The Social Lives of Dogs

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In this sequel to The Hidden Life of Dogs (1993), in which she asked the question of what dogs want, anthropologist Elizabeth Marshall Thomas takes a further look at dogs and their interactions with people and other animals. In her earlier work, Thomas found that dogs primarily want the company of other dogs. However, after she adopts Sundog, a stray whom she finds lying on her mother’s porch, he is rejected by her three elderly dogs and instead joins the human group in the household, ultimately forming a strong bond with her husband.

Through a series of sensitive and aware observations of her dogs’ behavior, Thomas demonstrates how the purebred Belgian sheepdog Misty, the Australian shepherd-chow mix Pearl; the shy mix Ruby; and the Australian cattle dog mix Sheilah form their own groups within the household, which gradually comes to include a number of cats and the author’s mother. The young, high-powered Sheilah, the last to arrive, works her way up the hierarchy, eventually coming to an agreement with Pearl, who held the number-one position after the death of Sundog.

Although Thomas is sometimes criticized for attributing too much emotion and thought to animals, those who love dogs and other animals will enjoy reading her work and will often feel her observations to be right on the mark. Those living with dogs will find her approach—which involves understanding why a dog is doing something—a creative tool in solving “problem” behaviors in dogs.