Illustration by Ward Schumaker
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By CATHLEEN SCHINE
Published: September 8, 2009
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 withoutrelegating 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.”
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INSIDE OF A DOG: WHAT DOGS SEE, SMELL, AND KNOW.
By Alexandra Horowitz
By 353 pp. Scribner.$27
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 ownself-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 importantperfume — 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 cutedog 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 alot. 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 inhalenew 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 humanscan 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,...