Saturday, November 5, 2016

Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz

Many people’s expectations, at least in this country, are fairly similar: be friendly, loyal, pettable; find me charming and lovable—but know that I am in charge; do not pee in the house; do not jump on guests; do not chew my dress shoes; do not get into the trash. Somehow, word hasn’t gotten to the dogs.
I heard Alexandra Horowitz on a podcast recently (talking about dogs and their impressive noses), and when I saw her book while searching for something to read on a long car ride home, it immediately jumped out. Horowitz is a behavioral psychologist at Columbia and this book is her attempt to make available to the rest of the world the current science on dogs--what they can and can't perceive and understand about our world. Horowitz calls this the "umwelt"--the physical and emotional perspective that a creature occupies--and she spends the whole book trying to uncover and illustrate for us what it's like to be a dog. She acknowledges early on that some of the biggest questions we have about our canine companions--What are they really thinking about? Do they miss me when I'm at work? What's with the incessant barking?--aren't really answerable yet, but she does her best.

Horowitz does an impressive job of making the world of animal cognition accessible to us Normals without dumbing down or over simplifying. The book is chock full of scientific research, explained clearly and cogently. Some of the research is hers--she filmed hundreds of hours of dogs at play and analyzed the tape to break down dogs' social interactions with each other--but much of it is by other researchers, and it ranges from studies on finches to tracking of wolf populations. Horowitz has expertly wrangled decades of research on a massive range of topics and made all of it easily digestible and clearly applicable to the every day dog owner. She uses footnotes to delve into more detail and has an extensive list of cited studies at the end for the nerds who want more, but even without extra reading, I felt incredibly well informed and continually in awe of how incredible dogs are. They can smell changes in their humans indicating everything from cancer to anxiety, track footsteps for miles, and can read us way better than we can read them.

Sprinkled throughout the science writing are anecdotal notes and observations of Horowitz's dog, Pump. They served as real world illustrations for the research she was describing or opening vignettes to new chapters, but they also were some of my favorite parts because I so clearly saw my dog, Maggie, in them.
...Her ungluate-grazing sniff, nose deep in a patch of good grass, trawling the ground and not coming up for air; the examinatory sniff, judging a proffered hand; the alarm clock sniff, close enough to my sleeping face to tickle me awake with her whiskers; the contemplative sniff, nose held high in the wake of a breeze. All followed by a half sneeze--just the CHOO, no AH--as though to clear her nostrils of whatever molecule she'd just inhaled...
These observations, meticulous in their detail and wide ranging, made me look more closely at my own dog. They've lent a sense of curiosity to my interactions with her that wasn't there before, and that same curiosity (on Horowitz's part) is felt throughout the book. One of my favorite thing she touches on is how brilliant dogs are at staying in the moment. Mindfulness--the nonjudgmental experience of the senses--is all the rage these days, and dogs, in their own quiet way, have much to teach us on immersing ourselves completely in the sensory world around us. This could easily have become a long summary of years of research, impersonal and sterile, but Horowitz's deep and abiding love of and awe for her own dog make it more of a love letter than a scientific treatise.

Through her descriptions of our dogs' umwelts Horowitz touches on some lessons for dog owners, but they aren't the lessons you usually find in dog books. Horowitz urges us to keep our dogs' perspectives in mind while creating habitats for them and leading them through the world: don't bathe them too often, let them sleep with you, let them pull towards that exciting smell. So much of the advice about dogs today is meant to cram them into a narrowly defined sense of how dogs "should" behave, and Horowitz uses research (and compassion and love) to push back against that sense of "should." As a fairly lax down owner myself (I have never bathed my dog; she sleeps with us; we have yet to successfully train her out of pulling towards exciting scents), this book felt very reassuring. I'm not screwing this up nearly as much as I thought.

If you're a dog person, you must must must read this book. Writing this review made me want to go back and read it all over again.

No comments: