If Dogs Could Talk Exploring the Canine Mind

Vilmos Csányi; Translated by Richard E. Quandt

North Point Press



Trade Paperback

352 Pages


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Every dog owner knows intuitively that there's something special about the high degree of mutual understanding and empathy that exists between humans and their proverbial best friends. Now, an internationally renowned Hungarian ethologist (and a specialist in the scientific study of animal behavior), traces the roots of this unique relationship back to the unusual circumstances in which the two species co-evolved over many millennia.

Drawing in part on close observations of his own two pet dogs, Flip and Jerry, the author argues that the longstanding alliance of dogs and humans arose from behavioral traits present in the original wolves from which all modern dogs are descended. Wolves, like humans, are highly intelligent social predators, with well-developed cooperative problem-solving and communications skills, giving them distinct advantages in their developing relations with humans. These basic intellectual skills were refined and enhanced over tens of thousands of years, resulting in the enormously varied "artificial animals" we see today.

Although the book's specific focus is on dogs, it ranges far afield to discuss in an easy-going, accessible style recent experimental and theoretical work on the behavior of other animals, and especially on their interactions with humans. A highly personal work, If Dogs Could Talk makes the case that the social and emotional bonds between dogs and humans are indeed special, and that they ought to form the basis for our treatment of dogs. Moreover, the author concludes, by closely observing the cognitive behavior of dogs, we can also learn a good deal about how the human mind works.


Praise for If Dogs Could Talk

"If Dogs Could Talk—and indeed they do in their own special ways—is a fascinating book about a fascinating animal. Wonderful stories and difficult-to-find scientific data are nicely woven together into an easy-to-read text. Anyone who wants to know more about our 'best friends' will surely want to read Csányi's important book."—Marc Bekoff, University of Colorado, Boulder, and author of Minding Animals and The Ten Trusts (with Jane Goodall) and editor of the Encyclopedia of Animal Behavior

"Csányi is highly respected for his research and writing as an ethologist. In If Dogs Could Talk, he artfully combines scientific research and personal observations to give us an insightful picture of the workings of the canine mind. Perhaps the most interesting aspects of the book are the comparisons between the mental processes of humans and dogs—two species that seem to have much more in common than most people ever suspected. Fascinating."—Stanley Coren, author of How to Speak Dog and How Dogs Think

"There is no friendship on this planet as intense, profound, and finally mysterious as that between dogs and humans. After reading this erudite, charming, and utterly delightful book you will understand that bond better. Written in an accessible style and filled with touching anecdotes from the lives of his own marvelous dogs, it is a book based on original scientific research, much of it conducted by Professor Csányi himself. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is a sheer delight."—Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson, author of Dogs Never Lie About Love
"This splendid book is a probing scientific study of the intelligence, emotions, and feelings of animals, with the emphasis on those of dogs. Csányi's account, lucid and easily accessible to the general reader, is enriched by his perceptive reports on the doings of his two enchanting dogs, Flip and Jerry. Readers will be amazed to learn of the complexity and depth of the canine mind. Anyone interested in animals, and especially anyone who is fond of dogs, will cherish this book."—George Pitcher, author of The Dogs Who Came to Stay

"If Dogs Could Talk is one of those books that have you saying, 'Yes! He's right!' after almost every paragraph. Revelation and insight provide the most pleasurable form of reading, and If Dogs Could Talk is packed with both. I recommend it very highly."—Elizabeth Marshall Thomas, author of The Hidden Life of Dogs and The Social Lives of Dogs

"Csányi’s way of thinking is that of a scientist, but he writes in a way that nonspecialist readers, as well as his peers, can understand. If Dogs Could Talk abounds with stimulating and original insights."—Mark Ridley, lecturer, Department of Zoology, Oxford University, and author of Evolution and Animal Behavior
"This book by canine ethologist Csányi has been popular in his native Hungary and is now translated for American readers. As the author points out, canine ethologists must also have familiarity with human behavior, as the natural environment of the dog is human society. To be successful, the proto-dog had to develop the ability to understand and empathize with what humans expected of it, and these basic intellectual skills were honed and refined over the thousands of years that dogs have been domesticated. The author substantiates this alliance of two minds, as he calls it, with synopses of his own research, the findings of other scientists, and anecdotes from the behavior of his own dogs and other pet dogs. Csányi is a careful scientist, but also a dog lover, and his attention to the coevolution of human and dog behavior provides a very different view of dogs from what is found in standard dog books."—Nancy Bent, Booklist
"In this intriguing book, Hungarian ethologist Csányi approaches the question of canine sentience using more science and less wishful thinking than one usually finds in the pet section of the bookstore. 'Individual dog stories or anecdotes must be handled with considerable care when we want scientific proof,' he warns. Even with this in mind, however, Csányi is most willing to see intelligence in his own beloved dogs, Flip and Jerry, who romp through the pages in charming anecdotes. So how smart are dogs, really? 'The average dog living in a human environment understands at least forty to fifty expressions . . . and is able to act appropriately even in complicated situations.' Csányi draws parallels between human and canine evolution in terms of reasoning ability, visual observations and other brain functions. Just as in early humans, individual bonding and group dynamics are the emotional and intellectual drivers for dogs, Csányi notes—a fact that will come as no surprise to pet owners. He demonstrates that dogs can imitate us, feel emotions, cooperate and obey commands, but he follows Darwin in recommending that we not assign morals to animal behaviors. Dogs will develop morals when they develop speech, he says, and he's actually quite enthusiastic about the prospect, going so far as to recommend a breeding program to produce talking dogs."—Publishers Weekly

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Read an Excerpt

If Dogs Could Talk
Part OneThe Alliance of Two MindsHumans have coexisted for tens of thousands of years with a peculiar social predator descended from wolves, namely the dog. During this time we have accumulated much knowledge about dogs. Some of this knowledge is available in well-written and practical dog books, while some is the subject of the oral history of dogs, of anecdotes and beliefs; only a very small portion of this knowledge has found its way into the scientific literature about dogs. If we examine the practical and theoretical literature about dogs, we find much on breeding dogs,
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  • Vilmos Csányi; Translated by Richard E. Quandt

  • Vilmos Csányi is a professor and chair of the department of ethology at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest. He has written extensively about his work for both professional and general audiences. This is his twenty-third book.