What's a Dog For?: The Surprising History, Science, Philosophy, and Politics of Man's Best Friend

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Overview

John Homans adopted his dog, Stella, from a shelter for all the usual reasons: fond memories of dogs from his past, a companion for his son, an excuse for long walks around the neighborhood. Soon enough, she is happily ensconced in the daily workings of his family. And not only that: Stella is treated like a family member—in ways that dogs of his youth were not. Spending humanlike sums on vet bills, questioning her diet and exercise regimens, contemplating her happiness—how had this all come to pass, when the ...

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What's a Dog For?: The Surprising History, Science, Philosophy, and Politics of Man's Best Friend

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Overview

John Homans adopted his dog, Stella, from a shelter for all the usual reasons: fond memories of dogs from his past, a companion for his son, an excuse for long walks around the neighborhood. Soon enough, she is happily ensconced in the daily workings of his family. And not only that: Stella is treated like a family member—in ways that dogs of his youth were not. Spending humanlike sums on vet bills, questioning her diet and exercise regimens, contemplating her happiness—how had this all come to pass, when the dogs from Homans’s childhood seemed quite content living mostly out in the yard?

In What’s a Dog For?, Homans explores the dog’s complex and prominent place in our world and how it came to be. Evolving from wild animals to working animals to nearly human members of our social fabric, dogs are now the subject of serious scientific studies concerning pet ownership, evolutionary theory, and even cognitive science. From new insights into what makes dogs so appealing to humans to the health benefits associated with owning a dog, Homans investigates why the human-canine relationship has evolved so rapidly—how dogs moved into our families, our homes, and sometimes even our beds in the span of a generation, becoming a $53 billion industry in the United States in the process.

As dogs take their place as coddled family members and their numbers balloon to more than seventy-seven million in the United States alone, it’s no surprise that canine culture at large is also undergoing a massive transformation. They are now subject to many of the same questions of rights and ethics as people, and the politics of dogs are more tumultuous and public than ever— with fierce moral battles raging over kill shelters, puppy mills, and breed standards. Incorporating interviews and research from scientists, activists, breeders, and trainers, What’s a Dog For? investigates how dogs have reached this exalted status and why they hold such fascination for us. With one paw in the animal world and one paw in the human world, it turns out they have much to teach us about love, death, and morality—and ultimately, in their closeness and difference, about what it means to be human.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Walter Vatter
…[John Homans's] engaging and informative book…is both a survey of the latest research on canine cognition and a memoir of his years with his Lab mix, Stella.
Publishers Weekly
In his first book (inspired by his faithful canine companion, Stella), longtime New York magazine executive editor Homans examines the humble domestic dog, taking us on a trip that ranges thousands of years into the past and across the globe, examining how we shaped dogs and dogs shaped us. The competing models of how the partnership between human and dog was forged are presented, as are speculations on what exactly, if anything, is going on behind the friendly eyes of a dog. Homans ponders whether canines are as cognitively simple as Thorndike claimed or whether Darwin’s naïve anthropomorphism is closer to the mark. Writing in an engaging, straightforward manner, Homans combines great personal charm with an intense interest in his subject matter. Although the book is quite brief, Homans manages nevertheless to provide an impressive overview of his chosen subject. (Nov.)
Library Journal
Lots of books out there on the human-canine relationship. But Homans, executive director of New York magazine, references scientific studies as he homes in on a particular aspect of our love affair with dogs—our treating them as if they were human beings and just one of the family. (Um, they aren't?)
Kirkus Reviews
An intriguing look into the life of dogs. Through careful observation and analysis, New York executive editor Homans opens the door into the world of dogs, from the scientific to the humorous. The author explains that dogs are much more than man's best friend; they are faithful companions, sure, but also separate entities with their own personalities and personal histories to rival those of humans. Using his own dog, Stella, as a prime example, Homans explores the intertwined world of animal and person. For the author, Stella is definitely a family member, a concept that will be relatable to most dog owners (the author cites one study that found 81 percent of dog owners considered their dog a part of the family). How this love developed spurs Homans to examine how dogs evolved from wolves, how they became test animals under Pavlov and now are one of the most common pets in the world. Some researchers believe this stems from the proliferation of failed marriages and people living more isolated lives and having fewer children. To fill the void created by a lack of human companionship, dogs are taking up the slack. Homans also touches on pedigree pets and mongrels, the need for adoptions via rescue dog operations and the rights of dogs. From the Bible to Descartes to modern scientists, the author marshals evidence that shows dogs and humans have been linked for centuries, both physically and emotionally, and that this connection will continue for a long time to come. Although aimed primarily at dog owners and dog lovers, other animal enthusiasts will find illuminating nuggets of information on the ever-changing and complex world of people and their pets.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594205156
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 11/8/2012
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

John Homans has been Executive Editor of New York magazine since 1994, and previously worked at Esquire, Details, Harpers, and the New York Observer. He lives with his wife, son, and dog, Stella in Manhattan. This is his first book.

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Table of Contents

Chapter 1 Entering the World of Dog 1

Chapter 2 The Family Dog 18

Chapter 3 The Search for Stella's Brain 33

Chapter 4 How the Match Was Made 53

Chapter 5 Leaping Toward Humanity 69

Chapter 6 Dumb Animals 82

Chapter 7 Darwin's Muse 93

Chapter 8 The Mind Returns 108

Chapter 9 The Wolves That Came in From the Cold 118

Chapter 10 Mixing the Lab 131

Chapter 11 Beyond Breeds 155

Chapter 12 Future Canines 166

Chapter 13 The Great Migration 175

Chapter 14 The Birth of Empathy 197

Chapter 15 The Rights of Dog 207

Chapter 16 Dog Years 226

Acknowledgments 239

Note on Sources 243

Index 249

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Customer Reviews

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