Author Knows What Goes On 'Inside Of A Dog'

Where a typical dog lover sees puppies at play, cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz sees a complex dance between canines. Horowitz clears up common misconceptions about our four-legged friends in her book, Inside Of A Dog.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION and Happy Thanksgiving. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

If you live with a dog, you probably think you know your pooch pretty well -the guilty face when you catch her snacking from the garbage can or chewing up your shoes, the sad face when you head out the door to work, and those wet sloppy kisses when you get home. Well, that's because he loves you, right? Well, probably not - says cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz in her new book, �Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know.� Horowitz explores what we really do know about dogs, what we think we know and why we're so often wrong.

Later in the program, we want you to share the story about somebody who will not be around the table with you today. Email us now. The address is talk@npr.org. But first, inside of a dog. How do you know what's you dog is thinking or what he or she wants? Tell us your story. Our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site, that's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Alexandra Horowitz is a professor of animal behavior, comparative cognition and psychology at Columbia University's Barnard College in New York City, and joins us today from the studios of the radio foundation in New York. Happy Thanksgiving.

Professor ALEXANDRA HOROWITZ (Bernard College): Happy Thanksgiving.

CONAN: And you argue that it's almost always wrong to read human emotions into a dog's behavior?

Prof. HOROWITZ: Yeah, we really all tend, as dog owners and even non-dog owners, to anthropomorphize - to project our human emotions and feelings and thoughts onto other animals in order to explain their behavior. But most of these projections are just not scientifically proven.

CONAN: There's a sad face when near living for work in the morning?

Prof. HOROWITZ: Oh, it's certainly a sad face. Isn't it? But it doesn't mean that it maps to the same feeling of upset or concern that we would have.

CONAN: And the - well, we heard that little clip of tape about the kisses when you come home.

Prof. HOROWITZ: That's a great example. Yeah, we tend to think that if a dog greets us with excitement, licking around our face, looks just thrilled and loving at our arrival - I think that, looking back at wolf's behavior, gives us a better indication they're probably just trying to see what we ate and see if we'll share a little of it with them.

CONAN: And would be happy, as you point out, if we did.

Prof. HOROWITZ: Absolutely.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And that's not to say that they're not boon companions, or just about the most special critters, ever.

Prof. HOROWITZ: It might be that they're - it's so easy to anthropomorphize them, and that makes them a better companion - as a matter of fact. We look into their eyes, they look back at our eyes, and that gives us the feeling of a bond.

CONAN: Interestingly though, you say we need to look at wolf behavior, yet you are critical of those trainers who say, wait a minute, the dog is like a wolf, a pack animal?

Prof. HOROWITZ: Right. Well, I think there's two things going on. One, I look at wolf behavior because that's component of the dog story, the dog history. But it's not the only explanation for their behavior. And we can also look at their natural behavior in interaction with us. In that case, the reason that I diverge from the view that we have to dominate our dogs is because that's not really what wolves do in their packs. The best wolf researchers currently say, gee, in the wild, wolfs don't - or aren't always - competing for the alpha position. They don't punish each other in order to teach them to keep in line. So, I don't see any reason why we have to transfer that old model of wolf pack behavior to our relationship with our dogs.

CONAN: That was interesting. I was doing some reading on this, also. Somebody pointed out - there are something like 700,000 wolves in the world, and well many, many millions of dogs. One of these�

Prof. HOROWITZ: Hmm.

CONAN: �creatures adapted more successfully than the other?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. HOROWITZ: Absolutely. I mean, I think they've - they in some ways have selected us, as much as, we've selected them. And they're well adapted to be cooperative with us. We should be more cooperative with them instead of trying to simply dominate them.

CONAN: Indeed, one of their great skills and something that a wolf can not do is read humans?

Prof. HOROWITZ: Yeah, they are great eavesdroppers on our behavior. I think they spend a lot of time watching us. And they seem to understand - some of the great recent dog cognitions studies show, some of our gestural communications. So, pointing - they follow points. Well, you know, lots of other species do not do that. They don't understand a point as a gestures - communicating information. They follow where we're looking and find a gaze as communication. So, that really distinguishes them from not just their forbearers, wolves, but lots of other social animals.

CONAN: And you point out one of their biggest distinctions from their fore bearers, unlike wolves, they will look you in the eye.

Ms. HOROWITZ: Yeah, in most species eye contact, direct eye contact, is a threat. But among dogs and humans, and between dogs, eye contact is permissible. And so we get this feeling, when we look in the great pools that are our dogs eyes, that we're bonding with them, like we bond with our infant, when infants first looks us in the eyes.

CONAN: And the same kind of appeal that infants can have - that over-large head, for example, well, dogs have that too.

Ms. HOROWITZ: Right, exactly, the big eyes, the over-sized ears. Yeah, what Lorenz - what they used to call neoteny. It looks like they're well designed physically, not just in their behavior.

CONAN: And you said Lorenz - Konrad Lorenz - the�

Ms. HOROWITZ: Yeah.

CONAN: Anyway, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. We're talking with Alexandra Horowitz, the author of �Inside of a Dog.� Well, how does your dog tell you what he or she wants, give us a call? And let's start with David(ph). David with us from Hot Springs in South Dakota.

DAVID (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi, go ahead, please.

DAVID: I can barely hear you, but I'll go ahead anyway. I can tell what my dogs are thinking, most of the time, by just looking into their eyes. As she said, dogs definitely are more - more based on eye contact. And I have herding dogs, border collies and Australian shepherds, and they are all about staring into my eyes and looking at each other and reading my body language. So I can usually know what's on their minds or what they're wanting, just by taking some time and looking at them and looking at their body language as well.

CONAN: And do any of their behaviors puzzle you?

DONALD: Yes. Why do they roll in dead things.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DONALD: And on top of that, why do they want to run up to me after they have done so to let me know how happy they're that they stink.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. HOROWITZ: The later is probably sharing with you their excitement, right, as you share with them all their successes. This is like a constant question for science, that science is not answered - why they roll in something smelly. And I think the best answer is really that they probably just like the smell and that's about it. But there are plenty of other theories you'll hear, but none has been supported or really tested.

CONAN: You say one of the things that happened is, ordinarily, a lot of times after a dog has been given a bath, they will run outside and find something to roll in.

Prof. HOROWITZ: Right. I don't think that they enjoy being bathed in coconut lavender shampoo. I mean, their scent is part of their identity. Obviously, we see them sniffing each other all the time and they're trying to get a good whiff of the other dog. And if we cover that up, in some ways, we're concealing their identity.

CONAN: Hmm. Donald, thanks very much for the call.

DONALD: Thank you, guys.

CONAN: Bye, bye. And the other part of that - what he was saying, was, these are dogs - his dogs in particular - are bred to be herders.

Prof. HOROWITZ: Yeah, right. I mean, working dogs are especially attuned - but sometimes in ways that won't work out so well, in, for instance, apartment living. So, a herding dog, many families who don't need to herd animals might find some of their behaviors annoying. But if you look at why they were bred, their constant nipping of your heels, makes much more sense.

CONAN: Let's go next to Christian. Christian with us from Portland, Oregon.

CHRISTIAN (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: You're on the air, Christian, go ahead, please.

CHRISTIAN: Yeah. I've a three-year-old boxer-mastiff mix, and she was a rescue - I got her in six months. And right shortly after I got her, I was in an accident at work. And so I spent about a year and a half home, and just spent that time bonding with her. So she was with me, you know, pretty much all the time. You know, other than my doctor appointments and stuff, she - I took her with me in the car and everything.

So she's very bonded. She won't - if I leave the house, she waits at the top of the stairs and goes back and forth between the window and the stairs, waiting for me to get home. She won't play with my wife or daughter or anything. She just wants to be with me all the time, and she's - I feel it's very easy for me to know her moods and everything, just because of all the time that we have spent together bonding.

Ms. HOROWITZ: Yeah, I think the symbiotic relationship you've formed with an animal, who you spend all your time with, is actually unique. A lot of people don't get to spend this much time - I say get, although in your case it wasn't optional - with an animal. When you do, you really are observing her as much as she's observing you. Most of the time, I think it's kind of a one-way street, the animal observing us and us thinking we know what the dog is doing, but never really looking.

CHRISTIAN: Well, yeah. I mean, I grew up in a family that - I lived next door to a veterinarian. So I grew up going to a veterinarian's office all the time, and then my first job when I was young was working at a humane society. So I've spent, you know, lots of times with animals and stuff, and you know, this dog that I've got now is just - she's just wonderful. She's just a wonderful companion, and I don't know how I can possibly get lucky enough to ever find another one like her�

Ms. HOROWITZ: Right, yeah, irreplaceable.

CHRISTIAN: Yeah, going through a time like I did, where I was injured, and if I hadn't had her, you know, it would have been terrible because, you know, you feel so alone and so isolated. When you're injured and you can't work and you can't do the things that you want to do, having that companion there at the foot of the bed, you know, looking at you, and you know, I swear, you know, she knows when I feel bad. You know, she wants - if I'm really feeling bad, she comes up and is licking my face, and just, it's like she knows my moods. She knows everything about me.

CONAN: Well, Alexandra, you argue that in fact dogs can read emotions.

Ms. HOROWITZ: Yeah, I think it's true. They might not think about our moods the way we are thinking about them, but they're pretty good readers A) of our behavior - you know, they know how we habitually act, and if we act differently, they're attuned to that. But they also seem to be alert to, say, different smells that we emit when we're upset, when we're fearful. These are probably hormones that we're always emitting, but we can't smell them on each other. The dogs can, and if they have the opportunity, they'll really be able to distinguish between you sitting there happy and you starting to feel a little concerned or upset.

CONAN: So that old thing about dogs can sense fear?

Ms. HOROWITZ: I think it's actually true, and if you look at a fearful person yourself, I think you'll see something behaviorally, and if we see somebody on the street who looks scared, they look different to us. So they look that way to the dog too, and they're probably emitting some cortisol, stress hormone. They can see that.

CONAN: And they can smell it too, yeah. Christian, thanks very much, and Happy Thanksgiving.

CHRISTIAN: Thank you, Happy Thanksgiving to everyone.

CONAN: We're going to talk more with Alexandra Horowitz in just a minute about what your dog really thinks and how much she knows. We'll also get more of your calls. How do you know what your dog wants? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Or drop us an email, the address: talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Each Thanksgiving on this program we take time to remember some people who are missing from the table this year: absent friends, family members stuck at work, serving overseas, those we've said goodbye to in the past year. Who won't be there around your table this year? You can send us an email now, talk@npr.org. We'll take calls a little bit later in the hour.

Right now we're talking about the science of dogs, what they think, why they do the things they do and how we know any of this. Alexandra Horowitz is a dog lover and a scientist. She's written a new book, "Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell and Know." You can read more about she turned her love of dogs into a scientific pursuit in an excerpt on our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And there's an email from Renee(ph) in St. Louis. Are dogs capable of deceit? I taught my dog Rosie(ph) to ring a bell when she needs fresh water. Last night I was preparing pumpkin, which Rosie loves, for my Thanksgiving pie. Rosie rang her bell, so I stopped to fill her bowl, but when I got to the bowl, it was nearly full. I looked behind me, and there was Rosie by the kitchen table, about to take a big bite of pumpkin.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HOROWITZ: It's a great question, and I think a lot of the cognitive studies about dogs are getting at this question. Exactly what do they know? What do they think about? And can they manipulate us?

I think in some ways, dogs are ingenious. In other words, they wear their emotions in their posture, in their face, in their eyes. They can't really deceive with their body, but I think they're pretty good at manipulating us in this way and that you should, Renee, believe that your dog duped you in order to get that food. I think is absolutely true. They see what we ordinarily do, and they'll use it to their advantage.

CONAN: It's sort of burying the lead there. The dog likes pumpkin.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HOROWITZ: Right. I mean, well, you know, dogs can eat a lot, not all, but a lot of human foods, and it's funny that it's part of how we've started to think of dogs without really looking at their behavior that we feed them only packaged foods, that we assume they wouldn't like anything that we eat. They probably evolved on the outskirts of human civilization eating what we threw away.

CONAN: All right, well, presumably, about November 2nd or 3rd, pumpkin. Let's get Kate(ph) on the line from Salt Lake City.

KATE (Caller): Hi. I just have a comment about this science with dogs. I've always been a lover of blue heelers and the herding dogs, and I went down to our local pound and picked up what I thought was going to be a blue heeler, found he's a little bit more difficult to train and fairly aloof. So my family and I did a DNA test on him to find out that he's half Border Collie and half Basenji.

And I knew absolutely nothing about Basenjis other than - now I've learned that they're one of the oldest breeds, over 5,000 years old, and they're from Africa, and one of their cardinal traits is that they're very aloof and difficult to train.

And he's a very lovable dog and certainly we're able to train him a little bit, but the science, having the DNA totally has crystallized his personality for us.

CONAN: And so it's made you understand him a little bit better.

KATE: Yeah, yeah. So I urge people, if you're really curious about your dog, it's kind of a neat thing to do.

CONAN: All right. Well, thanks very much, Kate, and I hope you're having a great Thanksgiving.

KATE: Thank you, and to you too.

CONAN: I wonder, the accuracy of those DNA tests, is that something that's held up?

Ms. HOROWITZ: It's still in progress, I think, and there are a couple of different companies that do these tests. They're truly interesting to find out. I think this is a game that we all play with a mixed breed, is we try to figure out what its heritage is. You know, I always wonder about my dogs, where they come from, although I'm not sure that I really want to find out. I like playing the game.

On the other hand, I do want to caution that as much as this helps explain a range of behaviors, in this case it greatly explains difficulty in training. Sometimes we view breeds as kind of reliable animals who won't behave individually, who won't have individual differences, and there still is a lot of individual variation among a breed. We shouldn't think we're getting just a friendly, happy dog if you get a retriever who has a reputation for being so. You know, we still might get a stubborn, friendly, happy dog.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: As they say in the bird books, individuals vary.

Ms. HOROWITZ: Exactly so, yes.

CONAN: Here's a tweet from Chris McKee(ph). How can you scientifically prove they don't have bonding emotions - you were talking about that earlier. Look at the things Alex the parrot discovered with oughts(ph) - thoughts, with thoughts.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HOROWITZ: The tweet shortened it there. I think - I'm not trying to prove that animals, that dogs in particular, don't have these emotions. In fact, I personally think that they do have a large range of emotions. I just think that sometimes we're wrong in attributing to them because of certain behaviors they do, and it's - science is trying to test some of these attributions we make. They certainly bond with us fabulously well.

CONAN: It's interesting. You write in the beginning of your book that maybe 20, 25 years ago there was very little study, scientific study, of dogs and that it has in fact exploded over the past generation or so.

Ms. HOROWITZ: It really has. There was almost nobody studying dogs when I entered graduate school, which was a decade and a half ago, and I think that's because the study of psychology was more interested in animals who were closely related to us. They seemed the likeliest to have these cognitive capacities that were interesting to us.

Then it looks like dogs, who we thought were so familiar, are actually a little more mysterious and surpass other primates in their skills at reading our behavior in a way that nobody would have anticipated. So now there are a lot of dog research groups in the States and abroad.

CONAN: Interesting, you also query - these were the first domesticated animals, and oddly, you know, you wouldn't think predators would be the first domesticated animal.

Ms. HOROWITZ: I agree. I think it really helps that are social cooperative predators. So they lived in a social group. That's a model that could fit in well with our social species. And they were hunters, and one of the theories of early beginnings of domestication was that they cooperated with us in hunting, and then they are also a species which looks quite adorably cute as puppies.

And I don't think that's trivial. I think that that enabled some of us to - some of them to insinuate their way into our lives and be bred and then perpetuate the relationship with us.

CONAN: Let's get David on the line, David calling from San Mateo.

DAVID (Caller): Good morning - or good afternoon, I should say.

CONAN: Well, good afternoon where we are, yes, but that's okay. Go ahead.

DAVID: Well, I - when I was younger, I played music for a living and had all my daytime free, and I had an Irish setter and a German shepherd mix, and we just spent constant time together during the days, and I would train them to ride the bike through downtown Louisville with me. And they wouldn't ride on the bike, they would run.

And you know, it took a while, but it got to the point where they would pay so much attention to me that I could be on the street on my bicycle, they could be on the sidewalk, and they would stay right abreast of me, and then when we got to intersections, they would listen - of course they would listen if I said something, but if I didn't say anything, they would listen for the brakes squeaking on my bike, and if they didn't hear the brakes squeaking or me saying something to them to slow down, then they would just kind of glance over at me and keep going abreast of me, and we'd go right through the intersection.

CONAN: Either those are pretty quick dogs, or you ride slowly.

DAVID: I would take it easy, you know, just a little exercise for them, exercise for me, going on nice little afternoons�

Ms. HOROWITZ: It's true. They're very good at predicting our behavior. You know, even when - most of us don't ride our bikes with our dogs, although it's terrific when you can, but just having - walking with a dog on a leash, usually the dogs aren't constantly bumping into us. After a little bit of time walking together, they kind of predict where we're going, and they rarely bump into us. They're sort of good cooperative companions. And so you get on wheels and do that, and they'll follow right along.

DAVID: They are. They're good at that, and you said something that I wanted to touch on real quickly. You mentioned the generalization, and dogs as individuals, and people tend to think of Irish setters as these scatterbrained, goofy dogs. And I was saying before we got online that my dog was in an obedience class that was primarily German shepherds, and I didn't have these preconceptions at the time, and he took to the training really well and actually won first place at the end of the obedience class. And so�

Ms. HOROWITZ: Yeah, I think sometimes one of the best things we can do is forget what we think we know about how the breed is supposed to behave and just observe them, treat them as though they have infinite capacity and see what they can do and encourage that.

DAVID: Treat them as an individual.

CONAN: David, thanks very much, and Happy Thanksgiving.

DAVID: Happy Thanksgiving to you both.

CONAN: In fact, you say one of the first things we ought to do is try to conceive of the world from the dog's point of view. You use a German term, umwelt.

Ms. HOROWITZ: Right. I love this idea of trying to imagine being in the dog's head, you know, and so that means imagining things from two feet off the ground, imagining the world as full of smells and not just visual images, because for them olfaction is their primary sensory modality. It's imagining not being so accustomed to what you see every day, and every time a dog walks down the street in New York, where I live, you know, they're seeing a range of things that I've been trained not to be interested in or see anymore. And so if we can imagine that, I think we get a better idea of what the dog's experience is like.

CONAN: And not to, again, read human emotions - you use that old expression, a rose is a rose is a rose. Well, to a human, a rose means a lot of different things. It's symbolic of, well, romance or a lot of - but to a dog, it might not mean anything unless another dog had urinated on it or its owner had handled it.

Ms. HOROWITZ: Right. Precisely. So it's not a symbol of anything to the dog. And in fact, it might pass - the dog might pass by a bush of roses and be entirely uninterested and another bush is terribly interesting. So the things that they find interesting are not going to always be the same ones that we do. I am interested in architecture of the building in my corner. My dog is interested in the corner of the building, you know�

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HOROWITZ: �not the entire building. And so, imagine the world reconfigured from that dog's point view. It has to do with where the smells are, that's the interest.

CONAN: Michael writes of us from the Virgin Islands. We have a four-and-a-half-pound Yorkie who yowls at the news. Specifically, when he hears the theme music for TALK OF THE NATION or ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, he tips back his head and howls like a tiny wolf. I howl along with him, but it was his idea. I finally realized what was triggering this behavior, that it's pretty hardwired in the DNA. He's so far from a wolf but that is a real howl. Now I sometimes howl when he is even in the car. He has me trained.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HOROWITZ: It's true they train us. And among wolves, howls seemed to be a sound they make to speak to each other at long distances and to kind of coordinate the group. So now you're coordinating your pack or your family when you howl together.

CONAN: Yes. All those sounds that dogs make, and there's quite a variety, they all have different significances.

Ms. HOROWITZ: Right. Although, surprisingly, there hasn't been a lot of rigorous study of the individual sounds. It's very hard to distinguish different barks, for instance. And we're trying to do a little bit of this right now. But there definitely are different barks that humans can distinguish between when a dog is isolated and feels alone, a bark when they feel threatened, a play bark. And it's important to realize that not every bark is the same, just like not every nip is a bite, you know? Dogs are little more multifaceted in these capacities than we might at first glance think.

CONAN: The book is �Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know.� The author is Alexandra Horowitz. She joins us today from New York City. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News.

And let's get Judith on the line. Judith from Hillsdale in Michigan.

JUDITH (Caller): Hi. Good afternoon.

CONAN: Afternoon.

JUDITH: I'm calling because just recently my two long-hair Chihuahuas and I came home from work and - to find my parakeet near death. And as I - I took the bird out of the cage and held him in my hand, the dogs who would normally be very frisky and jumpy and excited to be home sort of sat back and they watched.

And it made me wonder whether there's a smell to death or whether they were just reacting to my behavior. You know, I wasn't all choked up and sobbing, but I'm sure that they could sense there was a difference. But they were very quiet and they just sat there and watched while I held the bird.

Ms. HOROWITZ: Hmm. I think your instincts are both right. One, there probably is a smell that anticipates death or - of an animal who has died. But second, you are behaving much differently, for that matter, so is the bird. And the dogs are taking their cue from you, watching you to see how to behave next.

JUDITH: Right. Well, thank you.

CONAN: Oh, thanks very much, Judith. And you've also said that dogs can smell cancer.

Ms. HOROWITZ: There are dogs who have been trained to smell cancerous cells or distinguish the smell of cancer in the saliva of individuals. That doesn't mean that every dog can smell the disease on you, but it's a spectacular ability which they seem to have to distinguish cancerous from noncancerous cells. So a number have been trained to do that. There are also dogs who seem to be able to predict epileptic seizures, and the science of how they do that actually is unknown to us.

CONAN: Hmm.

Ms. HOROWITZ: But they allow the individuals to get into a safe place, for instance, to sit down so that they don't seize and fall over.

CONAN: And hurt themselves, yeah. Here's an email from Laurie. We have a Belgian shepherd who will jump on my husband and lick him all over his face and neck. She will hold him down. I was told by the breeder that this is a Tervuren trait - I don't know if I'm pronouncing that correctly - and that their dogs do it with her husband. She does not do that with me. I'm curious to know if this is a common trait among most dogs and/or what would any explanation be.

Ms. HOROWITZ: Well, I mean, a greeting to the face to me is a pretty ordinary thing for any dog to do if you let them. You know, the main explanation for dogs jumping on people is that our faces are so far away that they need to jump to get to our face to greet us. I don't think that's breed-specific per se.

And to tell you the truth, I think the reason that they'll do it with some people and not others is because some people will eventually over time allow them to do it and continue to respond to them with laughter or even with attention when they do it. You know, with my dog it's fine with me, but most of my guests seemed to not be as interested in it.

CONAN: Let's talk with Mary. Mary with us from Iowa City.

MARY (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: You're on.

MARY: I have a - my question is, how do you feel about the - Cesar Millan's philosophy of being the pack leader? You mentioned earlier not that we necessarily need to dominate them. But I found just from my practice of his whole theory that it really does work. And I think don't dogs in nature have pack leaders?

CONAN: Now, this is the Dog Whisperer?

MARY: Yes.

Ms. HOROWITZ: Right. Yeah. Well, I don't do training, so I'm not going to give training advice per se. The reason I say what I do about packs, which is that you don't have to dominate your dog, is that, no, they don't really dominate each other in nature. A wolf pack is typically a mated pair - so a father and a mother and their offspring, and maybe their offspring's offspring. So it's a family essentially. And they're no more the alpha dogs than our parents are alpha parents.

Of course, you can have that relationship with your dog and a dog will respond to being dominated, but it's more of a response of fear and realizing that with this person I have to be - I have to behave a certain way. And so the question is just what kind of relationship do you want to have with your dog. And that's certainly one you can have.

CONAN: And you say that the submissive behaviors, in fact - more a reflection of the ages, the relative ages of the dog.

Ms. HOROWITZ: Yeah. In the wolf pack, dogs who are submissive, in other words, who will not eat first, who will move away from an older dog, are usually the younger wolf. So in some way we could map that to a family - the child acts submissive, until he's a teenager at least, in front of the parent.

CONAN: Sometimes. Anyway, Mary, I'm afraid we're running out of time. But thanks very much for the phone call and I hope you have a happy Thanksgiving.

MARY: Thank you.

CONAN: All right. And our thanks to our guest, Alexandra Horowitz, the author of �Inside a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know,� joined us from the studios of the Radio Foundation in New York City. Happy Thanksgiving.

Ms. HOROWITZ: Happy Thanksgiving. Thanks for having me, Neal.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Excerpt: 'Inside Of A Dog'

Prelude

I spent many recreational hours during my years of graduate school in California in the local dog parks and beaches with Pumpernickel. At the time I was in training as an ethologist, a scientist of animal behavior. I joined two research groups observing highly social creatures: the white rhinoceros at the Wild Animal Park in Escondido, and the bonobos (pygmy chimpanzees) at the Park and the San Diego Zoo. I learned the science of careful observations, data gathering, and statistical analysis.

Cover of 'Inside of a Dog' i i
Cover of 'Inside of a Dog'

Over time, this way of looking began seeping into those recreational hours at the dog parks. Suddenly the dogs, with their fluent travel between their own social world and that of people, became entirely unfamiliar: I stopped seeing their behavior as simple and understood.

Where I once saw and smiled at play between Pumpernickel and the local bull terrier, I now saw a complex dance requiring mutual cooperation, split-second communications, and assessment of each other's abilities and desires. The slightest turn of a head or the point of a nose now seemed directed, meaningful. I saw dogs whose owners did not understand a single thing their dogs were doing; I saw dogs too clever for their playmates; I saw people misreading canine requests as confusion and delight as aggression. I began bringing a video camera with us and taping our outings at the parks. At home I watched the tapes of dogs playing with dogs, of people ball-and-Frisbee-tossing to their dogs — tapes of chasing, fighting, petting, running, barking. With new sensitivity to the possible richness of social interactions in an entirely non-linguistic world, all of these once ordinary activities now seemed to me to be an untapped font of information. When I began watching the videos in extremely slow-motion playback, I saw behaviors I had never seen in years of living with dogs. Examined closely, simple play frolicking between two dogs became a dizzying series of synchronous behaviors, active role swapping, variations on communicative displays, flexible adaptation to others' attention, and rapid movement between highly diverse play acts.

What I was seeing were snapshots of the minds of the dogs, visible in the ways they communicated with each other and tried to communicate with the people around them — and, too, in the way they interpreted other dogs' and people's actions. I never saw Pumpernickel — or any dog — the same way again. Far from being a killjoy on the delights of interacting with her, though, the spectacles of science gave me a rich new way to look at what she was doing: a new way to understand life as a dog.

Since those first hours of viewing, I have studied dogs at play: playing with other dogs and playing with people. At the time I was unwittingly part of a sea change taking place in science's attitude toward studying dogs. The transformation is not yet complete, but the landscape of dog research is already remarkably different than it was twenty years ago. Where once there was an inappreciable number of studies of dog cognition and behavior, there are now conferences on the dog, research groups devoted to studying the dog, experimental and ethological studies on the dog in the United States and abroad, and dog research results sprinkled through scientific journals. The scientists doing this work have seen what I have seen: the dog is a perfect entry into the study of non-human animals. Dogs have lived with human beings for thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of years. Through the artificial selection of domestication, they have evolved to be sensitive to just those things that importantly make up our cognition, including, critically, attention to others.

Horowitz and Finnegan i i

Author Alexandra Horowitz and one of her dogs, Finnegan. Vegar Abelsnes hide caption

itoggle caption Vegar Abelsnes
Horowitz and Finnegan

Author Alexandra Horowitz and one of her dogs, Finnegan.

Vegar Abelsnes

In this book I introduce you to the science of the dog. Scientists working in laboratories and in the field, studying working dogs and companion dogs, have gathered an impressive amount of information on the biology of dogs — their sensory abilities, their behavior — and on the psychology of dogs — their cognition. Drawing from the accumulated results of hundreds of research programs, we can begin to create a picture of the dog from the inside — of the skill of his nose, what he hears, how his eyes turn to us, and the brain behind it all. The dog cognition work reviewed includes my own but extends far beyond it to summarize all the results from recent research. For some topics on which there is no reliable information yet on dogs, I incorporate studies on other animals that might help us understand a dog's life, too. (For those whose appetite for the original research articles is whetted by the accounts herein, full citations appear at the book's end.)

We do no disservice to dogs by stepping away from the leash and considering them scientifically. Their abilities and point of view merit special attention. And the result is magnificent: far from being distanced by science, we are brought closer to and can marvel at the true nature of the dog. Used rigorously but creatively, the process and results of science can shed new light on discussions that people have daily about what their dog knows, understands, or believes. Through my personal journey, learning to look systemically and scientifically at my own dog's behavior, I came to have a better understanding of, appreciation of, and relationship with her.

I've gotten inside of the dog, and have glimpsed the dog's point of view. You can do the same. If you have a dog in the room with you, what you see in that great, furry pile of dogness is about to change.

Excerpted from Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know by Alexandra Horowitz. Copyright © 2009 by Alexandra Horowitz. Excerpted with permission by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Books Featured In This Story

Inside of a Dog

What Dogs See, Smell, and Know

by Alexandra Horowitz

Hardcover, 353 pages | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

Title
Inside of a Dog
Subtitle
What Dogs See, Smell, and Know
Author
Alexandra Horowitz

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.