Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz

I've gradually gotten used to the idea that as a semi-pro blogger, I will occasionally be sent review copies of books I've never heard of. These are generally physics books, and I have a stack of them sitting next to the bed at the moment, not being read nearly fast enough.

It's only recently that I realized that, having written a book in which I explain quantum mechanics through conversations with my dog, I'll probably start getting dog books as well. Not that there's anything wrong with that, mind-- we like free books, here in Chateau Steelypips-- but it's going to be a significant change.

Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know is not, strictly speaking, an unsolicited review copy-- it's also a Scribner book, and my editor sent it to me. Because, well, it's a science book about dogs. The author, Alexandra Horowitz, is a cognitive scientist at Columbia, and the book is based around both her experiences as a scientist studying dogs, and her experiences as a pet owner. It mixes small vignettes of life with her dog:

This morning I was awakened by Pump coming over to the bed and sniffing emphatically at me, millimeters away, her whiskers grazing my lips, to see if I was awake or alive or me. She punctuates her rousing with an exclamatory sneeze directly in my face. I open my eyes and she is gazing at me, smiling, panting a hello.

with more scientifically oriented material:

Go look at a dog. Go on, look--maybe at one lying near you right now, curled around his folded legs on a dog bed, or sprawled on his side on the tile floor, paws flitting through the pasture of a dream. Take a good look--and now forget everything you know about this or any dog.

This is admittedly a ridiculous exhortation: I don't really expect that you could easily forget even the name or favored food or unique profile of your dog, let alone everything about him. I think of the exercise as analogous to asking a newcomer to meditation to enter into satori, the highest state, on the first go: aim for it, and see how far you get. Science, aiming for objectivity, requires that one becomes aware of prior prejudices and personal perspective. What we'll find, in looking at dogs through a scientific lens, is that some of what we think we know about dogs is entirely borne out; other things which appear patently true are, on closer examination, more doubtful than we thought. And by looking at our dogs from another perspective--from the perspective of the dog--we can see new things that don't naturally occur to those of us encumbered with human brains. So the best way to begin understanding dogs is by forgetting what we think we know.

The combination works very well. I am not a huge consumer of life science books, but the occasional articles I've read about the real science of canine behavior often fall into a sort of lecturing mode, as if the author is taking the reader to task for an excess of sentiment concerning dogs. Breaking up the more scientific stuff with the occasional sentimental passage works well to avoid that trap.

As for the science content, I'm not really in a position to evaluate it in detail, but as a lay reader it struck me as very interesting. Horowitz does an excellent job of sketching out what we know about the way a dog's brain works, and how that sometimes aligns with and sometimes contradicts our projection of human traits onto them. Some of this is stuff I had heard before-- I've seen roughly a million articles talking about how dogs "look guilty" because they're taking cues from angry humans, not because they know they did something wrong-- and other bits were new to me, like the stuff about the very different way dogs process visual information.

The writing is very clear and not at all technical-- once again, I am vaguely jealous of people who don't have to work hard to remove all the equations from their pop-science-- and the bits about her dog are very sweet (though it does fit into the too-common pattern of having the beloved dog die at the end of the book, a trope that drives Emmy nuts). There's a kind of formality to a lot of the science passages that initially struck me as odd, until I read the "About the Author" page, and saw that she worked for the New Yorker for a while, which completely explains it.

This is a charming and very approachable book about what we know about how dogs see the world. I'm happy to recommend it to anyone who's interested in trying to figure out what, exactly, is going on between the floppy ears of their favorite mutt.


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I'm about half way through it myself. I agree with your comments - it is quite interesting. I'm glad that Emmy survived the book writing project. Probably better than some of your students.

By Dave Gill (not verified) on 11 Nov 2009 #permalink