The Secret Language of Dogs by Victoria Stillwell [review]

At a glance…

  • Title: The Secret Language of Dogs: Unlocking the Canine Mind for a Happier Pet
  • Author: Victoria Stilwell
  • Format: Paperback
  • Length: 152 pages
  • Price: US $17.99
  • Rating: ★★★★★ (5 out of 5)
  • Published by: Ten Speed Press, 2016
  • Description: Stilwell promotes a “positive training philosophy,” and argues that understanding how dogs communicate can help people be better, kinder dog owners. 


I’m so glad I picked up this book. When I selected it, I initially thought it would be nothing new to me, and expected little more than to be entertained by the cute, colorful photographs (of which there are many). I certainly didn’t expect a thought-provoking and well-supported argument for a compassionate and positive approach to dog training based on behavioral science.

Stilwell cites a lot of the research and types of research that have supported some of my other favorite books about animals and animal cognition, including Temple Grandin’s Animals in Translation. She draws attention to the fact that while anthropomorphic views of our animal companions may not reflect reality, it has been shown that animal intelligence and emotional experiences are rich and complex. Recognizing that animals are sentient and understanding how they express themselves can help us interact with them more effectively and build stronger and more positive relationships with our animal companions.

The book is divided into two parts. Part one is called “The Secret Inner Experience of Dogs,” and explains dog cognition and emotional experience. The second part is called “The Secret Meaning of Body and Vocal Language,” and decodes dog behavior as communication. There is also a list of references, and a back of the book index.


This book is not a dog training manual, in that it does not include step-by-step instructions or a how-to guide for specific training goals such as basic commands. It is a guide to understanding what your dog is thinking or feeling, and how to use that information to positive advantage.

Here’s a personal example. This summer I adopted two senior border collies that had spent their lives working on a cattle farm. The male – Rocky – is goofy, affectionate, and independent. The female – Bonnie – is sweet, nervous, and intelligent. Bonnie’s more reserved personality makes it harder to tell what she’s feeling. She loves going to the park, but she is always nervous when we first get there, keeping her tail firmly tucked for a few minutes. After a bit, she will start to yawn. I’ve been interpreting this as her being tired or bored and ready to go home. After reading this book, I now think it’s more likely that she yawns to release tension and stress, and is just starting to relax. Rather than take her home, maybe I should let her continue to enjoy the park, and reinforce the positive experience with a treat.


This is a book for all kinds of dog owners – new and veteran. It offers a positive alternative to the old methods of training through domination and force, and backs itself up with evidence-based research.

It’s easy to read but not over-simplified, and will be accessible to a wide range of readers, including kids.

My rating: 5/5

Note: I received this book from in exchange for this review.


Review: The Soul of an Octopus: A surprising exploration into the wonder of consciousness, by Sy Montgomery

Audio edition published by HighBridge Company, 2015

Dewey class number: 594/.56

Library of Congress Subject Headings:

Rating: ★★★★

Summary: The author documents her experiences with octopuses at the New England Aquarium and in the wild. She records the profound, intimate, and emotional relationships she builds with these strange, fascinating, and intelligent creatures.

Thoughts: The book raises some intriguing issues and questions, some of which are scientific, some of which are philosophical or even metaphysical. What is consciousness? If some animals have it, do all animals have it? If animals are far more conscious and intelligent than we have heretofore recognized, what does that mean for us, ethically?

The author’s descriptions of octopuses and other marine animals were vivid and absorbing. The picture she paints of aquariums is glowingly positive, and I found it interesting that among all the discussion of animal intelligence, the issue of wild animals in captivity only came up once, and was quickly dismissed (they have better, longer lives at the aquarium). Perhaps it was beyond the purview of this book to address the issue on a wider scale.

The book isn’t long, and never got tedious or boring. For my personal tastes, I would have preferred more scientific descriptions and facts, and less speculation about things like souls. Maybe I should have paid more attention to the title. Nonetheless, the question that the author is asking the reader to consider is an important one. If it’s possible to experience kinship with, and recognize consciousness in, a creature as alien to us as an octopus — what about the rest? What about each other?

Note: I listened to the audio edition of this book. It was read by the author, who is a good story-teller. The production was of good quality, although you could hear the sound of pages turning, and the reader pausing for breath, which I found distracting. The author’s inflection was also, at times, a bit over-exuberant, but at least never boring. Overall, a good audio production.