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Wonderdog - Jules Howard *****

As Jules Howard acknowledges, there have been plenty of books about what makes a dog tick, whether they are training manuals, evolutionary examinations such as The Wolf Within or ethological studies of humans' closest animal partner such as If Dogs Could Talk. But most of Jules Howard's Wonderdog takes us into the roles that dogs have played in advancing science.

Some of this material is fairly gruesome. We discover, for example, dogs' importance to medical research, particularly at a time when experimenting on animals had few ethical limits. What makes the book enjoyable is the way the Howard ties in his history with engaging stories - such as the brown dog statue, put up in Battersea in 1907 as a memorial to a dog horribly misused by vivisectionists, only for the statue to be destroyed by the council to bring an end to frequent attacks by infuriated medical students. (The statue has since been replaced.)

Similarly, dogs have proved valuable in widening our understanding of animal behaviour. As Howard points out, this is ironic, given the way that for a long time dogs were considered by biologists to be of no interest as they were thought to be simply wolves that had... gone to the dogs. In reality, though, dogs' unique skills and relationship with humans made them fascinating studies. And some of those abilities are indeed remarkable. Howard tells us of a dog that could retrieve a range of items from another room when asked for them by name - and then shocked everyone by also retrieving an item it had not been trained to retrieve when asked to bring something with a name it didn't recognise, working out that the new name applied to the unfamiliar item. Similarly, dogs' ability to be directed by pointing is beyond even the capabilities of chimpanzees.

The book has three main sections - one primarily on their medical use (and misuse - though strangely no mention of smoking beagles), one on dog sociology and minds, and one considering what it's like to be a dog, play and emotional connection. Each is interesting in its own way (though Howard to does have to warn sensitive readers of a few paragraphs they may need to skip in the medical section). Along the way, the book is written in a light, friendly style. Howard tends to overuse footnotes, often using them for information that would fit perfectly well in the main text without the reader having to keep skipping down to the bottom if the page, but otherwise it's a great read.

This is obviously going to be of particular interest to dog lovers, but even those who are neutral on the subject of canines will find a lot to learn and enjoy about this unique animal, forged in its interaction with humanity. Good boy, Jules. Good boy!

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Review by Brian Clegg - See all of Brian's online articles or subscribe to a weekly digest for free here

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