“Nothing is more important to a dog than a group membership,” declare Elizabeth Marshall Thomas after carefully taking stock of canine social longings. In The Social Lives of Dogs, Thomas documents her 15-year scrutiny of her mixed-species household, which includes dogs, cats, birds, and people. As an integral member of the pack under investigation, the experienced anthropologist and field observer joins her subjects in the focus group this time out, resulting in pages tinged refreshingly more with subjectivity than objectivity.
Ever mindful of the inevitable hierarchical fall-out of pack life, Thomas notes, “The main household had been divided into four smaller groups, neatly ranked in importance.” While the cats, birds, and certainly people hold significant positions in these subgroups, the resident dogs are the main focus of Thomas’s recorded observations. Discerning readers may recognize Thomas’s canine crew from the brief mention of them in her 1993 best-seller, the Hidden Life of Dogs. In this sequel, Thomas expounds on Sundog, the disciplined white shepherd who, despite his stoicism, grows to appreciate the welcomed levity of a good “dog joke”. She also imparts insight into why the mixed-breed, Pearl, is confident and socially secure while the hapless pure breed, Misty, has no sense of self-worth. Finally, she astutely reflects on the petulance of “untrainable” Ruby and the street smarts of rank-rising Sheilah.
Thomas flavors her anecdotal prose with both quiet hilarity (offhandedly remarking in on an expletive-spewing parrot) and unquestionable respect for animals (acknowledging having learned more from Pearl in a week’s walk through the woods than she would have in a year on her own). She dismisses her critics who point the accusatory anthropomorphic finger by writing another touching yet pragmatic testament to the consciousness of animals. Her thoughtful inquiry into the motivation behind non-human behavior results in discoveries that give pause, especially to those readers who hold coveted membership in packs of their own.
By Elizabeth Marshall Thomas