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.

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