Book Review: Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz

Horowitz, Alexandra. Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know. New York: Scribner, 2009. 978-1-4165-8340-0.

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I grew up with cats, although I spent much of my youth desperately wanting a dog (specifically, a cocker spaniel I would name “Wolfgang,” precocious little shit that I was). In retrospect, it’s a good thing I didn’t get one, since I would never have suspected how much work dogs require in order to keep them happy.

Almost as soon as I got my first apartment, I got my first personal cats. It wasn’t until last March, over ten years after moving out of my parents’ house, that I finally got the dog I’d longed for (not a cocker spaniel, thank goodness). There is still one resident cat in the household, and I like it that way. I would not define myself as either a cat person or a dog person—someone who prefers one animal to the exclusion of the other—but more of an animal lover in general.

(Full confession: As I write this, the cat and dog are wrestling, an activity that provokes a lot of yowling, and I am rethinking my desire to have pets.)

Anyway, at my age everyone has either a dog or an infant, or (in the case of some unlucky souls) both. I find infants tedious*, so it’s nice to have a good reserve of dog facts in case I need to one-up some oblivious acquaintance who persists in explaining how intriguing her spawn actually is.

Alexandra Horowitz is an unabashed dog person, and also a Ph.D.-holding cognitive scientist with experience studying a variety of mammals, including humans, rhinoceroses, and dogs. In Inside of a Dog, she gives a brief overview of research on dog cognition, behavior, and umwelt—the “subjective or ‘self-world’” (20). For example, humans are primarily visual creatures. Dogs are far and away primarily olfactory-dependent. What does this mean for how they perceive the world in which they live?

In exploring these and other questions, Dr. Horowitz gives a comprehensible but not overly complex review of the current literature regarding dogs. Her tone is conversational and lightly humorous (no surprise to anyone who recognizes the source of the book’s title as that old Groucho Marx line, “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.”). While a few of her sentences fall short (in particular, one retelling of an old Woody Allen story made me wish for my red editor’s pen), she’s a competent writer on the whole and the book is a quick and delightful read.

As an academic, I’m used to making my way through somewhat more complicated works—the stuff published by university presses with a hundred pages of bibliographic notes and a full index in the back, to say nothing of analysis of the statistical data in the referenced studies. Here, there is none of that—although some (probably most) papers and books she referred to are listed by topic at the end, there are no in-text citations or notes. Don’t misunderstand, I’m not leveling accusations that something vital has been omitted, but I could have handled (and would have enjoyed) a slightly more scientifically rigorous book.

Horowitz’s book is not about dog training, but it does contain some information on how to train a dog. Ms. Horowitz here differs from the majority of trainers in that she feels that teaching too many commands to a dog somehow loses part of the dog’s dogness: “When come here has been learned, a good argument can be made that there is little else by way of commands that an ordinary dog needs to know” (286). She also does not approve of punishment (much like B.F. Skinner, the father of operant conditioning) and suggests that inappropriate behavior should be allowed to die out through ignoring it—what Skinner called extinction. There are problems with this, however. For example, when one’s dog is playing too rough with the cat, simply ignoring the behavior is not sufficient, since the cat’s response to the behavior is rewarding to the dog (not to mention that, depending on the size of the dog, the cat may risk physical harm from unrestrained play). Some better way of terminating the behavior is necessary. However, Dr. Horowitz makes a good point when she says that we have to allow

"Wait...inside of a what?"

for the dogness of a dog in training it, and recognize that regardless of how well trained a dog is, it’s still a dog, not a tiny furry human.

An anecdote: My dog, a shiba inu got from a rescue in northern Illinois, knows fewer than ten commands. She does the usual sit, stay, prone [i.e., “lie down”], down [i.e., “off the sofa”], and up [“jump into the car”]. More interestingly, despite not being formally taught that the cat is referred to by the word “cat,” and despite not having any herding instincts (I mean, shibas were originally bred for hunting small game), when we say, “Maya, where’s the cat?” she will run and find the cat and herd her to us. So how does that happen? Horowitz offers a few clues: When sheep dog puppies are raised with sheep (which they have to be, in order to become good sheep dogs), they come to believe that the sheep are essentially other dogs. So the dog may believe that “cat” is just a name applied to this other dog in the household. After all, they both have pointy ears and whiskers. She had also seen us go through the motions of looking for the cat (and of evicting the cat from the bedroom, where she is not allowed to go). The first time Maya noticed the cat trying to go into the bedroom, she herded her away from the dog. Our laughter and periodic praise for this kind of behavior probably led to her understanding, in some way, that we like it when she responds to our inquiries about the cat by finding the cat (dogs are keen observers of human behavior; while Derrida felt discomfort at his cat’s gaze reminding him of “the animal that therefore I am,” the gaze of a dog is more of an inquiry into our humanness, an evolutionary attempt to bridge a gap between two species that have long lived together). So without conscious effort on our part, we suggested to the dog that her assistance in surveilling the cat would be appreciated. If only we could train her to bark when she wants to go outside or something.

Dr. Horowitz brings the book to life with little drawings and descriptions of life with her dog, Pumpernickel. Somehow these descriptions wound up being really touching, instead of just illustrating various points she was trying to make. I’ll admit it, at the end of the book, when she talked about Pump’s inevitable old age and death, I cried. I’m a soft touch when it comes to animals, though. I can’t help but take this as an important warning delivered in an almost Daoist way: over and over again, Horowitz implores us to pay attention to our dogs. Look at them, really see them. Apart from the benefits in understanding canine behavior, it really drives home the point that, although now you have a partner, a dog, a cat, a child, eventually things will change and you will not have these beings anymore. So pay attention–they’re standing right there. Do you really see them?

At the end, Inside of a Dog has at best whetted my appetite for more information. I have a lot of questions about the evolution of companion animals, both dogs and cats, and what we can expect to see in these terms in the future. But unfortunately, neither this work or others is likely to answer my questions regarding my dog—Why does she bark at cardboard boxes? Why the phobia of paper towel rolls? As Dr. Horowitz points out, there’s a lot of individual variation among dogs, things that cannot be accounted for on the basis of breed or genetics. Just because there are some dogs out there that understand more than 200 words doesn’t make my dog a genius. It just means that some dogs are really smart.

* Also ugly. I am vaguely acquainted with one woman who seems to spend an incredible amount of money getting professional portraits of her infant every few months, and it’s not helping. I assume that parents are compelled to post photos and declare how adorable their offspring are on various social networking sites almost from the moment of birth by the twin demons of sleep deprivation and oxytocin, because really there’s no other explanation. I should also add that if you’re reading this and you have kids who are over the age of, say, two or three, I do find them pretty interesting and you shouldn’t take this personally.