Book review: “Inside of a Dog”
January 22, 2017
Ask any committed dog owner to describe his or her canine family member in detail, and uncountable variations will present themselves. This is a reflection of both the variety of dogs and the variety of humans who own them. One consistency, though, across the canine-human relationship spectrum is the profound potential for deep connections and strong mutual fascination. In her bestselling book, author and scientist, Alexandria Horowitz delves into the unique bond between humans and their best friends, but she does it from the perspective of the dog, rather than from the human. "Inside of a Dog; What Dogs See, Smell, and Know," is captivating and revealing to anyone who has ever loved a furry ball of puppy energy.
She begins the book with a scene familiar to every dog owner — an impromptu play session between a massive wolfhound and a tiny Chihuahua. "These dogs are so incommensurable with each other they may as well be different species." Yet, in spite of their seemingly incompatible size difference, the two animals — different breeds, but no doubt the same species — manage to maneuver past any obstacles to engage in comfortable and joyous play.
Self-described as a scientist whose job it is to study how animals behave, Horowitz makes it very clear that she is also someone who has always loved and lived with dogs. Having studied the behavior of truly wild animals such as the white rhino and the bonobos monkey, she thought that a behavioral study of the creature humans have lived most closely with for thousands of years was long overdue. She began by just watching — really watching — then video-taping and rewatching, in slow-motion, the behavior of dogs, on a daily basis.
Key to her study, given the mutual affection between dogs and humans, was to maintain an analytical viewpoint. It is crucial, she says, to be "wary of anthropomorphizing animals, attributing to them the feelings, thoughts, and desires that we use to describe ourselves." This requires a level of suspension, mostly of the human egocentric perspective, as for example, what a "smile" means for a human is not what a "smile" means for various animals.
Crucial is the understanding of what each species perceives and how they act within their own "self-worlds," or "umwelts," a term she references often. Determining a dog's perspective on the world — without a human slant being interwoven — is a challenge. But, Horowitz says, focusing on the two most crucial pieces of how a dog interprets the world is a good starting place, and this means a real examination of a dog's senses of smell and hearing.
With this beginning framework in mind, she says that it is important to remember when gathering data that dogs are neither wolves nor humans, but they have often been treated as such, when in reality they are an example of evolution on hyperdrive. "The change from wolf to dog was striking in its speed. Humans took nearly two million years to morph from Homo habilis to Homo sapiens, but the wolf leapfrogged into dogness in a fraction of the time."
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Looking at a dog, it is not rocket science to determine that the nose plays an important role — hence its prominence of the dog's face. A dog's sensitivity to smells is many millions of times better than a human's, and Horowitz says it is this ability that has played a major part in bolstering the dog/human relationship over time. Dogs can smell emotion and other human parameters, including food eaten, and even, some studies have shown, illnesses, including some cancers and seizures.
A dog's sense of smell is just one of the many acute tools they use to communicate, and "Inside of a Dog" gives ample time to all, resulting in a portrait of man's best friend that has a depth and a poignancy for anyone who loves their furry friends to distraction. The concepts of guilt and boredom, the blissful joy of a dreaming hound, and even the philosophical question of just how a dog experiences life — and death — are addressed with clarity and eloquence.
Perhaps the best take away from Horowitz's book is the idea that the surest way to understand a dog is to spend less time looking at them through human eyes and then trying to shape a dog's experience accordingly, but instead, spend more time enjoying the exceedingly unique bond that is man and dog in each singular and exclusive moment. "Our interactions enact a dance to which only we know the particular steps. Two things — domestication and development — made the dance possible at all."
How lucky it is for everyone who has ever had the privilege of participating in that dance.
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