Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy—A Review

I don’t know how she did it. How could anyone write a book so comprehensive, so authoritative, and so readable all at once?

Book cover: Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy

I was privileged to be an early reader of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy, by Zazie Todd. It’s a revolutionary book. Dr. Todd identified the major aspects of caring for pet dogs and shared with us what scientific research says about how to do it best. Why do I call it revolutionary? When we consult the research, most often we seek research about dog training. Even though we want to train humanely, we are often seeking the best ways we can get dogs to change or do stuff for us. This book covers training, of course, but the theme is using the existing research to cover what we can do for our dogs, not the other way around.

I believe a whole, evidence-based book about this is unique in all the literature.

This book is comprehensive. I won’t replicate the table of contents here, because you can (and should!) check it out using the “Look Inside” function on the Amazon page for Wag. It covers the major topics you would expect, including how dogs learn, their relationships with people, training, diet, and enrichment. But there are also some things that might surprise you, like the chapter on sleep.

The structure of each chapter is the same. It opens with a gentle story about one of Todd’s dogs. It transitions smoothly (more on that later!) into the research on the topic. Then it ends with bullet points on how to use this information to allow our dogs to express their doggy-ness in our human world. All while keeping them safe. There are generally one or two quotes from subject experts that add even more liveliness to the research. And this structure is all presented in one beautiful, smooth arc. I bow down in admiration to that feat alone.

Zazie Todd’s Writing Voice

Head shot of Clara, a tan dog with a black muzzle,  happy on an outdoor walk
Happy Clara

Dr. Todd’s voice is consistent, whether she is telling a funny story about her dog, summarizing some interesting research and how it can apply to our own dogs, or gently reminding us that positive reinforcement training is the wisest choice.

She writes with compassion for both dogs and humans. I might write a post that is a virtual shaking of the shoulders of people who share dangerous dog and baby interaction photos on the Internet (no, I’m not going to link to it). But Todd writes in her chapter on dogs and children, “What does it feel like to be in a household with children from the dog’s point of view?” What follows are not horror stories or loud admonitions. Rather, an empathetic approach, and plenty of information we can use to help dogs be safer and be happier in their interactions with children.

Because of her comfortable writing style, you don’t realize at first that throughout the book, virtually every single thing she says is evidence-based. And if she opines or extrapolates from that evidence, she makes it clear. That’s another thing. She never overstates what the research says. For example, in the chapter on enrichment, she describes a study that tested whether dogs enjoyed solving a problem for food or whether they just enjoyed getting the food. The outcome is yes, indeed, dogs probably enjoy solving the problem for food. Her summary statement:

This study shows that having control over a situation and being able to solve problems is good for dogs’ welfare. 

Todd, p. 155

How many authors might have instead claimed the study “proves” dogs would rather work for food? Or that control is a primary reinforcer? It may well be, per Paul Chance, but it’s a hard thing to show in a study. It’s only now appearing in behavior science textbooks as a possibility.

It is so refreshing to read a book that is calm, even soothing; authoritative; and not riddled with the hyperbole so common in the dog blogosphere.

Example Chapter: Dogs and Children

The sections in the chapter about dogs and children give you an idea of Dr. Todd’s evidence-based, practical approach.

Dogs and Children

  • The Benefits to Dogs of Interacting With Children
  • How to Recognize When a Dog is Anxious Around Children
  • Teaching Children to Interact With Dogs
  • Preparing Dogs to Interact With Children
  • How to Apply the Science at Home

That last section could be life-saving for both children and dogs. The instructions are concrete and practical and yes, evidence-based. For instance, she recommends teaching children not to approach stationary dogs (sitting or lying down). Earlier in the chapter, she explains why the evidence supports this recommendation. Think of all those YouTube videos where a toddler is lying on a dog, putting her fingers in the dog’s mouth, pulling ears, etc. If infants and toddlers were prevented from approaching dogs, then taught not to do so as their cognitive abilities matured, those interactions wouldn’t happen in the first place.

In fact, the “How to Apply the Science at Home” sections at the end of each section are priceless. These lovely summations are so practical, and they are presented in jargon-free plain language.

Sable-colored dog Summer, showing a happy wag of her tail
Happy Summer

Questions This Book Can Answer

OK, I probably shouldn’t have said “answer.” But this book can provide strong evidence about these topics.

  • When might play be a bad thing? (Chapter 6)
  • Can dogs tell whether we are happy or sad? Does it affect them? (Chapter 7)
  • What’s a “growl ball”? (Chapter 6)
  • If a dog “runs” in their sleep, does it mean they are dreaming? (Chapter 12)
  • If you are planning to get both a dog and a cat, which should you get first? (Chapter 6)
  • What are some characteristics of a good puppy class? (Chapter 3)
  • Is it OK to comfort a fearful dog? (Chapters 6 & 13)
  • Why is positive reinforcement the best approach for training a dog? (Many chapters!)

Tidbits

Small black and rust hound dog lying down in a relaxed way and wagging her tail, looking very happy
Happy Zani
  • Most of us have heard it by now: one difference between dog and wolf DNA is that dogs have genes related to the digestion of starch. But what I didn’t know before was that this was in an area of DNA associated with important survival traits. A lot of the genes in the area have to do with brain function, but here were these genes related to digestion as well! It makes sense that anything to do with what a dog can get nourishment from is a survival trait. But this information changed my perception from starch being an ancillary food for dogs. Perhaps it is now, but there must have been significant populations of dogs during their history with us who had to get nourishment from starch to survive. It was strongly selected for. The fact that Siberian Huskies do not have as strong a genetic indicator of starch digestion as other dog breeds is interesting but non-surprising. Up until recently, Siberians have lived in human communities with a strongly meat-based diet and the need to digest starch would not have been selected for.
  • The chapter on senior dogs has more details on the physiological changes that dogs go through as they age than I have read elsewhere. These are at once fascinating, a little sad, but extremely helpful to know.
  • It was fun to learn that sleep appears to help dogs with memory consolidation, just as it does with humans, and to read about the implications this can have on training.
  • On a related topic, I so appreciated her assessment of the well-known study comparing different training schedules for dogs. The schedules compared were daily vs. once or twice a week. This is another study that is generally presented in a slightly misleading way, and for which she cuts through the hype. It’s easy to come up with a headline like, “Dogs Learn Faster with Less Training!” We might assume from such a title that in a given week, then, a dog trained only once learned more than a dog trained multiple times. Wow! But that’s not how the comparison works. As Todd puts it, “The results found that the dogs taught once or twice a week performed better than those taught every day (although obviously it took longer for them to have enough training sessions to learn the task).” Thank you for the parenthetical remark! It makes all the difference.
  • Here’s a quote from the chapter on fear that shows how Dr. Todd speaks about the dangers of aversive training. “Forcing your dog to face their fears will likely make things worse. If you have been using aversive methods to train your dog, stop, because this adds to your dog’s stress.” So calm, so matter-of-fact. The science tells us we should be living in a post-aversive training world. There just aren’t good arguments for it. Her writing regularly makes that clear without any harsh words or finger-pointing. (This in itself is an evidence-based approach.)
  • In the same chapter, she has an absolutely stunning section titled “It’s Worth Getting Help.” This section is about dealing with dog behavior problems—but also human behavior problems. She approaches both with the same gentle empathy combined with practical, evidence-based information that is typical of the whole book. I’d like to just copy the whole section for you here, but of course, I can’t do that. So see below.

Why You Should Buy This Book

  • It is a great resource. It has 280 references in it! How can she even do that and still have such a pleasant, readable book? Also, you can bet that she checked a whole lot more references than those 280! Those are the ones that made it through the “what’s most important?” filter.
  • It’s fabulously written.
  • You can win arguments. Or at the very least, have evidence at hand for many of the common ones circulating in the dog world. For instance, is somebody saying dogs shouldn’t play tug because it will make them dangerous or “dominant”? Pick up your copy. She’s got a study showing otherwise in the chapter on enrichment.
  • That unique voice. Gentle, empathetic, precise, and clear.
  • Wag is good reading during the COVID-19 pandemic. I don’t say this lightly. But I think it’s important to note the low-stress approach of the book. While it covers a lot of topics that are highly in contention among the different schools of training, there is none of the stress caused by discussions of these topics on social media. There is just Dr. Todd’s calm voice explaining, and not overstating, the evidence. I should note my own biases and life experience here, though. I suppose it could be stressful for someone who strongly disagrees that evidence from science should be a basis upon which we make decisions. But they probably wouldn’t be reading it in the first place. For the rest of us, it’s a way to learn about a topic we are passionate about. We can follow paths into scientific literature or just sit down and enjoy it.

Where You Can Buy the Book

Just Wow

I am a fast reader. I’m usually a gobbler. I go through several books a week. But I chose to read this book over several weeks. It was just not possible for me to read a book with so much information in it without stopping to think—a lot! And to look at the studies myself. I finally broke down and kept a Google Scholar window open on my laptop because I kept investigating the wonderful trails she laid.

One example of such a trail: dogs’ neophilia. She discusses a shelter study about dogs’ responses to old and new toys. There was some tantalizing information in there that led me to check out the study. I learned that one probable difference between novel and “used” toys is the presence or absence of the dog’s saliva. I do rotate toys—now I’ll be sure to wash them before I put them away.  So as thorough and information-packed as this book is, every paragraph is the tip of another iceberg of information about dogs! Talk about enrichment! This book is a banquet.

I try to include criticism when I review books. I want to distinguish my reviews from the paid/affiliate sort that rave about everything. But this book is deserving of rave and I’m hard put to find a flaw. At first, I thought it didn’t have an index. But silly me. It absolutely has an index! I was reading an advance copy. Indices are always created last, because of page numbering. So strike that. I’m afraid I have no criticism of this book!

As a dog blogger, I know how hard it is to write non-reactively. There are hundreds of us out there writing every day about bad-and-wrong things that catch our attention. At times I have specialized in that approach, to my dismay. Then comes this pure pearl of a book. Dr. Todd shares with us the very best practices, the best ways to give our dogs a great life, and how to help them be happy. Think about it: how many evidence-based dog books have you seen with the word “happy” in the title? Not just exercised, not just well-fed, not just kindly trained, not even just enriched, although those are all included. But happy. Kudos to Zazie Todd for writing the most helpful, kind, and loving book possible about dogs.

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Text (except for quotes from the book) and the dog photos copyright 2020 Eileen Anderson