Thursday, February 25, 2010

Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz

iconiconWhen I first started reading Inside of a Dog, by Alexandra Horowitz, I thought I wasn't going to like it. She starts the book out by talking about how you shouldn't anthropomorphize. Since I personally hate it when people claim that animals don't have thoughts and feelings, that any interpretation of such is anthropomorphizing, I was concerned that the book was going to be a long lecture on how dogs are just dumb animals.

Hardly the case at all. Horowitz does more than just assume that dogs are thinking, feeling, sentient beings — she goes through studies and other research that have tried to show what goes on inside a dog's head. It's a fascinating book.

One of the points she makes is that it is pretty much useless to try to study wolves as how dogs would act in the wild. As Horowitz points out, dogs have been domesticated for a very long time, so the "wild" has been pretty much bred out of them. As a result, they behave very differently from wolves. For instance, they are helpless as babies for longer than wolves are, and they also continue playing as adults, which apparently wolves (as well as most other animals) do not do.

An entire chapter is dedicated to the canine nose. For instance, people tend to think of dogs all urinating on the same post at the park as "marking their territory," but that's not quite correct. Horowitz says that dogs' sense of smell is perhaps as much as a million times greater than ours, and therefore they probably get a lot more complex of a message out of urine than we do. They probably pick out each individual dog's scent, as well as how long ago it was left. My husband and I often joke that when our dog is sniffing a pee spot at the park, she's thinking, "Fido was here last week, Sammy was here just yesterday," and so on — but even though we're being funny, that's probably not that far from the truth.

She also talks a lot about playing and the social behaviors associated with it. She has taken a lot of video footage, which she later plays back in slow motion so that she can see all the interactions that our eyes miss. There is a lot more going on there than we think.

But there is some stuff I disagree with. She says that dogs are in the moment, that they don't think about the past or future. I disagree. They obviously remember stuff, so I think it's pretty clear they think about it (as that's how memories are made). They also obviously anticipate walks (with excitement) and trips to the vet (with fear or anxiety), so clearly they are thinking about what is in store for them. In fact, she even gives an example of how she used to leave treats out for her dog, who would find them all but wait to eat them until she got home. A creature living solely in the moment would not have waited!

In any case, whether you agree or disagree with some of it, there is a lot of good research and information in this book. It's also written so that it is a fairly easy read. And (this may be the best part) it is a dog book that doesn't have a tearjerker ending. She does mention her dog's death at the end, but since the book is about dogs in general, it doesn't have the same effect as those infernal dog memoirs!