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The Napping Anthropologists

By (April 1, 2010) No Comment

Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know
By Alexandra Horowitz
Scribner, 2009

When I was a boy growing up in small-town Oregon, my family had a German shepherd dog named King. He was black-faced and massive, and he ruled over our neighborhood’s other dogs. When I was in grade school he would accompany me and my brothers on our walk to school, and he’d be waiting in the afternoon to accompany us back home. Occasionally he’d need to fight some dog to reaffirm his dominance over his territory. He never killed another dog, but he never lost either.

By the time I was in high school, King’s face was matted with grey hairs, and he only rarely decided to accompany me anywhere. I vividly recall one of those times: I was walking to my high school one afternoon on some after-school errand, and King was with me. He’d been with me my whole life, so I really didn’t notice that he was walking a little slower, that perhaps his posture wasn’t as perfect as it was in old family videos. To me he was just King; he seemed eternal.

Passing an open lot, we encountered a dog neither of us knew. The newcomer was a big shaggy lab-mix, and he approached us with that stiff-legged stillness dogs use to signal their unhappiness at meeting a stranger. I’d learned from childhood to let King come forward and handle such situations, so I stopped walking and stepped aside. To my amazement, King didn’t move. He was watching the dog come closer, and he was growling in his throat, but it wasn’t a public growl, not really, and certainly the other dog paid it no mind.

I belatedly realized I had to do something myself. I reached down and picked up a rock, and the other dog froze (National Geographic photographers have confirmed what the Roman poet Lucian wrote two thousand years ago: the human gesture of facing a dog while stooping to pick up something off the ground seems universally known to dogs as a sign of danger to themselves – from Pakistan to Paraguay, dogs instantly grow wary when they see it). As soon as he saw that I was preparing to defend myself, King began growling and then barking in earnest, but he didn’t sally forth to meet the other dog nose-to-nose, as he would have when I was in grade school. Instead, he stayed right by my side as he did his protective barking, occasionally glancing toward me during the racket.

That evening and the next day, King wouldn’t make eye contact with me, and he stayed in our yard. I got the distinct impression he was ashamed of the way he’d behaved the day before.

I told my high school biology teacher about it, he sniffed and said I was guilty of anthropomorphism. King wasn’t feeling ashamed, he told me; King was incapable of feeling ashamed, since that was a human emotion. I was feeling ashamed, and I was projecting that onto my dog. When I told this to my father, he grunted and said, “Of course King’s ashamed. He isn’t cock of the walk anymore, and he knows it.” Then he paused, looked me straight in the face, and said, “Dog ‘experts’ don’t know beans.”

There’s an inverse relationship between the ubiquity of a subject and the esteem in which we hold those who claim expertise in those subjects. What really active person hasn’t caught themselves wondering if the ‘fitness expert’ employed by their health club isn’t just some pretty guy who likes hanging out in the weight room? Who hasn’t excoriated the evening news’ meteorologist for not knowing what we can all see going on right outside the window? And really, which of us doesn’t fancy himself an expert on dogs? After all, they’re all around us, they always have been, and they’re not exactly secretive. If somebody writes a field guide to ocelots, readers will say, “Huh – I never knew all this stuff!” But if somebody writes a book about dogs, those same readers are apt to say, “Huh – what the Hell do you know?” Even Cesar Milan, the famed “dog whisperer,” isn’t the exception that proves the rule: we’re willing to grant him supernatural powers specifically because we don’t want to cede him actual expertise.

These two obstacles – the suspicion of anthropomorphism and the suspicion of fraud – loom before anybody who wants to write a book on dogs, and the library shelves are crowded with authors who tried and to some extent failed. In Dogwatching, Desmond Morris, legendary author of The Naked Ape, calmly informs his readers that tail-wagging in dogs never means simple happiness – and all those readers promptly drop his book right at that point. In No Bad Dogs, Barbara Wodehouse, legendary British “dog whisperer” of a previous generation, sternly tells her readers that they themselves are the worst thing that’s ever likely to happen to their dogs – and all those readers (nearly bankrupt from gourmet dog foods, expensive vet visits, and all the other components of the one billion dollar pet-care industry in the West) promptly drop her book right at that point. In The Hidden Life of Dogs, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas lets her dogs run out into four-lane highway traffic in order to ‘study’ how they deal with it – and readers want to call the SPCA.

In virtually every case, the authors of these books will look guilty of either one obstacle or both. Either they tell us things that we know from our own experience aren’t true – i.e. they’re full of beans – or they start prattling about ‘spiritual’ connections with their dogs, or about how their dog really likes their new therapist – i.e., they’re anthropomorphizing to beat the band.

I had to include that ‘virtually’ because every so often, an author will come along who manages to dance the fine line between know-nothing and know-it-all for the entire course of a book. Alexandra Horowitz is such and author, and her book, Inside of a Dog, is a wise, thoughtful, invigorating examination of man’s best symbiont. It deserves to become a classic of the genre, alongside such works as Konrad Lorenz’s Man Meets Dog or J.P. Ackerley’s My Dog Tulip.

Which isn’t to say it doesn’t start off rough. “I’ve gotten inside of the dog,” Horowitz tells us at one point, “and have glimpsed the dog’s point of view.” How can such a claim fail to make readers suspicious? Add to that the book’s vainglorious subtitle, “What Dogs See, Smell, and Know” – as if any human being could ever give more than a partial account of what dogs see, a fractional account of what they smell, or any real account at all of what they know – and the temptation to a priori dismiss on grounds of fraud are strong indeed.

Anthropomorphism might be a tougher case to make, however – it turns out Horowitz dislikes that as much as her ‘dog whisperer’-weary readers, and she fulminates against it every chance she gets. But it’s a mark of how fair-minded her book is that she also brings her own dog, Pumpernickel, into the proceedings on an extremely regular basis. For all its wide-ranging research and field findings, Inside of a Dog is grounded in that most quotidian of all scientific studies: one owner, paying close attention to her own dog.

Pumpernickel acts as a kind of control group of one for all the various tests and experiments Horowitz reads about and witnesses on dogs of all types. She’s interested in every aspect of dog behavior, from the possibility that they consciously understand some concept of altruism to their various schema of what constitutes fair behavior to the incredibly complex logistics of their play. This last is vital to understanding dogs, and it’s given a satisfying amount of attention in this book. “What’s called, appropriately, ‘rough-and-tumble’ play between two competent, athletic dogs,” Horowitz quite rightly tells us, “is a gymnastic marvel to witness.” She elaborately dissects this marvel, noting it for the biological oddity it is:

Play among dogs is particularly interesting because they play more than other canids, including wolves. And they play into adulthood, which is rare for most playing animals, including humans. Although we ritualize play into team sports and solo video game marathons, as sober adults we rarely spontaneously blindside and tackle our friends, tag them and run, or make faces at each other. The hobbling, slow-moving fifteen-year-old dog on the block looks warily at the enthusiasms of young puppies approaching him, but even he occasionally play-slaps and bites at a younger dog’s legs in play.

The etiquette of this kind of play is extensive: dogs signal their willingness to play, wait for confirmation, carefully modulate the amount of force they use, and meticulously ‘handicap’ themselves to keep the playing field even, and if play is interrupted, they studiously perform all these rituals in exactly the same order again to re-initiate it. Horowitz is brilliant at supplying the blow-by-blow commentary on what’s actually happening during one of these ‘rough-and-tumble’ sessions, although she would no doubt be the first to admit there’s probably a lot happening that humans don’t perceive (she also points out that one yardstick we have of how complex play behavior can be is that it’s so one-on-one complicated it’s seldom done between more than two adult dogs at once – ‘threesomes’ are rare)

What humans don’t perceive about the dogs in their midst of course takes center stage in an account like this – and that means their sense of smell. Smell is to dogs what sight is to humans – the huge majority of their key sensory input, the sense they have developed beyond all others, and so far beyond humans that they’re almost aren’t words to bridge the gap. The average dog has a sense of smell roughly a million times more sensitive than the average human, and Horowitz is duly awed by the ramifications of this:

We needn’t even touch objects for them to smell of us: as we move, we leave behind a trail of skin cells. The air is perfumed with our constant dehumidifying sweat. Added to this, what we wear or what we’ve eaten today, whom we’ve kissed, what we’ve brushed against. Whatever cologne we put on merely adds to the cacophony. On top of this, our urine, traveling down from the kidneys, catches odorous notes from other organs and glands: the adrenal glands, the renal tubes, and potentially the sex organs. The trace of this concoction on our bodies and our clothes provides more uniquely specific information about us. As a result, dogs find it incredibly easy to distinguish us by scent alone. Trained dogs can tell identical twins apart by scent.

Leaps of imagination are necessary on this particular subject, because the reality is so staggering. Dogs have two eyes in the front of their faces like humans do, and two ears on the sides of their heads like humans do. But through their noses, dogs experience a reality as alien to humans as the exquisite pleasures of a symphony orchestra would be to a dog. Luckily for her readers, Horowitz is quite good – and unfailingly entertaining – at making such imaginative leaps:

Imagine if each detail of our visual world were matched by a corresponding smell. Each petal on a rose may be distinct, having been visited by insects leaving pollen footprints from faraway flowers. What is to us just a single stem actually holds a record of who held it, and when. A burst of chemicals marks where the leaf was torn. The flesh of the petals, plump with moisture compared to that of the leaf, holds a different odor besides. The fold of a leaf has a smell; so does a dew-drop on a thorn. And time is in those details: while we can see one of the petals drying and browning, the dog can smell this process of decay and aging.

Fourteen thousand years ago, dogs allied themselves with humans in an act of opportunism familiar to all canine species – they were drawn closer as scavengers. In this, those prototypical house pets were no different from the skittering arctic foxes that follow in the wake of polar bears (and have been known to help them find seal dens): it’s easier to cadge meals off others than to hunt them down yourself, especially if the prey animal is outside your weight division. And Horowitz – in a refreshing note seldom found in comparable tracts on domestic pets – is happy to acknowledge this:

The orderliness of most of our interactions with dogs clashes mightily with their atavistic side. Once in a while it feels as if some renegade ancient gene takes a hold of the domesticated product of its peers. A dog bites his owner, kills the family cat, attacks a neighbor. This unpredictable, wild side of dogs should be acknowledged. The species has been bred for millennia, but it evolved for millions of years before that without us. They were predators. Their jaws are strong, their teeth designed for tearing flesh. They are wired to act before contemplating action. They have an urge to protect – themselves, their families, their turf – and we cannot always predict when they will be prompted to be protective. And they do not automatically heed the shared premises of humans living in civilized society.

But dogs then did something more, something (as Lorenz and many others have pointed out) that no other animal species had ever done: they moved from simple opportunistic scavenging to full and willing partnership. They became more human, and to a certain extent (a process of species imitation explored in fascinating detail in Jon Franklin’s The Wolf in the Parlor, where he posits that humans learned much of their own playfulness, adaptability, and group cooperation from the dogs they took into their midst) humans became more canine; the two species intertwined so thoroughly that in the creation myths of many wildly disparate nations, the dog is represented as needing no creation – as having been there from the beginning.

Horowitz uses large sections of Inside of a Dog to explore that primeval connection, and the royal road she chooses is cognition: just how much do dogs know, and how do they know it? How does the information they acquire all day long go into forming their own individual world-views (Horowitz favors the pretentious term ‘umwelt’ in place of world-view, and boy oh boy, does she favor it – this German word occurs more times in her book than it does in your average Hegel treatise, to the point where the long-suffering reader will be tempted to break into their best Zero Mostel and say, “Enough with the umwelts already!”)? For Horowitz, the key to these questions is doggie I.Q. – and the experiments and studies she adroitly summarizes will interest anybody who’s ever wanted to know just what their dog really thinks. Horowitz is certain of one thing that many of those dog owners might dispute – their pets aren’t airheads:

…dogs certainly remember a large amount: they remember their owners, their homes, the place they walk. They remember innumerable other dogs, they know about rain and snow after experiencing them once; they remember where to find a good smell and where to find a good stick. They know when we can’t see what they are doing; they remember what made us mad last time they chewed it up; they know when they are allowed on the bed and when they are forbidden from it. They only know these things because they have learned them – and learning is just memory of associations or events over time.

Dogs combine all they know and all they remember with a surprisingly discriminating sense of how the world around them works, and humans are at the center of that world. If you record the ferocious growls a dog makes to protect a bone and play them back with the speaker next to the bone, dogs will avoid approaching it even if they see no other dog nearby – the recording is enough. But if you record a video of yourself admonishing your dogs not to eviscerate your couch and time it to play while you’re at work, most tested dogs will pause for only a few dismissive seconds before ripping apart your couch cushions – they can tell the you they have to listen to from the you they don’t (reckoning future consequences not being a canine strong suite) Dogs routinely outscore not only chimpanzees and small children in experiments designed to see how well participants pick up on body language and nonverbal clues (cats declined to participate in the tests. Sigh). Horowitz enthuses that they are anthropologists among us, which no doubt is going too far. But they are our ultimate voyeurs, intensely attuned to every tiny ripple of our behavior. This is flattering for us, of course, and science is only now starting to ask how cognitively beneficial it is for dogs in turn.

Horowitz asks such questions, and she restlessly prods her data for more answers – and the process of watching her lively, energetic mind grapple with the at times oddly fragmentary current scientific knowledge of these omnipresent animals is the single most fun aspect of reading Inside of a Dog. Through living with Pumpernickel, Horowitz knows what all dog owners know: there’s more going on in this goofy, wonderful animal than traditional studies – excessively leery of anthropomorphism – have determined. She is of course certain that dogs are sensitive, intelligent, emotional, and nuanced. I was certain, all those years ago, that my dog King was experiencing an emotion indistinguishably similar to human embarrassment – it was one of the few instances in my life where I could hear the contrary assertion of an authority figure and simply know that assertion was wrong.

Inside of a Dog is thus intimately concerned with how dogs talk to each other, and what they might have to tell us. Language is at the paradoxical heart of Horowitz’s hymn of praise to their company:

… despite their marvelous range and extent of communication, it is the very fact that they do not use language that makes me especially treasure dogs. Their silence can be one of their most endearing traits. Not muteness: absence of linguistic noise. There is no awkwardness in a shared silent moment with a dog: a gaze from a dog on the other side of the room; lying sleepily alongside each other. It is when language stops that we connect most fully.

As a coda for this excellent book, this is revealingly contradictory: as Horowitz’s own investigations confirm over and over, dogs are very seldom truly silent. Their chatter just has a different vocabulary – one we’re learning more and more about all the time, thanks to books like this one. And cognition studies only cover half the picture, as Horowitz knows quite well. “To be nudged by a dog’s nose,” she tells us with simple, heartfelt conviction, “is a pleasure unmatched.”

Tucker “Tuc” MacFarland is a lifelong dog-owner and retired tour boat captain in the Florida Keys. He currently lives north of Seattle and writes regularly on animals and natural history for Open Letters.