Monthly Archives: March 2011

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

by Alexandra Horowitz

It’s commonly accepted that the dog was the first animal to be domesticated by man. We’ve had thousands of years together, and there is no stronger bond between humans and other animals. And yet, what do we know about them? I mean, about their inner thoughts, motivations, feelings? Many a dog owner will tell you that s/he understands his or her dog, knows what they are thinking, and vice-versa. But do we really?

As Horowitz points out, in all these thousands of years, the dog has not really been studied in a scientific manner. The conventional wisdom in animal science is that the interesting things to be learned about animal minds will be found among the primates. But that is changing, as scientists realize that over the course of our long history together, dogs, “through the artificial selection of domestication, [ ] have evolved to be sensitive to just those things that importantly make up our cognition, including, critically, attention to others.”

Horowitz would seem to be qualified to talk about this stuff: she is a dog owner and lover, of course, and a scientist by training:

“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.”

So, the scientist observes dogs. And in doing so, Horowitz spends considerable and repeated time describing how dogs are also sensitive observers of humans. Dogs don’t know, for instance, that they should not stare at a handicapped person, and they don’t tire of repeated observation, but retain a childlike ability to be fascinated:

“What makes dogs good anthropologists is that they are so attuned to humans: they notice what is typical, and what is different. And, just as crucially, they don’t become inured to us, as we do–nor do they grow up to be us.”

And of course dogs have other highly acute senses, most notably smell. They can detect things about us by means of their noses that we humans would need special instruments to measure. Many of these things have bearing on our behavior. An example is testosterone level – not only can a dog sense when this is heightened in a human, but the cortisol level in the dog will rise or fall in correlation.

The book is full of many such observations, drawn from a multitude of studies –  animal behavior studies, human behavior studies, child-psychology studies,  comparisons of dogs and other animals, or of dogs and humans, etc. None of it is dry or tedious, and much of it is personal. Interspersed throughout are vignettes concerning the author’s own dog, Pump.

“Every dog owner would agree with me, I suspect, about the specialness of her own dog. Reason argues that everyone must be wrong: by definition, not every dog can be the special dog – else special becomes ordinary. But it is reason that is wrong: what is special is the life story that each dog owner creates with and knows about his own dog. I am not exempt from feeling that, even from a scientific vantage. Behavioral scientific approaches to dogs, far from displacing this story, simply build on the singular understanding of the dog owner – on the expertise that each dog owner has about her dog.”

Ever aware of the dangers of anthropomorphism, Horowitz introduces us early on to the concept of umwelt, or “self-world.” “Umwelt captures what life is like as the animal.” In other words, we have to think like dogs in order to understand them: “it will be our tool for resolving the tension between what we think we know about dogs, and what they are actually doing.” While it may be an imperfect tool, Horowitz provides a plethora of examples as she shares what she has learned about dogs which make vivid the gaps, and allows us to enter that much more deeply into the canine mind. While we might note that a dog has urinated on a fire hydrant, our dog, by taking a few whiffs of that urine, can know the sex and age of the peeing dog, what it last ate, and its general health…

Such are the things we learn about what dogs see, smell, and know.

Category: dog, science | Tags: ,

Katz on Dogs

by Jon Katz

I’ve been doing a lot of dog reading since getting Charlie, and not all of those titles are listed here. I figure I will remember what The Akita was about. But there were a few things in this present book that I wanted to take notes on. There are of course many schools of thought with regard to how to train dogs – dogs in general and particular types of dogs as well. Here are some of Katz’s thoughts:

“…what is perhaps the most essential ingredient in a dog’s life: a human who will take emotional responsibility for him.”

“Humans may not be as unique as we think; perhaps other animals also have a well-developed sense of self-consciousness. But probably not the animals that share our homes and menace our bedroom slippers. The more I’ve moved away from interpreting my dogs’ behavior as nearly human, the easier it is to train them, and the less guilt and anxiety I feel.”

“The reality is, we don’t know that much about what dogs think, because they can’t tell us. You can make up your own mind about what you think dogs think. Behaviorists tend to believe that dogs ‘think’ in their own way–in sensory images involving their finely honed instincts. They’re not capable of deviousness or spite. They love routine: nothing seems to make them more comfortable than doing the same thing at the same time in the familiar way, day after day–we snack here, we poop there, we play over here. I am astonished at how little it takes to please them, how simple their lives can be if we don’t complicate them with an overlay of human motivation.”

“Remember (and it can never hurt to say before each training session): ‘This is an animal, not a child.’ Most dogs are quite willing to follow the rules; when they don’t, most often it’s because they don’t understand the rules. Communication is the key to training. Don’t blame the dog for being confused. Challenge yourself to be clearer, more patient and creative about letting the dog know what you want. Try. Try again. Understand that real training takes many months, even years.”

Things to keep in mind as I try to make Charlie into the best dog he can be, while being to him the best owner that I can be. So far, so good.

Category: dog | Tags: ,


by Neil Stephenson

I bought the Baroque Cycle trilogy as they were published, but did not begin it until now… Somewhat daunting in length, this nevertheless was a pretty fast, enjoyable read. While I do like science fiction – and Snow Crash was my entry point to Stephenson’s work – I am not a particular fan of history, or of historical fiction. Still, he makes it easy. The characters are well drawn, and the physical environs vivid and palpable. Bringing historical figures such as Newton and Leibniz into the narrative only makes it that much more fun.

Science was in its nascence, and while we might think we’ve come a long way since then, it is well to remember that not all lines of inquiry are going to lead where we hope. Still, the goals seem familiar:

“…the trick of refining, from the base, dark, cold, essentially focal matter of which the World was made, the Philosophick Mercury–the pure living essence of God’s power and presence in the world–the key to the transmutation of metals, the attainment of immortal life and perfect wisdom.”

So too, some of the arguments:

“Here Daniel was a bit lost. ‘Fluxion seems to mean a flowing over time–so it makes perfect sense when you apply it the word to the position of a punt on a river, who is as a matter of fact, flowing over time. But now you seem to be applying it to the shape of a weed, which is not flowing–it’s just standing there sort of bent.’

‘But Daniel, the virtue of this approach is that it doesn’t matter what the actual physical situation is, a curve is ever a curve, and whatever you can do to the curve of a river you can do just as rightly to the curve of a weed–we are free from all that old nonsense now.’ Meaning the Aristotelean approach, in which such easy mixing of things with obviously different natures would be abhorrent. All that mattered henceforth, apparently, was what form they adopted when translated into the language of analysis. ‘Translating a thing into the analytical language is akin to what the alchemist does when he extracts, from some crude ore, a pure spirit, or virtue, or pneuma. The foeces–the gross external forms of things– which only mislead and confuse us–are cast off to reveal the underlying spirit. And when this is done we may learn that some things that are superficially different are, in their real nature, the same.’”

Which philosophical approach are we getting at here? Stephenson’s quoting of Galileo leaves little doubt:

“Philosophy is written in this immense book that stands ever open before our eyes (I speak of the Universe), but it cannot be read if one does not first learn the language and recognize the characters in which it is written. It is written in mathematical language, and the characters are triangles, circles, and other geometrical figures, without the means of which it is humanly impossible to understand a word; without these philosophy is confused wandering in a dark labyrinth.”

And later:

“Every assertion that Euclid, et al., made concerning geometry was backed up by a chain of logical proofs that could be followed all the way back to a few axioms that were obviously true, e.g., ‘the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.’ The truths of geometry were necessary truths; the human mind could imagine a universe in which Daniel’s name was David, or in which Ipswich had been built on the other side of the Orwell, but geometry and math had to be true, there was no conceivable universe in which 2 + 3 was equal to 2 + 2.”

In one scene, the distinction between science and superstition is paired with a little joke about Asians not being good at math:

“This Mandarin seems to have no desire to refine his philosophikal position–to disentangle the worthy science of number theory from the base superstition of numerology–most unfortunate for him and the rest of his race.”

Stephenson wants to set the stage for the Enlightenment, and the role of science and reason in bringing that forth, as well as everything that has followed. Today it is information, or data, that has become the focus of the knowledge trades. At Trinity College in London, in 1672:

“And whereas the ’Change-men made common cause to buy shares in sailing-ships or joint stock companies, and traded Jamaica sugar for Spanish silver, these men were transacting diverse small conspiracies or trading snatches of courtly data.”

The story contains men of books, as well as men of action. They are to be contrasted, but their techniques are not necessarily mutually exclusive:

“And being an excellent commander, about to go into a real battle, he had the wit to bring along a few people who could actually get things done for him. It may seem hard for you to believe, but mark my word–whenever serious and competent people need to get things done in the real world, all considerations of tradition and protocol fly out the window.”

And unique men:

“No, even without lenses and parabolic mirrors, Newton and Hooke see things that you and I don’t. Leibniz is proposing a strange inversion of what we normally mean when we describe a man as distinguished, or unique. Normally when we say these things, we mean that the man himself stands out from a crowd in some way. But Leibniz is saying that such a man’s uniqueness is rooted in his ability to perceive the rest of the universe with unusual clarity–to distinguish one thing from another more effectively than ordinary souls.”

I look forward to reading further about unique men in The Confusion.

Category: novel | Tags: , , ,