The Help Desk: Good dog, bad book

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to

Dear Cienna,

As you know, I got a dog last year. He's wonderful.

Naturally, I wanted to read some good non-fiction books about living with dogs, in order to better understand the new member of my household. But the problem is that I've started to read four dog training books and they're awful. They're not about the dog at all — they're just self-help books in doggy drag. One of them (the Dog Whisperer one) was all about how to raise a good dog, you need to be a better person. Another one I tried to read turned out to be a Christian recruitment pamphlet disguised as a dog training manual. Baaaaaarf. I'm not averse to changing my behavior to be a better dog owner, but I am averse to taking cloying life advice from cable TV show stars.

The only good dog book I've read so far is John Homans's What's a Dog For?, which looks into the history of human-dog relations. It was great because it focused directly on the behavior of dogs and the reasons for that behavior — a useful guide to what's likely going on in my dog's head. But it didn't have a whole lot of practical advice for dog-owners.

Cienna, are there any books out there that are good for dog owners to learn how to be better dog owners by learning more about their pets?

Paul, your editor

Dear Paul,

You are in luck. I have skimmed a ton of dog books, as spiders are basically dogs with stunted lifespans and a more elegant thirst for blood. You might like The Other End of the Leash, although that, too, examines pet behavior in relation to person behavior. Here are a few other great training books I've flipped through: The Culture Clash, Don't Shoot the Dog, and How to Behave so Your Dog Behaves.

But here is what even the best pet training book won't tell you: never accrue more than your body mass in one species. Even with animals as tame as the domesticated dog or common house spider, flirting with this critical tipping point is foolhardy. Both species operate as pack animals, and when the pack becomes too large, your position as alpha becomes tenuous. I would hate for you to awaken to the unique betrayal of your toes being delicately amputated by a pack of creatures you have lovingly named and baptized as family.