INSIDE OF A DOG
What Dogs See, Smell, and Know
By Alexandra Horowitz
353 pp. Scribner. $27
Reviewed by By CATHLEEN SCHINE
September 8, 2009, New York Times
The literature about dogs is not quite the same as the literature about, say, Norwegian rats. Dogs get the literary respect: there are brilliant memoirs about dogs like J. R. Ackerley’s “My Dog Tulip” and Elizabeth von Arnim’s “All the Dogs of My Life”; there’s James Thurber and Virginia Woolf and Jack London; there’s Lassie and Clifford and, of course, Marley. White rats, on the other hand, get most of the scientific attention. Alexandra Horowitz’s “Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know” attempts to rectify that situation, exploring what science tells us about dogs without relegating our pets, emotionally, to lab rats. As a psychologist with a Ph.D. in cognitive science, as well as an ardent dogophile, Horowitz aims “to take an informed imaginative leap inside of a dog — to see what it is like to be a dog; what the world is like from a dog’s point of view.”
Her work draws on that of an early-20th-century German biologist, Jakob von Uexküll, who proposed that “anyone who wants to understand the life of an animal must begin by considering what he called their umvelt . . . : their subjective or ‘self-world.’ ” Hard as we may try, a dog’s-eye view is not immediately accessible to us, however, for we reside within our own umwelt, our own self-world bubble, which clouds our vision.
Consider one of Horowitz’s examples: a rose. A human being experiences a rose as a lovely, familiar shape, a bright, beautiful color and a sublime scent. That is the very definition of a rose. But to a dog? Beauty has nothing to do with it; the color is irrelevant, barely visible, the flowery scent ignored. Only when it is adorned with some other important perfume — a recent spray of urine, perhaps — does the rose come alive for a dog. How about a more practical object? Say, a hammer? “To a dog,” Horowitz points out, “a hammer doesn’t exist. A dog doesn’t act with or on a hammer, and so it has no significance to a dog. At least, not unless it overlaps with some other, meaningful object: it is wielded by a loved person; it is urinated on by the cute dog down the street; its dense wooden handle can be chewed like a stick.” Dogs, it seems, are Aristotelians, but with their own doggy teleology. Their goals are not only radically different from ours; they are often invisible to us. To get a better view, Horowitz proposes that we humans get down intellectually on all fours and start sniffing.
Dogs, as anyone who has ever met one knows, sniff a lot. They are, says Horowitz, “creatures of the nose.” To help us grasp the magnitude of the difference between the human and the canine olfactory umwelts, she details not only the physical makeup of a dog nose (a beagle nose has 300 million receptor sites, for example, compared with a human being’s six million), but also the mechanics of the canine snout. People have to exhale before we can inhale new air. Dogs do not. They breath in, then their nostrils quiver and pull the air deeper into the nose as well as out through side slits. Specialized photography reveals that the breeze generated by dog exhalation helps to pull more new scent in. In this way, dogs not only hold more scent in at once than we can, but also continuously refresh what they smell, without interruption, the way humans can keep “shifting their gaze to get another look.”
Dogs do not just detect odors better than we can. This sniffing “gaze” also gives them a very different experience of the world than our visual one gives us. One of Horowitz’s most startling insights, for me, was how even a dog’s sense of time differs from ours. For dogs, “smell tells time,” she writes. “Perspective, scale and distance are, after a fashion, in olfaction — but olfaction is fleeting. . . . Odors are less strong over time, so strength indicates newness; weakness, age. The future is smelled on the breeze that brings air from the place you’re headed.” While we mainly look at the present, the dog’s “olfactory window” onto the present is wider than our visual window, “including not just the scene currently happening, but also a snatch of the just-happened and the up-ahead. The present has a shadow of the past and a ring of the future about it.” Now that’s umwelt.
A dog’s vision affects its sense of time, too. Dogs have a higher “flicker fusion” rate than we do, which is the rate at which retinal cells can process incoming light, or “the number of snapshots of the world that the eye takes in every second.” This is one of the reasons dogs respond so well to subtle human facial reactions: “They pay attention to the slivers of time between our blinks.”) It also helps explain those eerily accurate balletic leaps after tennis balls and Frisbees, but Horowitz lets us see the implications beyond our human-centric fascination with our pets. This is more than a game of fetch; it is a profound, existential realization: “One could say that dogs see the world faster than we do, but what they really do is see just a bit more world in every second.”
Humans are good at seeing things right in front of us, Horowitz explains, because our photoreceptors are centrally located in an area of the retina called the fovea. Dogs do not have foveae and so are not as good at seeing things right in front of them. Those breeds, like pugs, that have retinas more like ours and can see close up, tend to be lap dogs that focus on their owners’ faces, making them seem “more companionable.” In dogs with long noses, often bred for hunting or herding, however, the photoreceptors cluster along a horizontal band spanning the middle of the eye. This is called a visual streak, and those dogs that have it “have better panoramic, high-quality vision, and much more peripheral vision than humans.”
As for their hearing, despite a talent for detecting those high-pitched whistles that are inaudible to us, dogs’ ability to “pinpoint where a sound is coming from is imprecise” compared with ours. Instead, their auditory sense serves to help them find the general direction of a sound, at which point their more acute sight and smell take over. As for dogs’ ability to respond to language, it has more to do with the “prosody” of our utterances than the words themselves. “High-pitched sounds mean something different than low sounds; rising sounds contrast with falling sounds,” Horowitz writes. Dogs respond to baby talk “partially because it distinguishes speech that is directed at them from the rest of the continuous yammering above their heads.”
Horowitz also discusses the natural history of dogs, their evolutionary descent from the wolves, but she cautions the reader to pay attention to those wolf traits dogs have discarded along the way. “Dogs do not form true packs,” she writes. “They scavenge or hunt small prey individually or in parallel,” rather than cooperatively, as wolves do. Countering the currently fashionable alpha dog “pack theories” of dog training, Horowitz notes that “in the wild, wolf packs consist almost entirely of related or mated animals. They are families, not groups of peers vying for the top spot. . . . Behaviors seen as ‘dominant’ or ‘submissive’ are used not in a scramble for power; they are used to maintain social unity.”
The idea that a dog owner must become the dominant member by using jerks or harsh words or other kinds of punishment, she writes, “is farther from what we know of the reality of wolf packs and closer to the timeworn fiction of the animal kingdom with humans at the pinnacle, exerting dominion over the rest. Wolves seem to learn from each other not by punishing each other but by observing each other. Dogs, too, are keen observers — of our reactions.”
In one enormously important variation from wolf behavior, dogs will look into our eyes. “Though they have inherited some aversion to staring too long at eyes, dogs seem to be predisposed to inspect our faces for information, for reassurance, for guidance.” They are staring, soulfully, into our umwelts. It seems only right that we try a little harder to reciprocate, and Horowitz’s book is a good step in that direction. But she can be a bit coy and overly stylish in her attempt not to sound too scientific, and to the particular choir to which she is preaching, much of her material will be familiar.
In that same vein, the tone of the book is sometimes baffling — an almost polemical insistence on the value of dogs, as if they’d long been neglected by world opinion. But then Horowitz will drop in some lovely observation, some unlikely study, some odd detail that causes one’s dog-loving heart to flutter with astonishment and gratitude. When researchers, she notes in one of these fine moments, studied the temporal patterns of dogs interacting with people, they found the patterns to be “similar to the timing patterns among mixed-sex strangers flirting.”
Cathleen Schine’s most recent novel is “The New Yorkers.” Her next book, “The Three Weissmanns of Westport,” will be published in February.