Many dog owners tend to anthropomorphize their dogs – ascribe them human thoughts and feelings, often even treating them like furry little humans. Others do the opposite – attribute no human emotions to dogs, treating them as absolutely and unalterably animal, barely tamed from their wild instincts.
(For the record, I am one of the former.)
But this book, Alexandra Horowitz’s Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know, strikes a good balance between the two views. It seeks to explain how dogs really see the world, based on their senses, their history, their morphology. But in doing so, Horowitz does not reduce the dog to its mere physiology and status as an animal so different from us. Humans are animals too, after all. Does this mean we do not also have thoughts and feelings?
Of course not.
No, what Horowitz does is give us a little insight into why dogs do the things they do: why they play, lick our faces, or disobey the commands they have obeyed 100 times. These insights are based in research and science, but they do nothing to lessen the bond between people and dogs. This is because Horowitz understands something that those who coldly dismiss dogs as wild animals do not; that there is something about dogs that is not going to be explained by a sterile science experiment. When you endeavor to understand the dog, you can’t always rely on hard data – there’s got to be a human element, too.
“We do no disservice to dogs by stepping away from the leash and considering them scientifically.”
My favorite parts, by far, were the accounts of the human-dog bond. The author respects this relationship, unlike some scientific examinations that claim “they only act like they love us because we feed them.” Not only does Horowitz understand that that is not true, she explains the bond between people and dogs in a way that is science done properly – science that does not reduce dogs to a set of needs, and adaptations to fulfill those needs.
For example, one of the aspects of this bond Horowitz discusses is the mutual gaze.
Dogs do something that is rare among animals: they use eye contact non-threateningly. In most other species, including wolves, prolonged eye contact is avoided, but not dogs! Horowitz explains that dogs not only make eye contact with us in a friendly manner, but that they also follow our gazes. She describes an experiment in which a treat was hidden under one of two buckets. There was a human who knew where the treat was, and this human would do any number of things to indicate its location. Unlike other animals who were also tested, dogs followed the human’s indication – even when that indication was a mere glance! Not even Chimpanzees, one of our closest relatives, performed so well.
Horowitz uses this to show how deep the human-dog bond flows, and how highly dogs regard their humans (they followed their human’s gazes to a bucket even when they had seen the treat being put under the other bucket).
“The fact that dogs will look us in the eyes allows us to treat them as a little more human.”
There are numerous other examples of this bond in the book. But the reason the gaze is my favorite is because, even more than the descriptions of our bond through touch, through greetings, through the dog licking our faces and hands, the example of the gaze articulated an aspect of my bond with Michga I could never before explain. When I look at her, I am not just seeing her; I am seeing her seeing me. That is why I loved this book.
That being said… while this and the (many, many) other aspects of dogs discussed in the book are very interesting, there is one small issue I had with it: it didn’t come to many conclusions. While there was a wealth of very detailed information, sometimes a section would end and I found myself thinking, “That’s it?” I felt like I was left hanging a bit.
How dogs communicate, for instance. I found myself interested in the section on how the dog’s inability to speak does not mean they do not communicate. Horowitz tells us that dogs communicate in so many other ways, such as with their tails, barks, and posture. I was a bit disappointed, then, when she failed to further explore the significance of these doggy communications. What impact does this have on their interaction with other species, like humans? Is their communicative ability a sign of advanced evolution? How can it be explained in the context of their evolution alongside humans? I also found myself wondering how their communication style differs from that of wolves.
To be fair, I suppose a lot of what Horowitz discusses is difficult or impossible to verify. I wish she would have explained a couple of the theories a bit more, though, even if she could not draw concrete conclusions from them.
Overall, though, I really enjoyed this book. Even though I did already know a lot of the information, it was presented in such a way that it did not feel like I was being taught something I had already learned. Instead, when Horowitz synthesizes the information into one book, she gives the reader a new, or renewed, sense of gratitude for everything that makes dogs who they are.
Finally, what you find at the end of the book is a better understanding – and appreciation, and compassion – of what the world might be like from inside your dog’s head.
P.S. You can probably get this book lots of places, but I got mine on Amazon. If you’re interested.