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Book review: Inside of a Dog–What Dogs See, Smell, and Know by Alexandra Horowitz (Scribner)

In Animal News on March 15, 2010 at 7:51 pm

As dog lovers, we constantly try to decipher the goings-on behind the eyes of that cute, furry head staring up at us. We wonder during walks when their heads turn at a noise we didn’t hear, at night when they bark at what appears to be nothing, and when they are dreaming.

Alexandra Horowitz, a professor of psychology at Columbia University’s Barnard College uses her degrees in philosophy and cognitive science to help bring understanding to these and countless other canine-related queries in her book Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know.

While it may take you a while to finish this book, as it is not a page-turning psychological thriller, its descent into the psyche of a dog is unmatched to date. Horowitz breaks down dogs from every possible facet—from what they learn from using their vomeronasal nose to the simple greeting that occurs when the caretaker returns home.

Throughout, Horowitz points out that dogs have rarely been put under the proverbial microscope as most of their daily activities are taken for granted. As readers we gain an understanding that makes us look differently at the body position, breathing pattern, and eye movements of our dogs. We notice things we so often overlook.

For a year, Horowitz observed dogs in play mode, and dedicates part of the book to that research. She gathered thousands of hours of footage at dog parks and proceeded to break down every second frame-by-frame in order to catch the nonverbal signals communicated between dogs.

From the well known “play bow” to the very subtle “head nod” between dogs familiar with each other, Horowitz describes how the dizzying blur of two dogs at play is more of a choreographed and careful dance than we might suspect. We learn how this dance works when Horowitz shows us the differences between our senses and the dog’s.

From our sight to our sense of smell, which only uses 2 to 3 million olfactory receptors (about 100 times less than our canine counterpart), we do not experience the world in the same way a dog does. Even our sense of the environment is different. We may claim to feel tension, but dogs, Horowitz claims, can smell it in the air and are aware of its presence before it pops up causing an awkward silence.

Horowitz draws these conclusions by starting from the beginning. She looks at how the early domestication of the wolf became the ancestor of the pets we know today. How some of the rituals that we see as cute and endearing, such as “doggy kisses,” are quite primitive and instinctual.

We are reminded that the animal before us is just that: an animal. Horowitz explains that through numerous rounds of anthropomorphism, of assigning certain human qualities to our dogs and dressing them up in sweaters and raincoats, we have lost touch with the fact that this is an animal whose wants and needs do not always transform to ours.

“It is not they who desire to talk, but cannot,” says Horowitz, “it is that we desire them to talk and cannot make out, or cannot be bothered to make out, what they are actually saying.”

Well, Horowitz seems to be taking the time to try to make out what they are saying as she begins work with her Dog Cognition lab. By studying barks, whimpers and growls, Horowitz and her team at Columbia have set out to determine the “communicative function of these intra-Canid vocalizations.” The plan is to extend these findings to human-dog interaction with the hopes of gaining a better understanding of the relationship.

Horowitz has already done a fine job of that with Inside of a Dog, but there is little sense in stopping when there is so much ground to break. —Brendan Quealy

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