Inside of a Dog – Alexandra Horowitz

Alexandra Horowitz racked up major brownie points right from the beginning with this book. The title comes from one of my favorite quotes ever, from the mouth of Groucho Marx. Also, early on she heads complaints off at the pass by stating that she is using “owner” rather than “pet parent” or some other such silly phrasing because that’s the legal term, and she will use “him” and “his” when referring to dogs in general because that’s the English default, and, knowing dogs as she does, “it” is not an option. That latter scored high with me: I have Issues with writers who use “it” for animals (particularly those who talk about a mare or stallion and then call the horse “it”), so this made me happy. She is a long-time dog person, so all else being equal we are kindred spirits.

And it is a fascinating look at canine life and behavior. I’m not sure it made me see my dog in a whole new light as she promised it would, except for a qualm every time I scratch her back that I might be asserting my dominance – but she loves every second of it, so if I am dominating her she’s ok with it. I pretty much knew about the dominance of scent in a dog’s life; I did not know about the way a dog perceives color (they’re not colorblind, exactly). I knew a little about signs of dominance and submission; I didn’t know about what face-licking might really mean. (Pop goes the illusion…ew.) I like the insight that the pitch of a voice, canine or human, in many ways equates to size: low and menacing indicates not only a warning but the idea “and I’m big enough to follow through, too.”

Something I sort of knew but found confirmation for: wolves howl when they’re lonely. So, I can attest, do beagles. Only moreso.

One valuable thing this book does is reiterate the common-sense yet somehow easily overlooked point that, just as we don’t know why our dogs do some of the things they do, most of what we the people do (much less say) is utterly incomprehensible to dogs. That, very simply, they don’t think the way we do. It’s all very well for us to say “don’t get up on the couch, no, bad!” – but there’s a very simple reason it’s so hard to enforce. To a dog the couch is not an expensive piece of furniture which needs to be protected from shed fur and stains – it’s a nice soft elevated surface to curl up on, with a nice back to it to curl up against, and after all that’s what the bipeds use it for. And how can you honestly expect a dog to ignore that pail of food scraps and wrappers under the sink when it’s just sitting there at her level smelling (to her) so wonderful? Again, “no, bad!” doesn’t really make sense to a dog, however often and however loudly it’s repeated. It’s food. It’s there. It’s unprotected. It’s hers. Dogs don’t naturally do many of the things we ask them to do; many owners, and even many trainers seem to either forget that they’re not mute people but canines, and this is where dressed-up dogs doing ridiculous things on command come from. Poor things.

This book made me happy I never successfully trained any of our dogs to heel (not that I tried too strenuously).

I was simultaneously impressed with and bemused by the tales of the research studies that have been conducted on dogs; on the one hand, some of the results are fascinating – where dogs’ mental processes may (or may not) function like toddlers’; on the other, I found myself marveling that well-educated grownups spend their days fooling around with dogs, all in the name of science. Some of them wore buckets on their heads.

Three-quarters of the way in, the author addresses the idea of canine heroism: all those stories about dogs that saved lives by barking to alert someone of a snake or a fire, or stayed with someone lost in the snow and saved them by keeping them warm, or swam out into a raging torrent to save a child. Yes, but, the author notes, what about all those times someone died because a dog didn’t respond? And – Yes, but, researchers ask, do they do this sort of thing on purpose – or was it incidental? Which I found slightly outrageous – no one with any sense ever said that dog acted heroically because they have a clear understanding that they are acting heroically. I don’t quite understand the need to try to determine motivation; I’ve always assumed that it’s about the same thing as almost any animal there is putting itself at risk for its young. Also, there’s the simple fact of dogs’ individual personalities. It’s not anthropomorphizing to say that just as some humans run toward danger while everyone else is running away, some dogs will be helpless or confused – or run away – when faced with a human in danger.

At any rate, these researchers decided to test the hero response in a group of dogs, and had their owners fake traumatic events. Some flung themselves on the floor pretending to have heart attacks, groaning and clutching their chests. Others caused lightweight bookcases to fall on themselves, “crushing” them so that they writhed and cried out in fake pain. And, the author continues with what might just have been a hint of glee, not a single dog rushed to the rescue of his pseudo-endangered owner, nor pulled a Lassie, dashing off to bring help to pull Timmy from the well.

My problem with this is: The author spent the previous 237 pages talking about how very much the nose is the dog’s primary sense organ, how he knows the world through his nose. A decent chunk of the chapter focusing on how the dog perceives the world was spent talking about how our emotions and physical well-being are broadcast through our scent. Hence the ability of some dogs to sense epileptic seizures or detect cancer. So: is it not possible that the dogs involved in these tests, based on olfactory evidence, were fully aware that their owners were in no danger whatsoever, that it was more a matter of “I have no idea why Timmy is acting so silly” rather than “OMG! Timmy’s in the well!”, and that’s why they didn’t react? The dogs could smell a rat, so to speak. Clutching one’s chest and moaning is simply not going to convey to a dog what it does to another human; I probably exhibited that sort of behavior through every single one of Bush 43’s State of the Union addresses, but the distress I felt was emotional and mental, not physical, and Daisy didn’t twitch: my scent would have indicated frustration and disgust, not any sort of distress she had to do anything about. However, when I came home from the hospital after having spent the day hovering or trying to hover over my mother who had just broken her hip, and I sat down on the steps and cried, not only Daisy but my brother’s dog (staying with us at the time) converged on me and stood on my legs, one on each side, and leaned into me and stayed with me, and generally saved my sanity. I credit those two dogs with heroism for that night – and I do not believe their reaction was simply due to the fact they’d been alone for much of the day.

And that brings me back to individual responses. When I cry, Daisy will more often than not come and get in my lap. Butch II would as well – and he was about 80 pounds. Now that’s comforting. But the most-told story about our first dog (Butch Xavier (#1), as opposed to Butch Cassidy (#2) – it was pure chance we had two Butches, and a story for another day) is about how, after my mother’s twin sister died, she grieved deeply. The phone would ring, and she would field another call from family or a friend, and she would cry – and Butch would get up from where he was lying, give her what can only be called a dirty look – as if to say “Good lord, AGAIN?” – and take himself downstairs to sleep in the crawlspace under the steps. (And she would laugh – but he was already gone, so that’s not why he did it.) He was more of a loner, sociable purely on his own terms. I think if any of the family had fallen down a well, Butch X. would have looked at us with a thought bubble over his head reading “Here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten yourself into. Good luck with that” and wandered off to get into the trash. I think Daisy would try to do something, but if more than her physical presence was required she might be at a loss. Butch C. (Butch II) I can see digging a parallel tunnel and coming in for us with a power bar and a bottle of water in his teeth. (Yes, he was awesome.)

(Apropos of nothing, another Butch X story is the one my sister tells of how she came home late one night. Everyone was in bed, but Butch was lying at the foot of the stairs in the living room. She came in; he woke up, acknowledged her, and passed gas. After which he stood up, gave her what she describes as the dirtiest of dirty looks – a “Oh, now, really” sort of look – and stalked away. And she almost hurt herself laughing, with no one to tell till morning.)

It’s the same thing with the situation of an intruder. Faced with a dangerous stranger, Butch I – possessive, if not overly affectionate – would have ripped him to shreds. Butch II would have ripped him to shreds, ripped the shreds to bits, checked on his family’s welfare, and then buried the intruder’s remains in the backyard. I adore my Daisy, but I think she would fling herself on the stranger’s feet, sniffing madly at one end and wagging madly at the other. She’s a lover, not a fighter. So suddenly for my eyes there is a new light on all these studies and tests; as Horowitz points out herself, one dog or one chimp or one rat cannot legitimately stand in for its entire species.

Overall, this book did an admirable job of both teaching me what an umwelt is and helping me deepen my understanding of a dog’s. This was a comprehensible, mostly-plain-language, often very funny and occasionally moving study which both solidified and informed my stance as a fiercely partisan dog person. While it’s not intended as a training guide, there’s some wonderfully common sense information, particularly toward the end, which will be valuable both with Daisy and when – hopefully years from now – I next need it. Did it change the way I see my beagle? Not much. But I do feel like I have a better handle on what’s going on between those long ears. I have an even deeper appreciation for that always-busy nose.

And I’m kind of glad she’s never been much of a face-licker.

(I don’t have any pictures of Butch Xavier digitized, but here are my other two beloveds.)

Butch the Second

My Daisy


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3 Responses to Inside of a Dog – Alexandra Horowitz

  1. tmso says:

    I’ve been wanting to read that book for awhile. I’ll have to get it soon. I, too, have a dog. And, no, he won’t save me in a traumatic event. He’ll be waiting for me to save him, but he does respond to the smallest of mood changes in either myself or my husband. And…he senses things…I can’t explain because it would impinge on my husband’s privacy, but the dog KNOWS. I’m sure it is because he smells it. Very cool.

  2. I need to return to this book, which I read most of shortly after it was published. I found the book insightful and interesting — and unforgettable. (I often recall the insights presented in the book.)

    Your analysis of the dogs’ life-saving experiment is spot-on; I’ve similarly wondered if dogs sense when you’re “faking it”.

    Anyway, I’m a new dog owner, and I aim to re-read Horovitz’ book as soon as I find it.

  3. stewartry says:

    I actually do too – I now have a new dog in my life (a lot sooner than expected), and refreshing my memory is an excellent idea. (I just need to find mine, too.) Congratulations on your new dog, and thank you for the comment!

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