Going to the Dogs - Interview with Stan Coren

Here Rachel Rose interviews mutt maven Stanley Coren who has appeared on Oprah, Larry King and Charlie Rose. Coren has written one of the world’s bestselling non-fiction books about dogs, The Intelligence of Dogs, as well as Why We Love The Dogs We Do. (This interview first appeared in The Ormsby Review.)

As an internationally accepted author on books about dogs, Dr. Stanley Coren of Vancouver has a career that most writers and researchers only dream of; his lectures at UBC routinely attract hundreds of students. With his fifteenth book underway, Stanley Coren has also written seminal books on sleep deprivation and left-handedness.

In the following interview, Coren discusses the dogs that shaped his childhood, his canine research, his bestselling career as a writer and his family life. He arrived to talk with Rachel Rose at a café on Main Street looking dapper in a dark suit and a broad brimmed Australian hat. Nearly three hours later, they were still in the café, still discussing dogs.

As a psychologist, how did you get yourself into the study of dogs?

Most psychologists are trained either to be animal or human psychologists. I wanted to study the human-animal bond, specifically the human-canine bond. I recognized there was a different critter at each end of the leash and you had to understand both of them to understand the relationship. But when I got my doctorate, around 1968, if you’d said to anyone you wanted to study dogs, they would look at you as if you’d descended from a flying saucer.

There was probably zero funding.

Correct. So, I turned to my second love, sensory processing—vision, some auditory work. That’s what led me to studying handedness. I was curious about a phenomenon known as eye dominance. It became quite clear there were some strange things going on with left-handers. The research we had done on handedness was such that when we found the link between handedness and longevity, and accident rates, I had to get it out to the general readership, so engineers could make necessary ergonomic adaptations.

That’s when I published The Left-Hander Syndrome. In today’s parlance, it went viral. I worked with Diane Halpern from UC San Diego, a truly remarkable woman. She and I did much more press than it’s healthy to do.

When did you bring your focus back to studying dogs?

Around the mid-1980’s, two wonderful people, Alan Beck and Aaron Katcher, ran a set of studies that showed if you pet a familiar and friendly dog, your heart rate slows, breathing becomes regular, stress hormones reduced in concentration. Psychologists study behavior, but they believe physiology. Finally, here was legitimate evidence.

As the author of Why We Love the Dogs We Do, obviously you know a lot about dog breeds. In my own book about police dogs, I describe a terrible incident that my son witnessed. A pit bull tore apart a miniature pinscher on our corner. I came out just after it happened, and helped the traumatized owner and her remaining little dog. It was shocking.

The data is absolutely incontrovertible. If you look at the only statistics in the States, on death by dog bite, studies have shown that between 41-49 percent of all deaths caused by dog bites are caused by pit bulls or pit bull crosses, American pit bull, Staffordshire terrier, and American Staffordshire. They account for ½ to 1 and ½ percent of all dogs.

It wasn’t always this way. Back in the early part of the 1900s, pit bulls were the ultimate family dog. Petey from the Our Gang series was an American pit bull. Mascot WW1 was a pit bull. But here’s another fact. Over 40,000 people in the US earn their living through dog fighting. It’s a huge betting industry. They are breeding surface-to-surface missiles. Game Bred Dogs—search this and you will find that these are dogs being bred to fight. They come from Armageddon Kennels, No Mercy kennels.

I had no idea.

In my book, Why Does My Dog Act That Way, I describe the following story because I felt it had to be told: I got a phone call from an old friend of mine. He was working for Michigan Humane Society. Dog fighting was extremely active in Detroit area. He said, ‘Stan, we’re trying to get data and names associated with dog fighting. We’re going to tell them that we want this dog to be trained to fight. I was wondering whether you could come and handle the dog?’ I said ‘Sure.’ We ended up making contact through an actual dog fight.

Rachel, you won’t believe what those scenes are like. This was held in a big empty double or triple garage, where they’d set up the ring. There was a huge amount of money being exchanged, an awful lot of gang colors. Some people had their kids there, kids between 12-14. We made contact with this one guy who was a trainer and a breeder. They do hard genetic selection. They do dogs who have won fights with other dogs who have won fights. The dogs are so aggressive they have to take the puppies away from the bitch at 5 weeks of age or she’ll kill them.

These genetic lines have leaked back into the overall population. You’ve blown the temperament. Temperament is the easiest thing to lose and the hardest thing to establish. Pit bulls now are much more vicious and more dangerous.

I don’t believe in breed specific legislation. I believe the way you handle these sorts of things is on a dog-by-dog basis, but if a person’s dog does damage, they are criminally responsible. It’s assault by canine. If a breeder is found, he is charged for aiding and abetting, and shut down.

The data here in Canada showed the bite rate was no different after breed-specific bans. It doesn’t work. If you are really dealing with the crazies, they’ll get the exotics, the Cane Corsos.

And at the same time, the responsible owners will be penalized.

A lot of these attacks are from dogs that are chained out. You can see evidence of this all the way back to ancient times. You can see it on the manuscript Vitruvius, recovered from Pompeii. If you want to create a guard dog, chain him on a short chain near your door. I have fought for legislation against keeping dogs chained out. We got that passed in North Van and in Burnaby, and a sort of limited version here in Vancouver.

So, you must have had dogs as a boy, growing up?

As an experimental neuropsychologist, Stanley Coren won election to the Royal Society of Canada for his research into left-handedness.

For as long as I remember we always had a dog around the house. The first dog of my memory was a beagle, a wonderful little empty-headed dog, but very, very sweet. I had that dog when I was seven or eight, and I got another beagle we just lost a year and a half ago. People said, ‘What the hell, don’t you believe your own research? Why would you get a beagle?’ I said, ‘Because I needed a beagle!’ I have 9 grandchildren. I needed a dog who was incredibly friendly and who was unbreakable. His mind was perfect! Darby, he’s apt to forget, ‘Oh, that’s the one who just twisted my ear an hour ago.’ After the beagle, we had a fox terrier. He was the first one I tried to train.

As a kid?

Yes. The dog of my college years was also the only female dog I had, and the only dog with a human name. She was a boxer. Traditionally, my dad would bring home a puppy wrapped in a terry cloth towel. He’d hand it to one of the kids—usually me because I was the oldest. He would say ‘Give it a name. Give it a life.’ When he brought Penny, he handed me the dog. He said, “Her name is Penny, because that’s what I paid for her. Give it a life.” We didn’t have very much money, so my dad would take additional job in addition to his regular work. He’d insist we have purebred dogs. You can have that dog forever, but if you have a mixed-breed dog its one of a kind. He’d go out and work because we couldn’t afford pure-bred dogs. He worked for this one family who had a litter of boxers, they offered him one of the puppies. My dad said, ‘No, I have to buy it. Give me a figure.’ The guy said. ‘A penny.’

Penny was a wonderful dog. She drank bourbon. She was just at the right height to drink bourbon, not scotch or anything else. Penny was only 55 pounds. You’d put your drink down, and next thing you’d hear the clinking of ice, and you’d turn around and see her little blac