In David Grimm’s new book “Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs,” the award-winning journalist and online news editor of Science traces the journey of dogs and cats from wild animals to family members, both in our homes and in the eyes of the law.
We talked to him about recent developments in understanding dogs’ minds, how our relationships with them have gotten to where they are, and where things may be headed in the future.
How did the idea for the book come about?
I have always been interested in animals. I wanted to be a veterinarian when I grew up, and I worked in a vet clinic part-time for six years in high school and college. So I’ve always wanted to write about animals, but I wanted to write a pet book that no one had written before: one that explores the changing status of cats and dogs in society.
I was also inspired to write the book when, a few years ago, my male cat, Jasper, came down with acute kidney failure and my wife and I ended up spending almost $3,000 to save him. The experience got me thinking about just how close we’ve become to our pets in today’s society, and wondering how this relationship will continue to evolve over the next several decades.
You did a lot of research on dog socialization. Can you tell Cesar’s Way fans some of the most interesting things you share in the book?
There has been an explosion of research on canine intelligence. About a dozen labs around the world study the dog mind, and we’ve learned some fascinating things.
One of the biggest revelations has been that dogs understand human pointing — but that chimpanzees do not. This indicates that dogs are much more tuned into our mental state — our thoughts and our intentions — than our closest relatives on the planet, chimpanzees. Of course, this is probably not a surprise to any dog owner.
What is some of the most surprising feedback you’ve gotten from readers so far?
Readers seem to really connect to the book. I’ve received a lot of emails about reader’s favorite chapters and how they really appreciate the unique topic of the book.
In your opinion, which is more predominant in determining dogs’ social behavior: nature or nurture?
I think it’s a bit of both. We’ve lived with dogs for at least 15,000 years, and their genetics have changed a lot over that time. That’s given us a very malleable raw material to work with in our homes. But we still have to sculpt that material — through socialization — to turn dogs into companions that behave like true family members.
Unfortunately, generally speaking, under American law dogs are viewed as property. What’s your take on that?
This is a very complex topic. On the one hand, most owners don’t view their pets as property. In fact, 90% of them view their pets as members of the family. We certainly don’t view our pets like other pieces of property, like couches or toasters.
On the other hand, if we turn pets into something more like people in the eyes of the law, we may find ourselves becoming “pet parents” in a legal sense. That might mean that we would be obligated to pay for expensive veterinary procedures and walk our dogs a certain number of times a day. It might also mean that we could no longer buy and sell dogs, as you can only buy and sell property.
Some people think this is a good thing, but others say that only humans can have legal rights, and that it would be bad for society to grant rights to pets.
What will a Pack Leader take away from reading your book?
I hope owners come away from the book with a deeper appreciation of the unique relationship we have with our pets at this point in human history. Cats and dogs have traveled a very long — and often tortuous — road to get to the place they have now in Western society. We protect and value these animals more now than we have at any point in our history. We have changed their lives as much as they have changed ours.
Are you a Cesar fan? How do you feel about his work?
I’m aware of Cesar’s work, and I considered interviewing him for my book!
Anything else you’d like to add?
If you ever wondered how your pets became members of your family, and what your relationship with your pet might be like in fifty years, this is the book for you.
David Grimm lives in Baltimore with his wife, two cats and twin girls. Grimm is the recipient of the 2010 Animal Reporting Award from the National Press Club and the author of “The Mushroom Cloud’s Silver Lining,” which was featured in The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2009. His work has appeared in Science, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Slate, Time, U.S. News and World Report, The Financial Times, and a variety of other publications. He has a PhD in genetics from Yale University and teaches science writing at Johns Hopkins.
“Citizen Canine” is available from Amazon.