Thursday, August 4, 2011

INSIDE OF A DOG by Alexandra Horowitz

"Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend.
Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read."
- attributed to Groucho Marx

Alexandra Horowitz has both a personal and a professional interest in dogs. Besotted with her own dogs - the late lamented Pumpernickel and the current model, Finnegan - she is also an assistant professor of psychology at Barnard College, where she studies animal cognition. According to Barnard's website, she "is currently testing anthropomorphisms made of the domestic dog, through experiments with dogs in natural settings."

Dogs, she points out, are not people. They perceive the world in an entirely different way from how we perceive it, and if we expect dogs to have human responses to our bumbling attempts to befriend and train them, we'll be disappointed. (So that's why my dogs never respond to my carefully reasoned explanations!) She labels the-world-as-perceived-by-dogs their umwelt, and much of the book is an explanation of how the world looks, sounds, feels, and especially smells to our canine friends.

On the other hand - and contrary to much popular opinion - she insists that dogs are not wolves. After at least ten thousand years of domestication, many of their physical, psychological, social, and developmental characteristics set them apart from their near relatives. "As the domestication process probably began with early canids scavenging around human groups - eating our table scraps," she writes, "it is a particularly silly stance to feed dogs only raw meat, on the theory that they are wolves at heart. Dogs are omnivores who for millennia have eaten what we eat."

Dogs, says Horowitz, are anthropologists. They study our behavior - our typical actions, and especially every minute variation of or departure from our usual theme. They know when we're thinking about going for a walk. They know how to persuade us to give them food. They may not actually feel guilt or shame (the jury is out on that one), but they know when they're likely to be punished.

And they know how to communicate. Not only with us (wag, lick, dance, growl) but also with other dogs: in one fascinating chapter, Horowitz describes how dogs invite each other to play, how they respond to another dog's invitation to play, how they play, and why they will play with some dogs and not others.

Are dogs, then, highly intelligent? Do they ponder philosophical questions? Most important, do they really, truly, love us? Read Horowitz and see what you think.

If you're only ever going to read one book on animal behavior, though, the book to read is Temple Grandin's highly original Animals in Translation. Once you've read that, you probably won't be able to keep from reading Grandin's follow-up book, Animals Make Us Human (my review is here). If those books whet your appetite - or if you want to skip the parrots and monkeys and cows and head straight for dogs - Inside of a Dog is a good choice. It's research based, well documented, aimed at a general audience, and seasoned with humor.

Your dogs will thank you for reading it - though if they had their druthers, you'd first take them for a walk.

1 comment:

Dr. Lora Wiens said...

I agree, Animals in Translation is absolutely amazing but this also sounds like a good read!