Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know

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What do dogs know? How do they think? The answers will surprise and delight you as Alexandra Horowitz, a cognitive scientist, explains how dogs perceive their daily worlds, each other, and that other quirky animal, the human.

Inside of a Dog is a fresh look at the world of dogs — from the dog's point of view. As a dog owner, Horowitz is naturally curious to learn what her dog thinks about and knows. And as a scientist, she is intent on ...

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Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know

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What do dogs know? How do they think? The answers will surprise and delight you as Alexandra Horowitz, a cognitive scientist, explains how dogs perceive their daily worlds, each other, and that other quirky animal, the human.

Inside of a Dog is a fresh look at the world of dogs — from the dog's point of view. As a dog owner, Horowitz is naturally curious to learn what her dog thinks about and knows. And as a scientist, she is intent on understanding the minds of animals who cannot speak for themselves.

In clear, crisp prose, Horowitz introduces the reader to dogs' perceptual and cognitive abilities and then draws a picture of what it might be like to be a dog. What's it like to be able to smell not just every bit of open food in the house but also to smell sadness in humans or even the passage of time? How does a tiny dog manage to play successfully with a Great Dane? What is it like to hear the bodily vibrations of insects or the hum of a fluorescent light? Why must a person on a bicycle be chased? What's it like to use your mouth as a hand? In short, what is it like for a dog to experience life from two feet off the ground, amidst the smells of the sidewalk, gazing at our ankles or knees?

Inside of a Dog explains these things and much more. The answers can be surprising — once we set aside our natural inclination to anthropomorphize dogs. Inside of a Dog also contains up-to-the-minute research — on dogs' detection of disease, the secrets of their tails, and their skill at reading our attention — that Horowitz puts into useful context. Although not a formal training guide, Inside of a Dog has practical applicationfor dog lovers interested in understanding why their dogs do what they do.

The relationship between dogs and humans is arguably the most fascinating animal-human bond because dogs evolved from wild creatures to become our companions, an adaptation that changed their bodies, brains, and behavior. Yet dogs always remain animals, familiar but mysterious. With a light touch and the weight of science behind her, Alexandra Horowitz examines the animal we think we know best but may actually understand the least. This book is as close as you can get to knowing about dogs without being a dog yourself.

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  • Alexandra Horowitz
    Alexandra Horowitz  

Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

In promotional copy, the publishers invite readers to think of this book as "Temple Grandin meets Stephen Pinker," a somewhat daunting assignment, not far wrong. As both a cognitive scientist and a dog-owner, Dr. Alexandra Horowitz has attentively studied both humans and canines. Her Inside of a Dog fulfills many pet lovers' fondest wish: to learn what Fido or Frida really thinks and knows. Scientific rigor, literary flair, and a most endearing subject. Enthusiastic reader response in hardcover; now in paperback.

Michael Schaffer
Alexandra Horowitz's smart new book fills a niche in this field. Most authors seeking to explain canine minds are pushing a trendy training style or a worthy humane-treatment goal. Horowitz sets out to study dogs for their own fascinating sake…Inside of a Dog offers a thoughtful take on the interior life of the dog, a topic often left to poets and philosophers and Marley & Me. A Barnard psychologist, Horowitz doesn't deliver an academic monograph based on, say, freshly unearthed details about the wild dogs of the Siberian steppe. Rather, she mixes observations of her own dog with a breezy survey of animal-science literature as she ponders more basic questions about the pet dogs of the American living room: What's with the sniffing? Why do they bark? Oh, and do they actually like us? The result is a work long on insight and short on jargon.
—The Washington Post
Cathleen Schine
In one enormously important variation from wolf behavior, dogs will look into our eyes. "Though they have inherited some aversion to staring too long at eyes, dogs seem to be predisposed to inspect our faces for information, for reassurance, for guidance." They are staring, soulfully, into our umwelts. It seems only right that we try a little harder to reciprocate, and Horowitz's book is a good step in that direction.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Psychology professor and dog person Horowitz was studying the ethology (the science of animal behavior) of white rhinos and bonobos at the San Diego Zoo when she realized that her research techniques could just as easily apply to dogs at the local dog park; there, she began to see "snapshots of the minds of the dogs" in their play. Over eight years of study, she's found that, though humans bond with their dogs closely, they're clueless when it comes to understanding what dogs perceive-leading her to the not-inconsequential notion that dogs know us better than we know them. Horowitz begins by inviting readers into a dog's umwelt-his worldview-by imagining themselves living 18 inches or so above the ground, with incredible olfactory senses comparable to the human capacity for detailed sight in three dimensions (though dogs' sight, in combination with their sense of smell, may result in a more complex perception of "color" than humans can imagine). Social and communications skills are also explored, as well as the practicalities of dog owning (Horowitz disagrees with the "pack" approach to dog training). Dog lovers will find this book largely fascinating, despite Horowitz's meandering style and somnolent tone.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal
Dry as doggie kibble, this fact-filled book by Horowitz (psychology, Barnard Coll.) is nonetheless full of useful information for the 68 million dog owners in the United States. Actress/narrator Karen White (My Kind of Place) does a superb job of presenting this program, and dog lovers will be interested in much of Horowitz's research. However, because the author's copious notes interrupt the flow of the narrative, at times making it difficult to follow along, the print edition might be preferable to this audio edition. [The Scribner hc received a starred review, LJ Xpress Reviews 9/18/09.—Ed.]—Theresa Connors, Arkansas Tech Univ. Lib., Russellville
From the Publisher
"Discover why your dog is so sensitive to your emotions, gaze, and body language. Dogs live in a world of ever-changing intricate detail of smell. Read this captivating book and enter the sensory world of your dog." — Temple Grandin, author of Animals in Translation and Animals Make Us Human

"Inside of a Dog is a most welcome authoritative, personal, and witty book about what it is like to be a dog. This engaging volume serves as a corrective to the many myths that circulate about just who our canine companions are. I hope this book enjoys the wide readership it deserves." — Marc Bekoff, author of The Emotional Lives of Animals and Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals (with Jessica Pierce)

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781416583431
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • Publication date: 9/28/2010
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 64,177
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Alexandra Horowitz

Alexandra Horowitz is an assistant professor of psychology at Barnard College. She has a Ph.D. in Cognitive Science and has studied the cognition of humans, rhinoceros, bonobos, and dogs. She has researched dogs professionally for eight years. Before her scientific career, she worked as a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster and was on the staff at The New Yorker. She currently lives in New York City with Finnegan, a dog of indeterminate parentage and determinate character, and the fond memories of dogs past.

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Read an Excerpt

Inside of a Dog

  • First you see the head. Over the crest of the hill appears a muzzle, drooling. It is as yet not visibly attached to anything. A limb jangles into view, followed in unhasty succession by a second, third, and fourth, bearing a hundred and forty pounds of body between them. The wolfhound, three feet at his shoulder and five feet to his tail, spies the long-haired Chihuahua, half a dog high, hidden in the grasses between her owner’s feet. The Chihuahua is six pounds, each of them trembling. With one languorous leap, his ears perked high, the wolfhound arrives in front of the Chihuahua. The Chihuahua looks demurely away; the wolfhound bends down to Chihuahua level and nips her side. The Chihuahua looks back at the hound, who raises his rear end up in the air, tail held high, in preparation to attack. Instead of fleeing from this apparent danger, the Chihuahua matches his pose and leaps onto the wolfhound’s face, embracing his nose with her tiny paws. They begin to play.

For five minutes these dogs tumble, grab, bite, and lunge at each other. The wolfhound throws himself onto his side and the little dog responds with attacks to his face, belly, and paws. A swipe by the hound sends the Chihuahua scurrying backward, and she timidly sidesteps out of his reach. The hound barks, jumps up, and arrives back on his feet with a thud. At this, the Chihuahua races toward one of those feet and bites it, hard. They are in mid-embrace—the hound with his mouth surrounding the body of the Chihuahua, the Chihuahua kicking back at the hound’s face—when an owner snaps a leash on the hound’s collar and pulls him upright and away. The Chihuahua rights herself, looks after them, barks once, and trots back to her owner.

These dogs are so incommensurable with each other that they may as well be different species. The ease of play between them always puzzled me. The wolfhound bit, mouthed, and charged at the Chihuahua; yet the little dog responded not with fright but in kind. What explains their ability to play together? Why doesn’t the hound see the Chihuahua as prey? Why doesn’t the Chihuahua see the wolfhound as predator? The answer turns out to have nothing to do with the Chihuahua’s delusion of canine grandeur or the hound’s lack of predatory drive. Neither is it simply hardwired instinct taking over.

There are two ways to learn how play works—and what playing dogs are thinking, perceiving, and saying: be born as a dog, or spend a lot of time carefully observing dogs. The former was unavailable to me. Come along as I describe what I’ve learned by watching.

I am a dog person.

My home has always had a dog in it. My affinity for dogs began with our family dog, Aster, with his blue eyes, lopped tail, and nighttime neighborhood ramblings that often left me up late, wearing pajamas and worry, waiting for his midnight return. I long mourned the death of Heidi, a springer spaniel who ran with excitement—my childhood imagination had her tongue trailing out of the side of her mouth and her long ears blown back with the happy vigor of her run—right under a car’s tires on the state highway near our home. As a college student, I gazed with admiration and affection at an adopted chow mix Beckett as she stoically watched me leave for the day.

And now at my feet lies the warm, curly, panting form of Pumpernickel—Pump—a mutt who has lived with me for all of her sixteen years and through all of my adulthood. I have begun every one of my days in five states, five years of graduate school, and four jobs with her tail-thumping greeting when she hears me stir in the morning. As anyone who considers himself a dog person will recognize, I cannot imagine my life without this dog.

I am a dog person, a lover of dogs. I am also a scientist.

I study animal behavior. Professionally, I am wary of anthropomorphizing animals, attributing to them the feelings, thoughts, and desires that we use to describe ourselves. In learning how to study the behavior of animals, I was taught and adhered to the scientist’s code for describing actions: be objective; do not explain a behavior by appeal to a mental process when explanation by simpler processes will do; a phenomenon that is not publicly observable and confirmable is not the stuff of science. These days, as a professor of animal behavior, comparative cognition, and psychology, I teach from masterful texts that deal in quantifiable fact. They describe everything from hormonal and genetic explanations for the social behavior of animals, to conditioned responses, fixed action patterns, and optimal foraging rates, in the same steady, objective tone.

And yet.

Most of the questions my students have about animals remain quietly unanswered in these texts. At conferences where I have presented my research, other academics inevitably direct the postlecture conversations to their own experiences with their pets. And I still have the same questions I’d always had about my own dog—and no sudden rush of answers. Science, as practiced and reified in texts, rarely addresses our experiences of living with and attempting to understand the minds of our animals.

In my first years of graduate school, when I began studying the science of the mind, with a special interest in the minds of non-human animals, it never occurred to me to study dogs. Dogs seemed so familiar, so understood. There is nothing to be learned from dogs, colleagues claimed: dogs are simple, happy creatures whom we need to train and feed and love, and that is all there is to them. There is no data in dogs. That was the conventional wisdom among scientists. My dissertation advisor studied, respectably, baboons: primates are the animals of choice in the field of animal cognition. The assumption is that the likeliest place to find skills and cognition approaching our own is in our primate brethren. That was, and remains, the prevailing view of behavioral scientists. Worse still, dog owners seemed to have already covered the territory of theorizing about the dog mind, and their theories were generated from anecdotes and misapplied anthropomorphisms. The very notion of the mind of a dog was tainted.

And yet.

I spent many recreational hours during my years of graduate school in California in the local dog parks and beaches with Pumpernickel. At the time I was in training as an ethologist, a scientist of animal behavior. I joined two research groups observing highly social creatures: the white rhinoceros at the Wild Animal Park in Escondido, and the bonobos (pygmy chimpanzees) at the Park and the San Diego Zoo. I learned the science of careful observations, data gathering, and statistical analysis. Over time, this way of looking began seeping into those recreational hours at the dog parks. Suddenly the dogs, with their fluent travel between their own social world and that of people, became entirely unfamiliar: I stopped seeing their behavior as simple and understood.

Where I once saw and smiled at play between Pumpernickel and the local bull terrier, I now saw a complex dance requiring mutual cooperation, split-second communications, and assessment of each other’s abilities and desires. The slightest turn of a head or the point of a nose now seemed directed, meaningful. I saw dogs whose owners did not understand a single thing their dogs were doing; I saw dogs too clever for their playmates; I saw people misreading canine requests as confusion and delight as aggression. I began bringing a video camera with us and taping our outings at the parks. At home I watched the tapes of dogs playing with dogs, of people ball- and Frisbee-tossing to their dogs—tapes of chasing, fighting, petting, running, barking. With new sensitivity to the possible richness of social interactions in an entirely non-linguistic world, all of these once ordinary activities now seemed to me to be an untapped font of information. When I began watching the videos in extremely slow-motion playback, I saw behaviors I had never seen in years of living with dogs. Examined closely, simple play frolicking between two dogs became a dizzying series of synchronous behaviors, active role swapping, variations on communicative displays, flexible adaptation to others’ attention, and rapid movement between highly diverse play acts.

What I was seeing were snapshots of the minds of the dogs, visible in the ways they communicated with each other and tried to communicate with the people around them—and, too, in the way they interpreted other dogs’ and people’s actions.

I never saw Pumpernickel—or any dog—the same way again. Far from being a killjoy on the delights of interacting with her, though, the spectacles of science gave me a rich new way to look at what she was doing: a new way to understand life as a dog.

Since those first hours of viewing, I have studied dogs at play: playing with other dogs and playing with people. At the time I was unwittingly part of a sea change taking place in science’s attitude toward studying dogs. The transformation is not yet complete, but the landscape of dog research is already remarkably different than it was twenty years ago. Where once there was an inappreciable number of studies of dog cognition and behavior, there are now conferences on the dog, research groups devoted to studying the dog, experimental and ethological studies on the dog in the United States and abroad, and dog research results sprinkled through scientific journals. The scientists doing this work have seen what I have seen: the dog is a perfect entry into the study of non-human animals. Dogs have lived with human beings for thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of years. Through the artificial selection of domestication, they have evolved to be sensitive to just those things that importantly make up our cognition, including, critically, attention to others.

In this book I introduce you to the science of the dog. Scientists working in laboratories and in the field, studying working dogs and companion dogs, have gathered an impressive amount of information on the biology of dogs—their sensory abilities, their behavior—and on the psychology of dogs—their cognition. Drawing from the accumulated results of hundreds of research programs, we can begin to create a picture of the dog from the inside—of the skill of his nose, what he hears, how his eyes turn to us, and the brain behind it all. The dog cognition work reviewed includes my own but extends far beyond it to summarize all the results from recent research. For some topics on which there is no reliable information yet on dogs, I incorporate studies on other animals that might help us understand a dog’s life, too. (For those whose appetite for the original research articles is whetted by the accounts herein, full citations appear at the book’s end.)

We do no disservice to dogs by stepping away from the leash and considering them scientifically. Their abilities and point of view merit special attention. And the result is magnificent: far from being distanced by science, we are brought closer to and can marvel at the true nature of the dog. Used rigorously but creatively, the process and results of science can shed new light on discussions that people have daily about what their dog knows, understands, or believes. Through my personal journey, learning to look systemically and scientifically at my own dog’s behavior, I came to have a better understanding of, appreciation of, and relationship with her.

I’ve gotten inside of the dog, and have glimpsed the dog’s point of view. You can do the same. If you have a dog in the room with you, what you see in that great, furry pile of dogness is about to change.

It is the nature of scientific study of non-human animals that a few individual animals who have been thoroughly poked, observed, trained, or dissected come to represent their entire species. Yet with humans we never let one person’s behavior stand for all of our behavior. If one man fails to solve a Rubik’s cube in an hour, we do not extrapolate from that that all men will so fail (unless that man had bested every other man alive). Here our sense of individuality is stronger than our sense of shared biology. When it comes to describing our potential physical and cognitive capacities, we are individuals first, and members of the human race second.

By contrast, with animals the order is reversed. Science considers animals as representatives of their species first, and as individuals second. We are accustomed to seeing a single animal or two kept in a zoo as representative of their species; to zoo management, they are even unwitting “ambassadors” of the species. Our view of the uniformity of species members is well exemplified in our comparison of their intelligence. To test the hypothesis, long popular, that having a bigger brain indicates greater intelligence, the brain volumes of chimpanzees, monkeys, and rats were compared with human brains. Sure enough, the chimp’s brain is smaller than ours, the monkey’s smaller than the chimp’s, the rat’s a mere cerebellum-sized node of the primates’ brains. That much of the story is fairly well known. What is more surprising is that the brains used, for comparative purposes, were the brains of just two or three chimpanzees and monkeys. These couple of animals unlucky enough to lose their heads for science were henceforth considered perfectly representative monkeys and chimps. But we had no idea if they happened to be particularly big-brained monkeys, or abnormally small-brained chimps.1

Similarly, if a single animal or small group of animals fails in a psychological experiment, the species is tainted with the brush of failure. Although grouping animals by biological similarity is clearly useful shorthand, there is a strange result: we tend to speak of the species as though all members of the species were identical. We never make this slip with humans. If a dog, given the choice between a pile of twenty biscuits and a pile of ten biscuits, chooses the latter, the conclusion is often stated with the definite article: “the dog” cannot distinguish between large and small piles—not “a dog” cannot so distinguish.

So when I talk about the dog, I am talking implicitly about those dogs studied to date. The results of many well-performed experiments may eventually allow us to reasonably generalize to all dogs, period. But even then, the variations among individual dogs will be great: your dog may be an unusually good smeller, may never look you in the eye, may love his dog bed and hate to be touched. Not every behavior a dog does should be interpreted as telling, taken as something intrinsic or fantastic; sometimes they just are, just as we are. That said, what I offer herein is the known capacity of the dog; your results may be different.

This is not a dog training book. Still, its contents might lead you to be able to train your dog, inadvertently. This will catch us up to dogs, who have already, without a tome on people, learned how to train us without our realizing it.

The dog training literature and the dog cognition and behavior literatures do not overlap greatly. Dog trainers do use a few basic tenets from psychology and ethology—sometimes to great effect, sometimes to disastrous end. Most training operates on the principle of associative learning. Associations between events are easily learned by all animals, including humans. Associative learning is what is behind “operant” conditioning paradigms, which provide a reward (a treat, attention, a toy, a pat) after the occurrence of a desired behavior (a dog sitting down). Through repeated application, one can shape a new, desired behavior in a dog—be it lying down and rolling over, or, for the ambitious, calmly Jet-Skiing behind a motorboat.

But often the tenets of training clash with the scientific study of the dog. For instance, many trainers use the analogy of dog-as-tame-wolf as informative in how we should see and treat dogs. An analogy can only be as good as its source. In this case, as we will see, scientists know a limited amount about natural wolf behavior—and what we know often contradicts the conventional wisdom used to bolster those analogies.

In addition, training methods are not scientifically tested, despite some trainers’ assertions to the contrary. That is, no training program has been evaluated by comparing the performance of an experimental group that gets training and a control group whose life is identical except for the absence of the training program. People who come to trainers often share two unusual features: their dogs are less “obedient” than the average dog, and the owners are more motivated to change them than the average owner. It is very likely, given this combination of conditions and a few months, that the dog will behave differently after training, almost regardless of what the training is.

Training successes are exciting, but they do not prove that the training method is what led to the success. The success could be indicative of good training. But it could also be a happy accident. It could also be the result of more attention being paid to the dog over the course of the program. It could be the result of the dog’s maturing over the course of the program. It could be the result of that bullying dog down the street moving away. In other words, the success could be the result of dozens of other co-occurring changes in the dog’s life. We cannot distinguish these possibilities without rigorous scientific testing.

Most critically, training is usually tailored to the owner—to change the dog to fit the owner’s conception of the role of the dog, and of what he wants the dog to do. This goal is quite different than our aim: looking to see what the dog actually does, and what he wants from and understands of you.

It is increasingly in vogue to speak not of pet ownership but pet guardianship, or pet companions. Clever writers talk of dogs’ “humans,” turning the ownership arrow back on ourselves. In this book I call dogs’ families owners simply because this term describes the legal relationship we have with dogs: peculiarly, they are still considered property (and property of little compensatory value, besides breeding value, a lesson I hope no reader ever has to learn personally). I will celebrate the day when dogs are not property which we own. Until then, I use the word owner apolitically, for convenience and with no other motive. This motive guides me in my pronoun use, too: unless discussing a female dog, I usually call the dog “him,” as this is our gender-neutral term. The reputedly more neutral “it” is not an option, for anyone who has known a dog.

1Of course, researchers soon found brains bigger than ours: the dolphin’s brain is larger, as are the brains of physically larger creatures such as whales and elephants. The “big brain” myth has long been overturned. Those who are still interested in mapping brain to smarts now look at other, more sophisticated measures: the amount of convolution of the brain; the encephalization quotient, a ratio that includes both brain and body size in the calculation; the quantity of neocortex; or the gross number of neurons and synapses between neurons.

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Interviews & Essays

An interview with Alexandra Horowitz

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.
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 249 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 251 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 30, 2010

    Dull and pretentious

    I too got sucked in by the "New York Times Bestseller" billing. I could not get through more than 35 pages. The prelude started ok enough, but then the author felt the need to spend 2 pages expaining why she uses the term "the dog" and what she means by it. You get the point after a paragraph, but it goes on. And on. The whole thing comes across to me as a pretentious mess. I have a PhD of my own, and when I pick up a book to read for leisure I expect to have an enjoyable read, not a book that is exponentially longer than it needs to be because of the use of extremely long-winded explanations of the author's opinions and unnecessary "$100 words" Case in point, and there are many: page 15- "Anthropomorphisms are not inherently odious." It reminds me of a gathering of stuffed-shirt university professors who feel the need to show their intelligence and superiority by out-wording each other. The author's dog must be glad he doesn't understand English.

    39 out of 55 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 16, 2010

    This is the best dog book ever!

    The Inside of a Dog is very true to its title. I could not put it down at night, partially because my black labrador sleeps diagonally between my husband and I. If you are a dog lover, this book will forever change how you look at your dog. It gives you the inside scoop about why your dog enjoys smelling everything. There are suggestions in the book about simple things that will make your dog happy, which really work.

    The book shows how the dog has evolved into our common house dog, and what makes the dog the canine he is.

    19 out of 21 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 19, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    From inside a cognitive scientist...

    Horowitwz is a scientist, after all. She has rigorously edited her book so that it is accessible to non-scientists, and tries to tell us which of the dog behaviors we observe are actually what we may believe them to be. Are dogs as knowledgeable as they appear? What do their behaviors signify? But first she must describe what she will do, set the parameters, explain her approach...I did not become engaged until late in the game, when Horowitz gave us a section on "theory of mind": can the dog know what we're thinking or are they simply responding to other physical cues?

    From this point the book explains some experiments conducted, their results, the conclusions. This is unfailingly interesting to me, though I get breathless at the amount of time and energy involved in constructing a successful experiment which may yield one data point and no firm conclusions.

    At the end of the book, Horowitz takes off her scientist hat and tells us what she thinks. She urges us to look on our pets as individuals with unique behaviors and not to be too regimented in our thinking about how they should perform or behave. Her final quote is a paean to her dead pet, Pump, in which she describes one of his ears "like a felted leaf, dried in the sun." Dog-people will find this an interesting book which will inform their understanding.

    17 out of 19 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 6, 2010

    A Sound (if smelly) Perspective on Dogs

    Curious dog lovers (like me) often try to better understand these great companion animals, but we're hampered by our tendency to ascribe human motives and traits to our pets. This book brings a scientific understanding of these animals to the endeavor and provides us with a richer awareness of dog behavior. I have put the knowledge to use and am enjoying these creatures even more.

    The main downside of the book is disappointment that there isn't more research on dog behavior.

    13 out of 14 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 17, 2010

    The Dog as Subject

    I highly recommend this book for other dog lovers. The author, Alexandra Horowitz, is a scientist in the field of animal cognition, and her book is about using cognitive science to try to understand how dogs view the world--the dog as subject, not just as an object and extension of human desires. Though Horowitz is a scientist writing about cognitive science, the text is accessible and entertaining. Another reviewer complained about the scientific language, but it seems to me that Horowitz has done a good job of making the science accessible to a non-scientist reader. But you do have to be a reader willing to read carefully and maybe even (gasp!) look up unfamiliar words.

    9 out of 10 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 26, 2010

    OK at Best

    I have been a dog lover all of my life and thus this book was of tremendous attraction to me. Honestly, I was disappointed. The author clearly knows her subject but the presentation was ok at best. Was really looking to grow in my understanding of dogs..can't say that I learned what I hoped I would. In addition, the book could have been 100 pages shorter...

    If you have dogs and really appreciate them, you already know most of what is in the book..if you don't, it will provide some insight to better understand "man's best friend".

    8 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 27, 2009

    I found the book insightful and helpful for both long-term dog owners and those new to the world of dogs. I recommend this book for dog-lovers of all ages.

    Definitely going in our permanent library. We understand our own dogs' behaviors much better in context of the author's insights and research.

    8 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 23, 2010

    Inside Of A Dog

    Being an animal lover especially of dogs, I was eager to buy this book. I have read Alexandra's article in newspapers explaining how a dog thinks from their perspective and was excited to read it. I was highly disappointed because it's too technical and scientifically based. It was difficult to get through the introduction let alone the first chapter. I scanned through the middle of book and found it continuing the on same path. It did not hold my attention because it was difficult to comprehend for the average reader. I would not recommend this book unless you have a science degree.

    7 out of 14 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 14, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    An enlightening look into the mind of your dog.

    "Inside Of A Dog" by Dr. Alexandra Horowitz is a fascinating book which will make you look at your dog in an entirely new way and I feel enriched in my relationship with my dogs for having read it. Staying completely away from any anthropomorphic tendecies, the book lives up to it's title, providing the reader an excellent overview of canine cognition, senses, and "umwelt", which is defined as the dog's viewpoint and world view. Who would have thought that dogs really dislike when their owners make them wear sweaters, which is actually a show of dominance over the dog or that dogs identify us not through vision but primarily through smell? Throughout this book the reader discovers the above and many other intriguing and fascinating clues which led me to conclude that in reality dogs are not "little people in fuzzy costumes" but are their own species with their own motives, incentives, and inner driving forces. I recommend this book for anyone who really wants to "understand" their dog and be able to at least approach the ability of seeing the world as our canine companions see it.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 9, 2010


    Makes me look at my four legged friend in a whole new light. Also makes me remember my past friends with a whole new respect. A must for dog owners and dog lovers alike.

    5 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 28, 2011

    Insightful and humorous, with a unique (scientific) perspective ...

    I really am enjoying this book. I haven't quite finished it yet, because it really makes you think through your own dogs behavior and before you know it... you are really INVOLVED with your dog! Well written, logical, eye opening!

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 29, 2012


    She writes well and I've only gotten into the book a few chapters, but it's hard to stay with it. I feel like I'm reading a textbook.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 1, 2013

    The book is a scientific work and is written scientifically. Alt

    The book is a scientific work and is written scientifically. Although the author does a decent job of explaining the terms she uses and the research she cites, the book is at times difficult to read if you aren't fluent in scientific jargon. I loved the introduction paragraphs at the beginning of each chapter. I thought including personal experience with a dog the author knew and loved made the book less pretentious and more relateable. Overall, this book is filled with a lot of valuable information. The presentation is just a little off.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 2, 2012

    So disappointed!

    This book is one string of useless, pretentious sentences after another! There are occasional bits of information of interest, but one has to endure WAY too much extraneous junk to mine the tidbits of interest. Save your money and don't bother.

    2 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 26, 2012

    Very insightful.

    As a dog owner I now look at my dog through much different eyes full of a new understanding. I hope that what I've learned from this book only adds to the enjoyment of Stella's life.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 23, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    Not recommended

    I kept reading thinking I'd be given knowledge I didn't already know about dogs, but that never happened. I complained the whole way and only appreciated 2 sections (at most). If you keep up with dogs in the news or specials on tv over time, you don't need to read this book. I felt like I wasted my time and therefore I don't recommend this book. Also, Without saying his name, I understood her to criticize The Dog Whisperer. her opinion is that her understanding of scientific articles she's read and personal experience is more in line with the evolution of dogs.

    I agree with another reviewer's comments about the book being dull. Vocabulary words were frequently used and made the author sound pretentious. The book was way longer than it needed to be. I even skipped her last ditch efforts to try to train the reader how to work with their dogs. Overall disappointed.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 30, 2011

    Why your dog is so weird :)

    Really helps you better understand what, why, and how your dog does the wierd things she does.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 28, 2010

    good read

    although i had come across some of the information before, it had a lot of good analysis into a dogs viewpoints. i think that i will be looking at my dogs with a different view. i will say that you probably need a little scientific background to be comfortable with it.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 5, 2009

    very informative

    Learned a lot about dogs that I didn't know and was curious about.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 20, 2013

    Very Insightful!

    Contains very detailed information on what makes a dog act the way he does, siting both scientific studies as well as everyday observation. Although it may be a little too detailed for the average dog-owner, with my background as a veterinary technician, with a special interest in behavior, I found it very thought-provoking....and I find that I have become more patient with my resident canine, realizing that some of the behaviors that I tend to find frustrating are, after all,typical dog behaviors. It also re-enforces my opinion that dogs should not be treated as if they are humans.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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