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If Dogs Could Talk – Vilmos Csányi ****

Sometimes a truth is so close under our nose it’s difficult to spot. We are so used to dogs and their behaviour that we don’t really notice just how remarkable they are. Vilmos Csányi challenges us to think about the canine mind. Once you do, it’s obvious that dogs are quite remarkable.
This is an animal which, with human help, has become so modified from its natural form that it prefers the company of another species – humans – to its own. We are familiar with the concept of the dog as “man’s best friend”, but this book challenges us to think more about the mental processes required to enable a dog to do the remarkable things it does.
Remarkable, dogs? Surely all they do is mess on the pavement and bark a lot? Hardly. Csányi, a confessed dog lover, shows us with a combination of personal anecdote and the outcome of a wide range of experiments just how flexible the dog’s mind can be, giving it capabilities that no animals other than humans – not even the other primates in some cases – are capable of. This isn’t so much about the impressive ability of dogs to follow commands, but rather the way they can communicate with humans, appear to have a model of the mind to make deductions, and generally share a surprising amount of our nature, when isolated from the heavy duty thinking we alone can do.
If you are a cat lover and don’t particularly like dogs, by now you might be cringing a bit. There isn’t going to be a lot of solace for you here. You can argue as much as you like about what good pets cats make, but they simply aren’t capable of most of the actions and thoughts that make dogs unique. If there’s any doubt, ask a cat to fetch your slippers, see how excited it gets at just the mention of walkies, or ask a cat “where?” when it shows the intention of doing something and see how much intelligent response you get. The fact is, cats may be loveable, but by comparison they are practically brainless, and lack the unique cross-species bond of the dog.
If it weren’t for a few practical irritations, this would be a solid, five star, best of breed book. Firstly it’s a translation, and there’s a slightly unnatural feel about the language, especially when Csányi is being humorous. Translated jokes always creak. Then there’s a large section that seems to forget dogs altogether, talking about apes and people. I think this is supposed to be so we can relate the dog’s mind to a better understanding of the human, but it’s too far off track and loses the whole impetus of the book. Oh, and throughout the word “ethology” is used (on practically every page) as if it’s a word we’re all familiar with. Sorry, never heard of it. I don’t even know if it’s pronounced ee-thology (as in ethos) or eth-ology (as in ethnic). Even the OED isn’t awfully helpful, as it could be the portrayal of character by mimic gestures, the science of character formation, or the branch of Natural History that deals with the actions and habits of animals. With this topic, it could be any of these that was meant, though I suspect it was the third. At the very least the word should have been explained – better still, it should have been avoided. (One last moan – the chapter on “how to be a dog owner” at the end seems weak and out of place.)
Never mind that, though. What’s certainly true is you won’t look at dogs the same way again. This is a truly fascinating book on the unnatural canine minds behind a unique inter-species relationship. Good boy, Vilmos! Good boy!

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Review by Peter Spitz

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