book cover with dog

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Wouldn’t life be easier if we could talk to our dogs — and they could talk back to us? We’d sure have a lot fewer dog bites, potty accidents in the house and chewed-up slippers if that were possible.

While we wait for scientists to develop a dog translator, Decoding Your Dog offers some insight into how you can communicate with your canine. Edited by veterinary behaviorists Debra F. Horwitz and John Ciribassi and certified dog behavior consultant Steve Dale, this collection of essays covers many of the questions that most vex pet owners: housetraining, jumping up, stealing food, pulling on the leash, noise phobias and more. The contributors draw not only on their own knowledge as specialists in the field but on the experiences of other behaviorists and on scientific behavior research.

When we as veterinarians face difficult canine behavior problems in the clinic, we reach out to the very same experts that readers can access by turning the pages of this book. I’ve heard many of these folks speak at veterinary conferences over the years, and I’ve often wished that their knowledge could be distilled and disseminated to my clients and other dog owners. Now it has been.

Better Communication With Your Canine

Dr. Jacqueline C. Neilson opens the book with a chapter titled  “Can’t We Just Talk?” which addresses our frequent failure to communicate with our dogs. Dr. Neilson lays out the differences in how dogs and humans communicate, the problems that can arise from crossed signals, and how to read canine body language.

The following chapters build on that foundation, taking the reader from choosing a dog to understanding how dogs learn (and the benefits of maybe not having the smartest dog on the block). Contributors cover topics including understanding and responding to aggression, separation anxiety, noise phobias and compulsive behaviors, as well as addressing basic questions about training and common training tools. The book ends with a chapter on recognizing the special needs of older dogs and helping them to stay mentally alert in their golden years. As someone with two senior dogs and two who are approaching that stage of life, this really resonated with me.

Each chapter has a section near the beginning called “Facts, Not Fiction” that gives the real poop on what dogs do and why, and one at the end called “What Did We Say?” that recaps the chapter’s highlights. Where appropriate, each chapter defines specialized terms such as avoidance learning, sensitization, enrichment and neurotransmitters, while a full glossary at the end of the book brings all those terms, and others, together.

Recommended Reading

Using anecdotes, photographs and scientific data, this highly readable compilation clearly explains how we can translate what our dogs are trying to tell us and put that knowledge into action. To me, the best thing about Decoding Your Dog is that it dispels some prominent myths — like the idea that dogs do things out of spite and feel guilt for their actions — and illuminates proven solutions to common behavior problems. Where it falls short is that it simply doesn’t cover quite enough. I would have liked the authors to more thoroughly address interactions between cats and dogs and behaviors like chasing, digging and politely taking treats. Nonetheless, the editors and contributors have done a fine job of providing owners with a guide to successfully living with their dogs.

I’ll be recommending this book to every new dog owner and every member of my staff.

Decoding Your Dog, edited by Debra F. Horwitz, DVM and John Cirbassi, DVM, $27.00 at