Alexandra Horowitz Interview

An interview with Alexandra Horowitz, author of Inside of a Dog:

What drove you to write this book?

I spent many years living with my own dog, Pumpernickel, and had what to dog owners will be a familiar range of questions about her behavior and experience: What does she do when I'm away from home? Is she bored? Happy? What does she dream about? Why does she roll in that? Pump was a great, unique character, and the longer I knew her, the more curious I became about her.

At the same time, I was working toward my doctorate in cognitive science. I became interested in what is now called "animal cognition": observing the behavior of animals to get an idea of their cognitive capacities. Notably, dogs were not a subject of study when I began: only apes and monkeys (and some other exceptional birds, etc.) were considered to be cognitively interesting -- presumably because of their close relation to humans. But it occurred to me, and to other scientists elsewhere at the same time, that dogs could be studied in the same way. That's when I began doing research observing dogs.

Since then, the study of dog cognition has taken off: there are now dozens of academic groups looking at dog behavior. Still, most academic research doesn't try to answer the kinds of questions I had about my own dog. I wrote the book as a way to make the recent research accessible to those interested in dogs, and to try to apply it toward those questions.

How is your book different than other dog books? Does the world need another book on dogs?

Despite the fabulous photo of a Great Dane's head on the cover (and verso) of the book jacket, I really don't think of my book as a typical "dog book." It is a book about using cognitive science to better imagine the minds of animals -- and the animal I focus on is the dog. It is also an attempt to answer the question "what is it like to be another animal?" -- a philosopher's question, but one that I think many people have about their pets or other animals they run across.

Within the category of books on dogs, I think there is a lot of territory that hasn't been covered yet. We are awash in training books, and in personal stories of cute, or bad, or heroic, or clever dogs. My book is not one of these. It is not a training book (though through a better understanding of his dog, an owner may come to train him better); and it is not a sentimental book (though it is full of the sentiment that comes with having a relationship with one of these magnificent creatures). Instead, this book is about imagining the dog's point of view: how the dog experiences the world; what he wants and needs; what he thinks about and understands. I think this is something we haven't done nearly enough of, especially considering how prevalent dogs are in our society, and in our days.

Could you explain the concept of a dog's "umwelt," which is a centerpiece of your book?

An animal's "umwelt" is what life is like to the animal: the animal's point of view. The idea is that to understand an animal, one has to appreciate how the world looks to the animal. And to do that, one needs to know what sensory equipment these animals have -- how good is their vision? what can they smell? can they detect electrical impulses? etc. -- and the things in the world that are important to them. Humans are a big part of the "umwelten" of dogs -- but in a housefly's umwelt, for instance, we are pretty much indistinguishable from other mammals. On the other hand, the dog and the fly both share an acute perception of, and a fascination in locating, foul-smelling objects -- whereas such smells register to us, but only with a mind to avoid whatever the smell is.

In my book I encourage the reader to try to understand the dog better by paying more attention to what his umwelt is. What can the dog see, smell, hear? What does the dog think about and know about? What things are relevant to the dog, and what things are not? To grasp the dog's umwelt is to better appreciate what it is like to be a dog.

Can we know what is it like to be a dog, then? Do they see the world like we do?

I think it is not possible to know exactly what it's like to be a dog, just as it is impossible to know what it is like to be another person. But the more we know about the dog's abilities, both cognitively and perceptually, the better we are able to imagine what it might be like to be a dog.

We naturally imagine that dogs are more or less like us--only less sophisticated, less smart, with less going on in their heads. This is simply wrong. When we realize what they can sense that we cannot, a new picture appears: one in which the dog is in an extraordinarily rich sensory world, with complex social interactions, and with a special ability to read our behavior. Dogs don't see the world like we do: they "see" mostly through smell -- both through the nose and a special organ called the "vomeronasal organ" in the roof of their mouths. Their vision is pretty good, not as finely detailed and colored as ours is, but it is secondary to their ability to see the world through their noses. Even imagining that is difficult for us vision-centered folks.

You write that we often misinterpret dogs' behavior. Can you give an example of how we do so?

Dogs are frequently treated as though all their behaviors map to human behavior. We call raising a paw "shaking hands" -- this is tongue-in-check, of course, but it is still surprising to learn that "shaking" is a submissive behavior of dogs, done to show that they are not threatening, and to avoid an attack. I certainly don't think that's what people intend to have the dog say with a shake.

My favorite example is of the dog "kiss": a dog's slobbering, rambunctious licking of our mouths when we return from being away is often considered to be a sign of his affection for us. But if we look at the behavior of their cousins and ancestors, wolves, we get a far different impression of this behavior. When a wolf return to the pack from a hunt, he or she is mobbed by his packmates -- who all lick madly at his mouth. What they are trying to do is to get the returning wolf to regurgitate some of the freshly killed meat he has eaten (which they often do).

So when your dog licks your mouth, he is probably doing something similar: seeing what you've eaten, and encouraging you to spit some of it up (they will never be unhappy if you do...unlike the others in your life who may kiss you on the mouth). On the other hand, it is still fair to call this behavior a "greeting" behavior -- one which despite its gory past, is also indication of recognition, familiarity, and -- perhaps! -- affection.

You write "dogs are anthropologists among us," What do they know about us?

Based on smell alone, they seem to know a lot about individuals. They can tell if you've recently had sex, smoked a cigarette, done these things one after another; they know if you've just eaten, or gone for a run, or pet another dog. They can smell your emotions: dogs have the ability to sense the hormones we exude when we are scared; they can most likely detect other emotions too.

Smell is not their only source of information about us. Dog owners are sometimes impressed how dogs know when they are packing for a trip, or getting ready for a walk. This is just the tip of the iceberg. Humans are creatures of habit, tending to act similarly when we get dressed, get ready to go, prepare dinner, etcetera. Dogs are very good at observing the series of events that leads to a consequence of interest (like a walk), and remembering the chain of events that preceded it. Sometimes it seems that dogs know our intent before even we do.

What do you hope readers take away from your book?

I hope people gain a new appreciation of just how different dogs are from what we ordinarily think -- and that people use this to build a new relationship with their dogs based on what the dog can understand and is interested in. I hope that people start taking their dog's umwelt into account -- and thus reconsider putting that raincoat on him, or pulling him away from a good smell, or keeping him from socializing with other dogs.

When people get a dog, one of the first things they set about doing is figuring out how to "train" him. I find this curious -- somewhat like schooling a newborn infant in the house rules as soon as he's home from the hospital. There are so many more compelling ways of dealing with dogs than just training them and then considering the interaction complete. If, instead, we live with them for a while, watch them, let them act doggily, and let them react to us and us react to them, we begin to forge a relationship that is far more interesting for all involved.