Domesticated.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Domesticated, right. So, they couldn’t live in the wild regardless because they were never there.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: What is this evolutionary connection? There are over 65 million dogs in America. We spend billions of dollars on pet care. My dog is going to the hospital for a cracked tooth. I feel anxiety for him. And I’m paying $1,000 — which I never thought I’d pay. I don’t pay that much for my own teeth. I never do any dental care. What is it that makes me and my family feel such a way towards this animal?
MARC BEKOFF: Well, it’s a great question, but I’m not sure there are any great, straightforward answers. A lot of people say that it’s the long history of the relationship between the wolves who became dogs — because that’s really what happened — and our associations with them. When you pet a dog, your heart rate can go down, and your oxytocin — the love hormone — levels can go up in both you and the dog.
MARC BEKOFF: So, there is this tight connection, but not with everybody — that’s one of the other messages. People think: “Oh, dogs are a man’s best friend, and they’re unconditional lovers.” But both are myths. Dog abuse is really high — even rampant — in some places. And they’re not unconditional lovers. If anybody’s ever rescued a dog who’s been abused early in life, like I have, you have to earn their love and trust.
MARC BEKOFF: But I think it’s the close association. I think it’s also an expectation we have that’s almost culture-bound. Dogs and humans evolve together. Dogs do things for us, we do things for them and we have that natural bond. And I think the close attachment is in the shared emotions. I call them “the social glue.” Pet rocks and robotic dogs didn’t make it. I think dogs read us really well, and we read them very well. And I think that it’s those shared emotions that bond us.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: You hit on a really sensitive topic — which is just amazing — and unless you own a dog, you don’t get it. You actually know what they’re thinking based on the time of day and how they look at you. A friend of mine was over, and he said: “How do you know he wants to eat now?” I said: “It’s obvious. There’s no question. Now is eating time.” And daylight savings time screwed him up. It’s just amazing.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: But there are cues that they send off and pick up from you. If I’m coming home from a bad day at work, he’ll see me and know: lay off. Don’t do the Snoopy dance in front of this guy for too long because he’s not in the mood. They know when to back off and come on.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: We’ve grown together. It seems to be some sort of evolutionary process — that they’ve been able to read our minds and we’ve been able to read theirs. We even share our beds with them.
MARC BEKOFF: Dogs read us very well. There are some studies that show that they can tell us we’re angry before we know we’re angry. And last week, I met a woman who has an emotional support dog. She said something that was profoundly interesting. I didn’t know her, and I didn’t know her dog. We were talking, and she said: “Our nervous systems are in tune” — her dog’s and her. She needs a support dog.
MARC BEKOFF: And then, she said something that I had heard before — but not so directly. She said: “If I’m in the room with 25 or 30 people, my dog will sometimes walk around the room, go up to a person and sit.” And it could be a person who has the same emotional needs as she does. So, she asked: “Why is this happening?” I could have B.S. her, but I said: “Well, one thing is that dogs are really sensitive to visual cues, facial expressions and body movements. They’re also sensitive to odors.” They use odor cues to detect disease, for example.
MARC BEKOFF: I really like stuff like that because it tells us that they are spending a lot of time looking at us. In many ways — and I don’t mean this in a pejorative way — they’re captive animals. They watch us, listen to us, smell us and hear us. My dogs were better at predicting what I would do than I was sometimes. It might be changes in light or my movements. It might be something I say. So, that’s what I mean by shared emotions. It can be shared intentions as well.
MARC BEKOFF: And I realized with some of my dogs — because even when I taught at university, I was working at home — if I moved in a certain way, I’ll be darned if that wasn’t a cue that I was getting up from my desk to go outside. I had an external office, lived in the mountains and the dogs could run free all day. But if they were sleeping at my feet and I did something really subtle — if I rotated my body or shut the computer down — they’d be going: “Do we get to go out now, or do we get our treats?”
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah. I work downstairs. I work in my basement office, and he knows when I’m getting up to stretch my legs. He knows when I’m going to go upstairs because he beats me there. He just watches. I was trying to be cognizant of it the other day. And I noticed that when I walk up the stairs, I usually close the light or straighten up the desk. They pick up on all these subtle cues, and they’re a step ahead of us.
MARC BEKOFF: Yep, they are a step ahead of us. And I remember that, on some occasions, they would almost be reminding me. In the back of my mind, I know that I have to talk with you at 3 p.m. Mountain Time. So, I start getting papers out or turn my computer on. And they’re sitting right next to me going: “What are you doing?” or “You need to do this [other thing] now.”
MARC BEKOFF: But I never question that. There are a lot of people who believe that we telepathically communicate with dogs — and vice versa. Maybe we do. I’m not disparaging them. But once again: they carefully watch, smell and hear us.
MARC BEKOFF: And the other thing they do is — I’m an ecologist. I study animal behavior that’s mostly in the wild or in free-ranging dogs. They put together information from what we call composite signals — which have cues from odor, sound and sight. And we might not even know that we’re doing it…
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Give me an example of something like that.
MARC BEKOFF: I might be stressed or happy and move in a certain way. So, I give off a certain odor. I move in a certain way, or maybe it’s the tone of my voice. They respond to tones of voice. We name our dogs, but with some of them — like my last dog Jethro — I could go: “Hey, Jethro, do you wanna walk?” or “Hey, Bobby, do you wanna walk?” And he’s going: “I don’t really care what you call me. I’m ready to walk.” That’s what I mean.
MARC BEKOFF: Once again, it’s just like communicating with another human being. Just a subtle movement can change the meaning of the message that you’re sending — whether you intend to send that message or not. It’s nonverbal body language — especially with home dogs, depending on where they are.
MARC BEKOFF: But I had dogs in my office. They were watching me, smelling me and hearing me. And I remember a very sad situation. When I taught at the university, I had an 8:00 a.m. or 9 a.m. class down at university. I was in my office and getting stuff ready to ride my bike down to school when 9/11 happened.
MARC BEKOFF: I don’t know what I did or said — I probably didn’t say something that was repeatable — but my dog Jethro jumped up and leaned into me, knowing I needed support. Had he ever done it before? No. Did he ever do it again? No. So, once again, he was just reading something. And it was probably what I said — which I can’t repeat on the radio. But he knew that I was alarmed and upset.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Or, it was your hormone levels. You were probably giving off an odor. Your jaw was tight, your eyes … it’s these things that you can’t program into a computer. It’s what makes us able to pick up on cues. For example, you like what I just said because I saw you smile — or your eyes or what have you. It’s absolutely fascinating to me.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Now, I want to flip to the other end. When I walk my dog in Brooklyn, there are certain people who see me half a block away and — I can’t say they’re scared because it doesn’t do them service — they are petrified. It’s regardless of the size of any dog. Some people, as you know, are absolutely petrified. It’s not rational because you could have a tiny little dog. And even if this dog was going to bite you, [it was] going to nip you. It’s not a pit bull that’s going to rip your leg off.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: What is this fear that certain people seem to be programed with? I see it a lot with certain children. Certain kids run up to the dog, and I always pull back because they ask: “Does he bite?” I say:” Well, he has teeth. He could.” So, I always tell the mothers: “Be careful. He’s a dog.” Certain kids hysterically cry, and others don’t. They might not have ever had another experience. What is it in their biology that’s setting off these alarm bells?
MARC BEKOFF: Yeah, it’s a great question. I’m not sure if it’s in the biology. My mother — I think she was bitten or chased when she was younger. I’m not quite sure what it was — but she was afraid of dogs even when I studied [them]. When she would visit me — and all my dogs were low-key and tame — she could not be near them.
MARC BEKOFF: I’ve been around people enough to know that sometimes, a parent or an adult might send out an involuntary cue when there’s a dog or the kid sees a dog. And she pulls the kid away. It’s not Einsteinian psychology. If you do that a couple of times, the kid will make the association that there’s something wrong here.
MARC BEKOFF: So, I don’t know. The only innate fear that people seem to have is of snakes. There’s been some work done on young kids to show that. They say it’s an inborn fear. So, I don’t know. But I’ll tell you what’s really interesting about my mom. Late in life, she suffered from severe psychological and physical degradation — dementia. And one of her neighbors had a little dog — like a teacup poodle. She brought her into the house when my mom was sitting in her wheelchair — pretty non-interactive. And we all said: “No, don’t show her the dog.” We didn’t know how she would respond.
MARC BEKOFF: And I’ll be darned … The woman held the dog out, and my mother smiled. She put the dog in her lap, and my mother actually hugged the dog. We all broke [out] crying because it clearly had a positive effect on my mom. But I guarantee you that if we had done that 10 years before — even with the teacup poodle — she would have been afraid.
MARC BEKOFF: So, I think a lot of the fear of dogs is learned, or cultural, in certain places. I’ve been all over the world and studyied and watched free-ranging dogs. They give off some vibes, if you will, that can be pretty frightening. So, if you don’t know how to read the whole dog, then you might develop the fear. A playful move could be interpreted as an aggressive one.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: When people are petrified of dogs, the dog picks up on that and says: “Well, if this person’s freaking out, I have to freak out. Tensions are high, and I’m not going to be the last guy here to react.” And it’s kind of a feedback loop that develops.
MARC BEKOFF: You always hear this old adage that they seem to go to the people who show fear. Who knows why. People have asked me that, and I’ve said: “I don’t really know why — other than maybe they’re trying to say, ‘Look, you have nothing to be afraid of.’” I don’t know.
MARC BEKOFF: When I lived in St. Louis, I went to Washington University. We had a big husky. It was a mixed community and a lovely place. We would walk the dog on a leash. And every now and again, somebody would come down the street, see us with this big husky and cross the street. I remember saying to this guy: “Oh, don’t worry. He doesn’t bite.” And the guy said: “Oh yeah, how does he eat?”
MARC BEKOFF: But then, over time, this guy came to like the dog. He was genuinely afraid of big dogs. It wasn’t a German Shepherd. People think that some people have this innate fear of dogs that look like German Shepherds, for example, or Dobermanns. No, it’s just a big, off-white Malamute who was wagging his tail.
MARC BEKOFF: But it was really lovely for us because I kept saying to the guy: “He’s OK.” And he said: “Will you hold him?” We saw him almost every day. And over time, he finally just came over and say: “Hi, Moses.” That was the dog’s name. Maybe that’s why he liked him. He would said: “Hi, Moses.” And Moses loved him. We gave him some treats. I kept saying: “Look, dogs are eating machines, pretty much.” And over time, I think it was a combination of the guy not giving off bad vibes, odors or visual signals. And he was feeding him.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: That’s a win-win. I pick up on those cues, and I love dogs. When I see someone walking a dog with those prong collars — and they weigh 94 pounds and are trying to hold a dog that’s 80 pounds and pulling them — I cross the street.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: First of all, if this dog — for whatever reason —doesn’t like me, that owner [won’t be able to] control the dog. And secondly, the prong collar is basically telling me they can’t control the dog. They’re using a pain method.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, when I see certain dogs, it’s more or less their owners that I look at to see how they are interacting with them. I’m a big guy, and I’m not scared of dogs. My guard is just up, and I say: “You know what? I’m going to avoid that.”
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I guess these are the cues that other people pick up — and on the much more basic level of having a fear. I was never bitten, so I don’t have that issue. I was never chased, but I could see that it was scary.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I always run into situations where people keep their dogs off a leash. They go: “Oh he’s trained.” He’s a dog. He will react. If there’s enough stimuli, he will react as a dog does. They say: “No he won’t.” And they usually end up doing it. So, I guess we all put up some type of fence or guard.
MARC BEKOFF: The type of paraphernalia that people put on their dogs can tell you a lot about why they have them and their relationship. Is it purely utilitarian? It’s a one-sided relationship? “What the dog can do for me?” What kind of image does this dog project about who I am as a human being? Why do I have this dog? So, I’m like you, too.
MARC BEKOFF: Over the years I’ve learned — because I’m a really nice guy, and I don’t really like to confront people. I’m probably not as big as you are, but I don’t say anything because those could be the very people who could unleash their dogs — or themselves — on you.
MARC BEKOFF: But I do make assessments about the nature of their relationship as I’m walking towards a person and their dog. I can’t say if I’m right or wrong. But most of the time, things are fine. Every now and again, I’ll get growled at, or the dog will growl and lunge — but not necessarily in an aggressive way. And what I really love (but don’t) is when they go: “Oh, he’s never done that before.” I guarantee you that he has.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, when people tell you that they want to get a dog, why would you dissuade them? What would they say that would make you respond: “You don’t have the makeup to have a dog.”
MARC BEKOFF: I am very straightforward on that because getting a dog is like having a kid in many ways. There are people who will go: “It’s just a dog.” And my response to that is: “If it’s just a dog, and it’s nothing special, don’t get one.” But I’m pretty upfront in saying that it’s a life-changer. There’s caregiving and financial responsibilities, changes in schedule … And I’m willing to talk to people about how enormous a change it can be to take in a dog.
MARC BEKOFF: That’s what I do. Some people get upset with me. They’ll say: “You’re creating a situation where they won’t want a dog.” And I always say: “Look, if they want a dog badly enough, they need to know what’s going on when they take them home — especially a young dog. With any dog — a old, young or middle-aged dog — you’re their lifeline. I know people don’t like it when I say: “You’re their lifeline. You’re their oxygen.” But you are.
MARC BEKOFF: You determine everything — when they eat, where they eat, what they eat, when they pee, when they poo and [who] they can play with. You are running their lives. And when they need vet care, you need to take them to the vet. And it can be pricey. We all know that. My goodness gracious.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: It took me six weeks to get an appointment. Six weeks. I said: “You have to be joking.” With COVID-19, everyone has dogs now. I called on October 1, and they’d see me on November 23 — in a little more than six weeks. I couldn’t believe it. I’m driving two hours away from my house to this one particular hospital.
MARC BEKOFF: Well, that’s because you’re a good human guardian — and I don’t mean that facetiously or simplistically. That’s the other obligation. You need to give your dog the very best treatment that he or she can get. Because if you don’t, it’s like with humans: You’re just going to keep treating them and spending money. And that dog will be in pain.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: No, I just don’t get it. When I see heavy dogs, that should never be. That’s an owner who’s not taking care and being responsible. If the dog is matted or has an ear infection, they can’t clean themselves. They need your help. I look at that and say: “That’s a lazy owner or someone who didn’t know what they were getting into.”
CHARLES MIZRAHI: My concern is this — and I know if this is your concern. You probably have a much different view of this. Well, maybe not. In the past year and a half, pounds throughout America have been emptied. Everyone and his mother-in-law are getting dogs. They were in lockdown.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Now, it’s starting to open up. People are going back to the office. These poor animals — who had 24/7 human contact — are now being put in cages for 10 or 12 hours a day. My concern is that a lot of people got the dogs in a different setting. The setting is going to change. You’ll have to go back to work in the office for two or three days a week. What then? I don’t think a lot of people thought this out.
MARC BEKOFF: Well, yeah. I’ve been writing about it a bit. It’s not a good situation for a lot of dogs now. There are dogs who lived with a family. They were left alone. You hope that it wasn’t for too long. You hope they weren’t crated.
MARC BEKOFF: During the pandemic, their humans were working at home. And if they had a good relationship, the dogs got accustomed to their being home. So now, they’re leaving again. And it might be the case that some of those dogs might do better. But it’s a change, and dogs like consistency. They really do. Some people say: “When you say that, are they sentient and conscious, dog beings?
CHARLES MIZRAHI: They’re not people.
MARC BEKOFF: They’re not people. But yeah, they are. They get used to things, and they like routine. The lives of a lot of wild animals — especially around eating and sleeping — are fairly routine. But yeah, I’ve had a bunch of people write to me and ask what they can do. I’m not a dog trainer, but I know enough of that behavior to tell them that they need to wean their dogs somehow — especially if they’re “pandemic dogs,” or dogs they got when they were home.
MARC BEKOFF: And now, they’re not. But that dog got used to them being there as a companion. And they feel isolated. They get lonely. They get separation anxiety — or whatever people want to call it. To be honest with you, I don’t know what the answer is. You can take them to doggy day care, but that’s not cheap. And that just adds to the expense of having a companion dog.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: My concern is that there are going to be a lot of abandoned dogs.
MARC BEKOFF: Oh, there are. There’s an abandonment problem.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: That’s terrible. You’re taking these animals — who were never designed to live in the wild or in the open without shelter and food — and tossing them to the wind. And people think: “Well, they’re going back to their natural state.” No, that was never the natural state.
MARC BEKOFF: No. Well, it might have been 15,000 years ago.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah, 10,000 years ago.
MARC BEKOFF: It might have been more natural for them to be alone before the pandemic. But if you’ve got a good relationship with your dog, and your dog has a good relationship with you, they’re happy to have you around. I always say: “Dogs need down time and alone time just like we do.”
MARC BEKOFF: People will write to me and say: “God, what’s wrong with my dog?” It’s usually “What’s wrong with my dog?” and not “What’s wrong with me?” And I usually don’t get into that kind of battle. They’ll ask: “What’s wrong with me? My dog seems to need alone time.” And I’ll go: “Do you need alone time?” And they’ll say: “Uh-huh.” Well, so does your dog.
MARC BEKOFF: I had a rescue dog. I didn’t know much about her background. She was the love dog. And every now and again, she would leave us. She would get up, leave the room without saying goodbye and go downstairs and tuck herself behind the bed. And she was a big Husky who would get stuck. Sometimes, she’d get out, but you’d hear the bed move. And I’d always say: “There’s nothing wrong with your dog or you — as far as I know. There’s nothing wrong with a dog who wants alone time.”
CHARLES MIZRAHI: That makes sense, right?
MARC BEKOFF: People will argue with me. They’ll say: “Well, I run my dog until they’re fatigued. I give them a good breakfast. They go out and pee and poop. And then, I put them in a crate for eight hours.” And I’ll go: “Oh, that’s not good.” And they’ll say: “Well, wild animals sleep all day.” But what you’ve done — in that case — is constrained their freedom. And they know it.
MARC BEKOFF: But I share your concern. There are more and more abandonments. Or, I hear people complaining — not about the dog per se. Maybe the dog is a really great dog. But it’s more about: “Oh my goodness gracious. I have to go home during lunch because they got used to my being there.”
MARC BEKOFF: I don’t know what it’s like where you live. But there are a lot of places around here — and elsewhere — where dogs are welcome at the office. And there have been studies that show that the presence of dogs can increase work productivity. This is a generalization, but it lifts people’s spirits. If you like dogs, and you see a friendly dog, it makes you feel better about everything.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: What is the biggest misconception you’ve encountered throughout all your years? You’ve been doing this for 40 years? Maybe longer.
MARC BEKOFF: Probably longer.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I’ll be kind. Forty years. You’ve been in the wild with these animals. You’ve seen them up close, in their natural habitats and in homes. And you’ve done an extensive amount of work. What is the biggest misconception that people have about canines?
MARC BEKOFF: Well, the two that I mentioned before — that I think are really important — is that they’ll love you no matter what. People say: “Well, I can lock my dog in a dark broom closet for 20 hours, and he or she will come out, wag their tail and lick me all over.” Yeah. And we are their best friends. That’s a sale. There are books out there. Dogs are our best friends. So, how should we interact with our best friends?
MARC BEKOFF: In the end, it harms the dog because it sets up this expectation that your dog is going to love you no matter what you do. “I’ve done something really bad or egregious — or something my dog didn’t like. They don’t love me anymore. And they don’t want to hang out with me. I’m getting rid of the dog.” I’m jumping through some hoops here, but that’s the progression. Or, “What’s wrong with the dog? They don’t love me.”
MARC BEKOFF: And unfortunately, the dog always gets the short end of the leash — or stick. So, those are the prevailing myths. But the other is that dogs live in the present. People like to say: “They’re zen animals.”
MARC BEKOFF: They don’t live in the present. If you have a dog — and they know that when you get up from the couch, you’re taking them for a walk — they’re watching you. In the past, you did that. And they’re going to the door with a future thought. There are lots of other examples. Another one is that dogs don’t form dominance relationships. Yeah, they do form dominance relationships.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Oh boy. It’s so amazing. I had four boys in the house when we first got [Riley]. They’re now men who are 21 to 31 years old. He immediately knew that I was the alpha. And I remember reading a book that said: “Walk into any room of someone important, and in no time, you’ll figure out who the alpha is.” Dogs do the same. They see who the alpha is.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: [My dog] started humping one of my sons. And my son thought it was cute. But I said: “Don’t let him do that. He’s basically dominating you.” And he knows he would never do that. He tried to do it once to me, and it was all over. He stopped that immediately. But he was trying to find his place in the pack. And he picked on one of my sons. “That’s the guy I’m going to dominate.” That has all changed. But anyone who says that dogs are not looking for alphas or leaders, don’t know dogs.
MARC BEKOFF: Yeah, humping is not always a dominant move. I guess it’s a semi-myth. But yeah, those are the kinds of dog-appropriate behaviors that most people prefer dogs don’t do. They like to sniff and pee a lot.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: No, that’s fine.
MARC BEKOFF: I don’t know anybody who wants a dog sniffing and peeing in their living room.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: That’s fine. The dominant behavior — he knew immediately. He would hit him. He would hit my son and try to boss him around. And they were all the kinds of behaviors that you know. [My son] would get up. [Riley] would sit in his spot. My dog knows that when I go into my bedroom, he can sit on the corner of the bed opposite my side. It’s right where my wife’s feet are. Once in a while, he’ll come and sit on my side. And I just look at him. I say: “Off.” And he looks and goes: “I tried. I gave it a shot. I gave it a shot to try to get this spot. But no.”
MARC BEKOFF: Well, I don’t know how hard-wired it is in their genes. But they’re going to play us like we play them sometimes. To me, that was a joy because I knew that my dogs knew what to do. When I lived in the mountains, they’d be outside. There were six houses on this mountainside. They all had dogs. They’d all come down to my house because I’d feed them, and they’d all hang out. No leashes. No collars. There’d be no problem.
MARC BEKOFF: But every now and again, they test you. “How far can I push Marc?” A lot of it depended on the day. If I was jammed that day…
MARC BEKOFF: But I kind of appreciated it sometimes. I don’t necessarily think they were trying to control or dominate me. But I could see their little doggy brains. Jethro and Zoe were big German Shepherds who lived down the road. They were having the conversation of: “How can we piss Marc off? How far can we push him?”
MARC BEKOFF: So, it was a game. But over time, they learned that I was pretty loose up there. It was so easy to have them. But, in all honesty, there were times when they would do something, and I wouldn’t like it. So, I would just tell them no. I wouldn’t hit them or stuff like that. But I think that’s another thing that dogs do. They have a sense of humor. They know that they’re doing something you might not like. And if you just say no, they stop. You and I might kibitz with somebody.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: It’s like kids trying to push their boundaries to see how far they can go.
MARC BEKOFF: Exactly. Because they don’t know. That’s the other thing. They don’t know. So, some people go: “They’re purposely testing me. They’re trying to irritate me.” No, I don’t think that’s it at all. They just don’t know the boundaries. I don’t know the boundaries when I meet some people. I’m certainly going to be careful about pushing the boundaries. But I don’t know them.
MARC BEKOFF: Can I get away with this with Joe — not Harry, Mary or Jane. The other thing that’s really pertinent to this whole discussion is that dogs came from wolves. They have wolf genes in them. They have wolf engrams running around in their brains. It’s part of the message in our book. We’ve bred out a lot of behaviors, but there are still wolf genes and wolf brains in their brains.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: What would be a wolf-brain thing that’s in a dog now?
MARC BEKOFF: Well, they’re runners. We call them cursorial. Some dogs can’t run because of what they look like.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: We bred them that way.
MARC BEKOFF: They might not be able to run. But they’re runners. You take your average dog, and people are always amazed that they can run. Well, they can. That would be one. Another is being able to hunt and bring down — maybe not large prey. Although, packs of dogs do that. They can tap into a hunting instinct — even though they haven’t hunted. And yes, dogs do it. Sometimes, they’re clumsy. But they still have that ability. We’ve pretty much bred it out. I think it’s a combination of breeding it out and negatively reinforcing what they call the “killing bite.”
MARC BEKOFF: When you play with your dog, they have an inhibited bite. They learn fast how hard they can fight among themselves and humans. But once again, it’s still in their genes. I’ve seen dogs take down prey. So, they can do it. But it might be a skill that they’ll need to re-learn when they’re on their own. Because they’re going to have to hunt and defend. They’ll have to get food and defend [it]. But they’ll probably be able to do that somewhere.
MARC BEKOFF: Some [will be] better than others. The dogs where I lived in the mountains … I didn’t encourage it. But every now and again, I knew they’d go out and try to get a rabbit, bunny or mouse. I would stop them if I could. But I couldn’t watch them all the time. So, those would be wolf-like types of behaviors that are still latent, in a sense. You know how people say that we have Paleolithic brains? That’s all I’m saying.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: It’s our amygdala in our brains — our fight-or-flight. That reptilian brain is already in there.
MARC BEKOFF: That’s a good way to look at it. People don’t like to hear it called the reptilian brain. But it’s what it is.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I have a last question for you, Marc. When I hear people say: “I want to give my son, daughter or children more responsibility,” or “They’re lonely, so I want to get a dog,” I want to look at them and say: “Do you realize that you just bought yourself a 14- to 15-year full-time commitment? There’s a long tail — pun intended — on this investment that you’re making.” Do you see that a lot? People don’t think this through, and dogs end up in shelters — at best.
MARC BEKOFF: Yeah, that’s exactly what I was getting to before: the enormous responsibility — especially if you get a young dog. They’re going to be around for a while. And you can get one for your kids. Many of them — and I don’t mean it in a negative way — will get bored with the dog. Or, they’d rather go out with their friends when they’re in middle school, high school or early college than take care of the dog, walk the dog, feed the dog, take the dog to the vet or stay home if you know you’re going to be gone for a while.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Then, you’re going away on a trip. And you’ve got to get boarded. And then, you have to drive. We have all that stuff. We stay up with it, feed it and give it medicine when it’s sick. It’s a kid. It’s a perpetual kid that’ll never grow up. And you’ve got 14 to 15 years on that.
MARC BEKOFF: Yeah, and it is. They mature, and they’re not youngsters anymore. But you’re right. All their dogs don’t go off and get a driver’s license, go to university and leave the house. I think it’s so serious, too, because older dogs need care. They suffer from all sorts of physical and psychological disorders — just like we do. They’re mammals. I always stress that. I’m a biologist. They’re mammals. They have mammal brains. They suffer from the same systemic diseases and psychological disorders that we do. They need care. I think it’s a silly reason to get a dog because your kid needs a friend. There’s something serious going on there.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: What’s a good reason to get a dog? If we were calling all things equal — you don’t have any dogs now. Why would you go out and get a dog rather than a hamster?
MARC BEKOFF: Because you’ll have a different emotional relationship with the dog than the hamster. Although, I don’t know that I would. I love hamsters and guinea pigs. But seriously, you’ll have a different relationship with them. It might complete you. But I ask people: “Are you getting a dog for its well-being — especially if you’re going to rescue it? Are you going to be able to give that dog the very best life that you can?”
MARC BEKOFF: And if you’re getting the dog because of what it can do for you and or your friends or family — rather than factoring in the dog’s well-being — don’t get one. I’m pretty straight-out about these things because I’ve seen the results of abandonment. I’ve seen the results of dogs having had multiple homes…
CHARLES MIZRAHI: And there’s neglect.
MARC BEKOFF: I was going to use the word neglect. People would say: “I got a dog.” And they were really happy. But now, no one’s home. Or now, we leave them. I come home for now and leave them. I come home for an hour, and then I leave. The dog seems to be upset, and I’m going: “Hello?” I always advocate for people becoming fluent in dog or dog-literate. People will go: “You’re making it so hard for me to get a dog.” And I’ll go: “Well, yes.”
CHARLES MIZRAHI: I’m totally with you. I just want to recommend your other book. To anyone who’s listening to this and thinking about getting a dog, [read] Unleashing Your Dog. I started reading that. It’s really great stuff. It’s by Marc Bekoff and Jessica Pearce. Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible. I like it. I like the book. As a dog owner, you taught me one thing that I just read in there. The tension on the leash. When that leash is tense — he’s pulling one way and I’m pulling the other way — we’re not in harmony. Something’s off.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: When I started reading that — after I read A Dog’s World — I said: “Wow. Your book is the owner’s manual that should have come with the dog.” You use the phrase “canine companion.” I guess that’s socially acceptable. I don’t know. I’m still back in the old days. I own a dog. You can’t. They’re your companion. I own it. I pay for it. I pay the bills. I own it.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: What I like that you did is in this book — which I didn’t find in other books — is that you started to make me see the dog on an intellectual level — through their eyes. My dog — a Britney — 75% of his brain is based on smell. These dogs are hunting dogs. So, when we’re walking — and he’s sniffing, peeing and sending these messages — why am I pulling the dog? Because I want to get to work quicker? I’m not giving him his chance out of the house. I learned that from your book. And now, when I do walk with him — I thought one of my sons were crazy when he said this. I asked: “Where do you walk Riley?” He went: “Oh, wherever he wants. If he wants to turn this corner…” And I wasn’t doing that.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: So now, I’m conscious of any time there’s tension on the leash. And this morning, he wanted to cross the street. I had no idea why, but he wanted to cross the street. There was someone coming the other way. And for whatever reason, he didn’t dig. He didn’t like it. He got a little tense, and he wanted to cross the street. Back in the day, I would look at my phone or listen to a podcast and not care. But here, after reading your book, I thought that was a really insightful thing that you put there. Watch the tension on the leash.
MARC BEKOFF: When dogs are on their own, they’ll sniff a third or half of the time. And it really grates me when I hear people say: “What are you doing? There’s nothing there!” And the dog is going: “Oh my goodness. Are you kidding me? I know who’s here and what they ate. Is it a female in heat? Is Charlie having a good day? Or, is he stressed and angry?”
MARC BEKOFF: We call it pmail. I mean it. Put a rope around your neck, and then let somebody lead you. You’re admiring a beautiful painting or something, and they’re yanking you. So, that’s the bottom line. The walk is for the dog. And when I lived in the mountains, I would let my dogs out early in the morning, and they decided what to do. They knew they had an hour. I could go three, four or five miles — or three, four or five meters.
MARC BEKOFF: There were some mornings when they’d go out the front door. They’d eat, pee and do their thing. And then, I’d usually head down the road to a nice path where we could walk. To Boulder, it’s four miles each way. Sometimes, they’d be in front of me. And sometimes, they’d be heading home. They learned very fast — not that they had a watch on. They had an hour, and that was it. And sometimes, we’d do a couple of miles — four or five. Sometimes, we’d do nothing. They learned. I decided that they knew that was their walk. They didn’t send me a text message saying: “Hey, Marc. This is our walk, not yours.” But yeah, I think that’s the best way.
MARC BEKOFF: And when you’re doing that, you’re giving your dog a sense of freedom. Basically, we bred dogs to be little humans. There’s another great example: the importance of odor. And the reason we wrote Unleashing Your Dog is because dogs need to exercise their senses as well as their bodies.
MARC BEKOFF: I see people around Boulder. I don’t have a dog now because I don’t want to have to walk a dog on a leash after decades of letting them run free. But I see these people. And there’s a woman that I met. I went in to get a cup of coffee, and I swear that her dog was in the same five-foot perimeter — sniffing — about five minutes later. I said: “Wow, that’s really neat!” And she said: “This is his sniff time. He knows that I need to go to work.” She lives two blocks away. She said: “He can walk two blocks or two miles.” So, thank you. No, thanks for that.
MARC BEKOFF: Once again, we impose on the dogs and think: “They need to run 10 miles a day. They need to do this.” They need their exercise. But when they’re sniffing, and their noses are to the ground, they’re onto something. It’s like a symphony of voters. I always say that they sniff first and ask questions later. They’re getting a lot of information.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah. I just want to end with this. Whenever I got my dog, I said: “We’ll have to walk him after this.” And he goes: “As much as you think you’re keeping your dog alive, he’s keeping you alive.” I’ve been walking 2.5 to 3 miles a day for the past nine years — in rain, shine or snow. It doesn’t matter.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Especially in Brooklyn, you get to meet a lot of people when you have a dog. People or other dog owners come up to you. It is such a social lubricant to breaking the barrier. So, I have learned so much about people in my neighborhood that I would never have known before.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: On days where when the dog goes to the kennel — because you’re going away in a few days — I look at how much I walk. It’s less than a mile. But when you have a dog, you have to get out of bed. I don’t care if you’re sick or not. Even if you have a very bad ankle, you have to walk — if you have no one to walk it for you. But it’s that kind of movement that most Americans don’t have. We drive everywhere. You get to stop and walk with nature. If I don’t have my walk with him in the morning, my day is screwed up.
MARC BEKOFF: Yeah, you get used to it too. People say that the endorphins are flowing. But you’re right. It’s a win-win for all. And that’s the way I look at it. The answer to your question about whether people should get a dog or how they [should] interact with their dogs, I always say: Make it a win-win for all.
MARC BEKOFF: In the end, it may be a little skewed towards your interests rather than theirs. But that’s just the way it goes. Look at it as a 50/50 negotiation because that’s what you’re doing. You’re negotiating with your dog all the time. They don’t have to go to work. They can stay up late, watch a movie and sleep in. So, you are negotiating with them. But I think if the bottom line is that you’re going to give them the best life they can have. That’s all one could ask of you. And in a sense, that’s what they’re asking.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah. They want to be safe and taken care of. That’s it. And they’ll give you love and companionship. That’s a good tradeoff. The name of the book is A Dog’s World: Imagining the Lives of Dogs in a World without Humans by Jessica Pierce and Marc Bekoff. I had the pleasure of spending time with Marc Bekoff.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Marc, thanks so much. I really enjoyed it. I loved your book. I loved Unleashing Your Dog. I learned a lot. So, for those 65 million dog owners, companions or whatever, you’ll want to get this book. In fact, just a small fraction will help you do well. All right, Marc. All the success to you. Thank you so much.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: You bet. Thank you.
CHARLES MIZRAHI: Thanks for listening to this episode of The Charles Mizrahi Show. If you’re a new listener, welcome! If you’ve been listening for a while, we’re glad to have you back. Either way, we’d love to know what you think of the show. Please leave a review if you listen on Apple Podcasts. Reviews make it easier for others to find the show. You can also see the video of the interview on The Charles Mizrahi Show channel on YouTube.
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