Alexandra Horowitz’s Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know offers a captivating view of doghood, one simultaneously grounded in strict science and sheer love. With a title whimsically drawn from a Groucho Marx quote (“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read”), the book manages to impart weighty biological and behavioral concepts in an entertaining way.
Horowitz, a psychology professor who has studied humans, dogs, and other species, marries a researcher’s ethos with a dog lover’s delight to create this readable book. Having spent years observing her own dog Pumpernickel at home – and formally documenting the play of pooches at the dog park, teasing her footage apart frame by frame – Horowitz invites the reader to share in her curiosity about what makes dogs tick. Here there are no untested theories or received wisdom about dogs’ motives, needs, or behavior: Horowitz mines study after study of animal behavior to pull together a complete picture of man’s best friend.
In the process, she advocates for a clear-eyed view of dogs as only someone well-steeped in the research could. There are competing viewpoints about dogs, from popular trainers who embrace the wolf side of dogs to those dog lovers who treat their pets as “quadrupedal, slobbery people.” Horowitz says such extreme anthropomorphizing does lead to dogs’ inevitably frustrating their humans, who expect them to behave as furry children. But she notes that appealing solely to the wolf ancestry of dogs is not the answer either. “Neither has got it right,” she declares. Dogs are animals, yes, but domestic animals, who have been shaped by human intervention for tens of thousands of years. She debunks the “pack” mentality as outdated and simplistic, saying it is neither “biologically necessary nor particularly enriching” to make our dogs totally submissive to us. Instead of a pack, Horowitz calls human-dog households, refreshingly, families.
With considerable wit and ample real-world examples, the book delves into the dog’s worldview, also called “point of nose” since dogs primarily experience the world through scent. The author includes tips for deepening the dog-human bond – all informed by the dog’s unique perspective. (Take a “smell walk,” for example.) Surprising little grace notes fill the work – such as the epiphany that dogs’ memories and even the dream images that stir their paws at night are likely made up of scents. Perhaps most intriguing, passages on doggy consciousness explore “what dogs know,” as promised in the subtitle. Dogs have the capacity to consider the intent of another being, and they commonly use their humans as tools (which will come as no surprise to anyone responsive to their pup’s insistent yip at a toy stuck under the sofa!) Do they know right from wrong? Do they understand mortality? What about time? Horowitz addresses all these questions, and more, in this fascinating book.
Review by Shawndra Miller
Review by Shawndra Miller