Monday, January 03, 2011

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

Although I have not owned a dog of my own for several years now, I have always been a dog lover and I still very much enjoy getting to know the dogs that belong to my friends and family.  And, like most dog lovers, I have often wondered what was really going on between the ears of those critters while they look me so directly in the eyes.

With Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell and Know, Alexandra Horowitz provides answers to most of my questions.  Some of her answers are amazing and some are a bit disappointing, but all of them are interesting - and make great conversation starters.

Let’s begin with one that will probably disappoint and crack up an equal number of dog owners: the doggy kiss through which they and their animal supposedly express their affection.  According to Horowitz, “our mouths taste great to dogs.”  They are, in fact, falling back on a method they used as puppies to get their mothers to regurgitate some partially digested food for them.  Just think how often you have disappointed your kissing-dog by not following through with the hoped for snack.

I was surprised, as I suspect many people will be, that our modern-day wolf is not the ancestor of the dog, but that they instead share a common ancestor.  While today’s wolves and dogs do share many characteristics, they have many differences.  One of the most noticeable differences is the dog’s willingness to look humans directly in the eye as it seeks their guidance.  Wolves, on the other hand, want nothing to do with eye contact.

Inside of a Dog is filled with chapters that explore a dog’s tendency to “see” the world through his sense of smell, the supposed psychic powers of dogs, the meaning of growls and barks, how to read a dog’s body language, what a dog sees through his eyes (including dealing with the myth that dogs do not see color), a dog’s sense of time, and what a dog does all day at home alone.

One of the more fascinating topics visited is the highly structured play techniques of dogs, even when meeting a strange dog for the first time.  We have all witnessed a tiny dog taking on a huge canine opponent in mock battle - and living to play another day.  Horowitz through hours and hours of watching slowed-down videos was able to identify the signals that dogs send to each other during this kind of play.  She noted the willingness of the larger dog to handicap himself when taking on a dog much smaller than himself, either by falling onto his back or crouching low enough for the other dog to look him in the eye.  What she describes is quite remarkable and I would love to see some of the video she describes.

Dog lovers, this one is for you.  It works particularly well because, for the most part, Horowitz avoids getting too sentimental or cute in expressing her personal love for the dog.  I am definitely not a fan of “dog novels” (or “cat novels,” for that matter) so I thoroughly enjoyed all the dog-stereotype debunking included in Inside of a Dog.

Rated at: 4.0


  1. This book sounds great - I'm more of a cat person than a dog person, but I do like both kinds of animals.

    The bit at the beginning of your post, about dogs doing something to their people that they used to do to their mothers, was interesting to me. I read a book about cats not too long ago that had a chapter of cat behavior, and it sounded like a lot of the things cats do around the people they live with are things they used to do to their mothers. So, I guess for both cats and dogs, people take on a semi-parent role.

  2. Sounds like a great book. I'm always curious about the things animals do that we constantly misinterpret- like the dog kisses!

  3. The title makes me think of Groucho Marx: "...inside of a dog, it's too dark to read."

  4. Domesticated animals have adapted well to living with humans, Library Girl, but most of us do tend to forget that they are still animals. :-)

    It's an interesting book for pet owners, especially, I would imagine.

  5. Jeane, lots of fun stuff in this one for sure.

  6. I love that line, Susan...wish I could hear Groucho saying it. I wonder if it's part of one of his old TV shows?

  7. This one sounds fantastic. I am a big dog lover and would be keen to learn anything new or insightful about my pet.

  8. Take a look at it, Kathleen. I found it on the paperback best seller shelves at Barnes & Noble.

  9. About the dog novels, I am tough. Where the Red Fern grows wrecked me as a kid. Lassie, Old Yeller, etc. All such manipulative books, but I fall for them every time.

    I choked my way through Marley & Me, and like every other time swore off the dog novels/memoirs.

    So anyway, I reporting on Story of Edgar Sawtelle. EXTREMELY GOOD. Not in the same category as aforementioned books. The Hamlet angle is there, but not necessary to understand. Writing style restrained, but poetic in the right places. Many report they don't like the middle section, but it was my favorite part--just the boy and the dogs. Ending: tough, but spot on. On your scale, I'd give it a 4.5.

  10. Sean, two of my favorite books as a kid were Old Yeller and Savage Sam. Dog books are perfect for boys but, like you, I find them too manipulative for much adult reading...and too much like every other dog book.

    Happy to see that you thought highly of Edgar Sawtelle. That middle section, long though it might be, was highly effective, IMO. I wonder what the author will do next; it took years and years for him to get this one finished, and it has to be intimidating to him to start that whole process all over again. I hope he manages it.