Going to the dogs
Coren has written one of the world’s bestselling non-fiction books about dogs, The Intelligence of Dogs, as well as Why We Love The Dogs We Do.
As an internationally accepted author on books about dogs, Dr. Stanley Coren of Vancouver has a career that most writers and researchers only dream of; his lectures at UBC routinely attract hundreds of students. With his fifteenth book underway, Stanley Coren has also written seminal books on sleep deprivation and left-handedness.
In the following interview, Coren discusses the dogs that shaped his childhood, his canine research, his bestselling career as a writer and his family life. He arrived to talk with Rachel Rose at a café on Main Street looking dapper in a dark suit and a broad brimmed Australian hat. Nearly three hours later, they were still in the café, still discussing dogs.
Acclaimed as a poet, Rachel Rose has newly published The Dog Lover Unit: Lessons in Courage from the World’s K9 Cops (Thomas Dunne / St. Martin’s Press $26.99) in which she introduces K9 teams — police dogs and their handlers — in the United States, Canada, Britain, and France (where their group’s official name translates as “the dog lover unit”) and follows them on their police assignments.
As a psychologist, how did you get yourself into the study of dogs?
Most psychologists are trained either to be animal or human psychologists. I wanted to study the human-animal bond, specifically the human-canine bond. I recognized there was a different critter at each end of the leash and you had to understand both of them to understand the relationship. But when I got my doctorate, around 1968, if you’d said to anyone you wanted to study dogs, they would look at you as if you’d descended from a flying saucer.
Correct. So, I turned to my second love, sensory processing—vision, some auditory work. That’s what led me to studying handedness. I was curious about a phenomenon known as eye dominance. It became quite clear there were some strange things going on with left-handers. The research we had done on handedness was such that when we found the link between handedness and longevity, and accident rates, I had to get it out to the general readership, so engineers could make necessary ergonomic adaptations.
That’s when I published The Left-Hander Syndrome. In today’s parlance, it went viral. I worked with Diane Halpern from UC San Diego, a truly remarkable woman. She and I did much more press than it’s healthy to do.
Around the mid-1980’s, two wonderful people, Alan Beck and Aaron Katcher, ran a set of studies that showed if you pet a familiar and friendly dog, your heart rate slows, breathing becomes regular, stress hormones reduced in concentration. Psychologists study behavior, but they believe physiology. Finally, here was legitimate evidence.
As the author of Why We Love the Dogs We Do, obviously you know a lot about dog breeds. In my own book about police dogs, I describe a terrible incident that my son witnessed. A pit bull tore apart a miniature pinscher on our corner. I came out just after it happened, and helped the traumatized owner and her remaining little dog. It was shocking.
Stanley Coren: The data is absolutely incontrovertible. If you look at the only statistics in the States, on death by dog bite, studies have shown that between 41-49 percent of all deaths caused by dog bites are caused by pit bulls or pit bull crosses, American pit bull, Staffordshire terrier, and American Staffordshire. They account for ½ to 1 and ½ percent of all dogs.
It wasn’t always this way. Back in the early part of the 1900s, pit bulls were the ultimate family dog. Petey from the Our Gang series was an American pit bull. Mascot WW1 was a pit bull. But here’s another fact. Over 40,000 people in the US earn their living through dog fighting. It’s a huge betting industry. They are breeding surface-to-surface missiles. Game Bred Dogs—search this and you will find that these are dogs being bred to fight. They come from Armageddon Kennels, No Mercy kennels.
I had no idea.
In my book, Why Does My Dog Act That Way, I describe the following story because I felt it had to be told: I got a phone call from an old friend of mine. He was working for Michigan Humane Society. Dog fighting was extremely active in Detroit area. He said, ‘Stan, we’re trying to get data and names associated with dog fighting. We’re going to tell them that we want this dog to be trained to fight. I was wondering whether you could come and handle the dog?’ I said ‘Sure.’ We ended up making contact through an actual dog fight.
Rachel, you won’t believe what those scenes are like. This was held in a big empty double or triple garage, where they’d set up the ring. There was a huge amount of money being exchanged, an awful lot of gang colors. Some people had their kids there, kids between 12-14. We made contact with this one guy who was a trainer and a breeder. They do hard genetic selection. They do dogs who have won fights with other dogs who have won fights. The dogs are so aggressive they have to take the puppies away from the bitch at 5 weeks of age or she’ll kill them.
These genetic lines have leaked back into the overall population. You’ve blown the temperament. Temperament is the easiest thing to lose and the hardest thing to establish. Pit bulls now are much more vicious and more dangerous.
I don’t believe in breed specific legislation. I believe the way you handle these sorts of things is on a dog-by-dog basis, but if a person’s dog does damage, they are criminally responsible. It’s assault by canine. If a breeder is found, he is charged for aiding and abetting, and shut down.
The data here in Canada showed the bite rate was no different after breed-specific bans. It doesn’t work. If you are really dealing with the crazies, they’ll get the exotics, the Cane Corsos.
Stanley Coren: A lot of these attacks are from dogs that are chained out. You can see evidence of this all the way back to ancient times. You can see it on the manuscript Vitruvius, recovered from Pompeii. If you want to create a guard dog, chain him on a short chain near your door. I have fought for legislation against keeping dogs chained out. We got that passed in North Van and in Burnaby, and a sort of limited version here in Vancouver.
So, you must have had dogs as a boy, growing up?
For as long as I remember we always had a dog around the house. The first dog of my memory was a beagle, a wonderful little empty-headed dog, but very, very sweet. I had that dog when I was seven or eight, and I got another beagle we just lost a year and a half ago. People said, ‘What the hell, don’t you believe your own research? Why would you get a beagle?’ I said, ‘Because I needed a beagle!’ I have 9 grandchildren. I needed a dog who was incredibly friendly and who was unbreakable. His mind was perfect! Darby, he’s apt to forget, ‘Oh, that’s the one who just twisted my ear an hour ago.’ After the beagle, we had a fox terrier. He was the first one I tried to train.
As a kid?
Stanley Coren: Yes. The dog of my college years was also the only female dog I had, and the only dog with a human name. She was a boxer. Traditionally, my dad would bring home a puppy wrapped in a terry cloth towel. He’d hand it to one of the kids—usually me because I was the oldest. He would say ‘Give it a name. Give it a life.’ When he brought Penny, he handed me the dog. He said, “Her name is Penny, because that’s what I paid for her. Give it a life.” We didn’t have very much money, so my dad would take additional job in addition to his regular work. He’d insist we have purebred dogs. You can have that dog forever, but if you have a mixed-breed dog its one of a kind. He’d go out and work because we couldn’t afford pure-bred dogs. He worked for this one family who had a litter of boxers, they offered him one of the puppies. My dad said, ‘No, I have to buy it. Give me a figure.’ The guy said. ‘A penny.’
Penny was a wonderful dog. She drank bourbon. She was just at the right height to drink bourbon, not scotch or anything else. Penny was only 55 pounds. You’d put your drink down, and next thing you’d hear the clinking of ice, and you’d turn around and see her little black face in the glass. After, she’d go into the middle of the room, flop down and snore. She’d flop instead of turning around three times.
One day, my university friends were there, we all had a drink together. My dad came downstairs and said ‘Your dog is a sloppy drunk.’
I love terriers, but terriers are not everybody’s cup of tea. I wrote a book about the 13-year war my wife had with my Cairn Terrier. You have to understand, my wife was the best first grade teacher on the planet, but she’s a prairie girl from Alberta. She demanded the kids’ behavior be predictable. And whatever it is that terriers are, they are not predictable, and they don’t always obey. I took Flint and made him the highest scoring terrier in history, but people would come and gather around when he was in the ring, because you NEVER knew, he could do any one of a remarkable number of things, all of which were embarrassing.
My wife made me promise I’d never bring another terrier into the house. Now we have sucky-face dogs, very friendly dogs who kiss you a lot. I really love retrievers. So right now I have a Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever. I also have a fondness for Cavalier King Charles Spaniels. That sort of suckiness is just as genetic as the aggressiveness we were talking about.
I love those sweet friendly dogs myself. So let me shift our conversation a bit. You have a very successful career as an author. So for all the writers reading this, can I ask you if you ever had any setbacks as a writer? How did you push through them?
I actually got some death threats over a blog I wrote a few weeks ago. Some data that showed that a raw food diet is not only not better for dogs, but probably worse, and also dangerous for other members of the family. Even if you are careful, if you play with the dog’s face you get exposed to the bacteria in the raw food, and you can get very sick.
With that post, trolls came out from under the floorboards. There’s a term, Orthorexia Nervosa, it’s an eating disorder involving people who are obsessed with the healthiness of their diets. People can become obsessed over their dogs’ diets, too. Anybody who doesn’t agree with their conclusions is immoral and a danger. I haven’t gotten death threats since the left-handedness work, where I was hearing, “You think you right-handers will live longer than us left-handers, but you won’t if we kill you first.”
(Stanley Coren’s blog: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/canine-corner)
Stanley Coren: If you are writing facts, you are writing facts, and you are relaying facts, that is your armor. If somebody disagrees, you’ve got a shield. “I am relating facts. This is what they say.”
Well, I write fiction and memoir, not just facts, but I appreciate the idea of armour very much. Did you always know you were going to be a writer?
I always wanted to be a scientist. When I started to do science—and I had been really, really lucky when I was in high school (I went to a really bad high-school, West Philadelphia High School, a gang-infested neighborhood. There were 272 people; only 4 of us went to university.) They decided to have an accelerated program to tap the 20-30 kids who had the highest ability. I had a wonderfully abusive English teacher who demanded we write an essay every week. It was absolutely wonderful. When I began to do science, it dawned on me I was good at science, my research was always innovative. But the research was an excuse. You see, I don’t do fiction, I can’t create the plot out of my head. The research created the plot for me, and I loved it.
I write every single day. I try to write at least one typewritten page every single day. When I write a book, I always terrify my editors because we’ll have set a deadline and 6 or 8 weeks before the deadline, you’ll get that call from the editor, ‘how’s it going, how many chapters?’
When I say, ‘None,’ they go ‘ACK!’ The reason is, I write modules. I write about something that interests me that day. I’m never writing about something that isn’t my passion for that day. In the last six weeks before my book is due, I piece them together.
That is so interesting. I think that’s a unique way to write a book. Do you have a vision in your head of what your book will be?
I have a general idea of what the scope is that has to be covered. I’m continually doing literature research to gather research, I’ll hit something and think, ‘I have to write about this today.’
You can’t be overly possessive about your ideas. So that’s the way I write. I sneak things into my books. Mythology and folklore, I’m always tucking in a folk tale or a myth into the science.
I can’t have a next book unless I have a title. That title may not survive. But if I have a title, I have the book.
Of the books that I’ve written, obviously The Intelligence of Dogs brought me the most notoriety. I was told that it has sold more than any other non-fiction book on dogs. Books are like children; each has their own strengths and weaknesses, My book How to Speak Dog paid off a debt. I read Darwin’s 1872 book on the emotions in animals and men. I had never read anything like that in my life. He didn’t know anything about social hierarchies, but it blew me away. I had a couple of wonderful instructors, university graduate and undergraduate. How to Speak Dog is my homage to Darwin. When I retired, I could suddenly do what I could never do before, I had time to start drawing again. All of the books following my retirement are illustrated, and I did the drawings.
When I was in high school, I won this big sexy science award. You got to remember, we were poor as church mice. The award was a one-year subscription to Scientific American, but they allowed me to choose two courses from a number of different academies in the Philadelphia area. I didn’t want to take a science course. I wanted to learn how to draw. The two courses which I took, the first one was in sketching, pencil work mostly, a little pen and ink, and the second was in cartooning. I loved it. When I went to graduate school, you had to sign this document, you wouldn’t take outside employment if they gave you a research assistanceship. But I had a wife who kept getting sick. We survived by me doing cartoons, which I published under a pseudonym.
That’s great. I used to draw and paint every day, though it’s been decades. It’s lovely to think of returning to creative pursuits, as you have, at this point in your career. Amazing also that you got to do so many different things: science, literature, art, teaching—and cartooning!
Stanley Coren: Let me tell you a funny story. I was made a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, equivalent of the National Academy of Sciences in the States. It’s a big deal, it changes your signature, they take you down to the Senate Chamber, either the Prime Minister, or Deputy PM, signature becomes FRSC. So, they read this whole thing about my sensory work, and gave one line about the canine work. So I’m there and they’ve got all these wonderful people—all of a sudden the Governor General of Canada, Adrienne Clarkson, comes up. All she wants to talk about is her Golden Retrievers. That’s always been what I’ve found: at one level people don’t want to take it seriously, the work on dogs, but it’s all they want to talk about.
Periodically the US and Canada have these meetings with Canadian or American scientists, to foster interaction. Canada always selects members, and so does the US. One held in Ottawa, right after Bush Sr. had been defeated by Clinton. Canada, being polite, invited Bush to come, but Bush took it as an opportunity, he and Barbara came up together. Bush was left-handed. He nearly flunked out of flying school. Bush took one look at me. I had just finished a circuit for one of my books, I’d been on Charlie Rose, on Oprah, Larry King. “You’re the Dog man!” Bush says. Then he promptly proceeds to tell me how every morning Millie, his springer spaniel, would jump into the shower with him. The image of the naked president in the shower I won’t forget. You only reveal these things because you care about your dog.
Rachel Rose was recently the Poet Laureate of Vancouver. For more on her book, The Dog Lover Unit: Lessons in Courage from the World’s K9 Cops (St. Martin’s Press), visit http://rachelsprose.weebly.com/ 9781250110749
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