Our Dogs, Ourselves: The Story of a Singular Bond

the cover of Our Dogs, Ourselves by Alexandra Horowitz shows a dog peering up at a personI was excited about reading Alexandra Horowitz’s latest dog book. She’s the person I want to be when I grow up, after all … But, though I enjoyed it, I was also a little bit disappointed.

Her best work so far — aside from her academic papers — is Being a Dog, with its deep dive into the world of scent and how dogs experience it. Our Dogs, Ourselves lacks the insights into dog-focused science I hope for from Horowitz. It also shares little of her fascinating and groundbreaking work in dog cognition.

It’s about life with dogs. Mostly, her life with her dogs, with a few broader forays into the lives of the rest of us and our dogs — or at least the dog-owners she encounters in her New York City life with dogs.

While much of the book reads like a collection of blog posts or short essays, a couple of chapters explore larger, more serious issues. These chapters, in my opinion, redeem the book:

  • “Owning Dogs” examines dogs’ status as property. Horowitz clearly articulates how and why that’s wrong and at odds with how we think of dogs — spelling out the need for a status between “property” and “person.” Her vision of a “living property” status requires attention to dogs’ welfare as well as enabling “full dogness” — opportunities to do truly doggy things, like sniffing, digging, chasing, and chewing.
  • “The Trouble with Breeds” spells out the history and harms humans have caused through generations of selective inbreeding. She also describes related damage. One example is breed-specific laws that fail to account for individual dogs’ differences or for actual behavior. Another is many humans’ tendency to choose a breed that looks appealing to them — without considering “genetic tendencies” that, for example mean that border collies are miserable spending their lives as pets of busy, apartment-dwelling humans.
  • “Against Sex” lays bare the harms we do to dogs by “de-sexing” them, especially at very young — prepubescent — ages. Horowitz dispels many myths surrounding spay and neuter, from the impact on euthanasia rates (negligible) to a long list of the health problems it causes in our pets, including the risks of the actual surgery. She bravely confronts the uncomfortable truth that neutering our pets is an easy out for humans; we don’t have to think about, much less manage, our dogs’ reproductive lives.
  • Finally, “Humorless,” paired with the chapter on “Dog Stuff,” struck a chord with me. Horowitz eloquently describes something I share — an inability to see the “fun” or “humor” in some cultural trends that poke fun at dogs, often by projecting human feelings and motivations onto our dogs. From dog-shaming websites to embarrassing dog clothing to the thousands of so-called funny videos of dogs and kids, where the dogs look stressed and terrified, much of what humans laugh at about dogs amounts to ridiculing or even abusing the dog. This is not always the case, of course, and some functional dog clothing is fine or necessary.
    But many dog find humor in situations that really are not funny. This is largely due to misinterpreting dogs’ body language. The worst results of this are, of course, dog bites. But, and I say this as a reformed dog owner, who is guilty of putting past dogs into Halloween costumes: A lot of what’s fun or funny to humans is unpleasant or worse for the dog. A scared or frightened dog who cannot escape is likely to defend himself, possibly with a bite. Who hasn’t heard a story of a bite “with no warning,” often from people who simply missed many clear signals from the dog.

Overall, there’s enough strong chapters that I do recommend the book — it’s a fun read in parts, more serious in others. But, if you’re expecting a more scientific look at dogs, stick with Being a Dog.

 

 

What It’s Like to Be a Dog

Cover of Gregory Berns's book What It's Like to Be a DogI’ve had a serious crush on Dr. Gregory Berns ever since he published his first MRI studies. Those showed that dogs’ brains’ pleasure centers light up when they catch the whiff of a beloved human (or dog). There’s so much to love about his papers and his book How Dogs Love Us. So I was really excited about reading his newer book, What It’s Like to Be a Dog.

It’s well worth reading, and I enjoyed it. But … it wasn’t what I was expecting. There’s some really cool stuff, like the explanation of how dogs’ brains look when they’re doing the equivalent of the Marshmallow Test. I’ve played around with that a bit with Koala and Alberta, though I lack access to an MRI machine. So I was very interested in his findings. It turns out that some dogs do well with deferred gratification and others … not so much. You might notice that I haven’t talked about doing a marshmallow test with Cali. I don’t need a fancy machine to tell me that she lacks impulse control.

I was a little disappointed with some of the detours from living dogs’ brains into the long-ish discussions of the brains of deceased seals and Tasmanians. And I was distressed by the chapter on dogs and language.

I know that any sentence that pairs non-human animals with language raises the hackles of many people, scientists and non-scientists alike. I also think that there are many, many definitions of language and that dogs, particularly those with close human connections, understand a lot of what we say and do and they communicate with us in sophisticated ways. Lack of understanding of their “language” does not diminish its value. I get irritated when people choose a very narrow, very human-centered definition of language, such as one that is focused on semantics and grammar and written representation of a language, and then say, ‘see, only humans do this so only humans have language.’

Dogs communicate. They use their whole bodies — ears, tails, hackles, eyes, facial expressions, as well as scent and sound, to communicate. And dogs excel at reading the nonverbal communication of other dogs, humans, and often of other animals like cats. Other non-humans do this as well. Dogs are able to read humans far better than humans can read humans.

And dogs understand a lot of what we say to them. They might be assigning meaning to a combination of words and body language cues to understand our feelings, our desires, our mood rather than attaching the specific meanings that we do to individual objects or concepts. While I don’t expect Cali to speak to me in English or read the newspaper, much of the communication that I have with Cali — and especially what I had with Jana — is clear and meaningful.

Berns’s discussion of language, how he tested dogs’ understanding of words, and his interpretation of those results are very, very human-centric. He talks about the mirror test, which I believe is not a fair test for dogs. His comments on dogs’ lack of a sense of self or others: “My beloved Callie probably didn’t have abstract representations of me or my wife or my children. No, I was just that guy who feeds me hot dogs …” are off-base.

Dogs’ sense of self and others is primarily rooted in scent, not sight or sound. Berns himself showed that dogs recognize the scent of family members and respond differently than to the scent of unfamiliar humans or dogs. So I was mystified and saddened by what felt like a dismissal of the individuality of dogs’ selves and their relationships with key humans (or non-humans).

Despite a few disappointing chapters, I do recommend the book. I the insights into how dogs’ brains work are fascinating, and even where I disagree with Berns’s conclusions, I enjoy learning about his research and his understanding of dogs. Dr. Berns is still my favorite neuroscience researcher, and he’s a great writer. Check out both of his books if you haven’t already!

 

The Education of Will

Photo of the book cover of The Education of WillPatricia McConnell wrote on her blog about her frustration that most bookstores place The Education of Will with the pet books. She’s right. It’s only partly a dog book; a wonderful dog book, by the way. It’s also a memoir. But far more powerful than either of those, it’s a book about overcoming trauma, understanding how experiencing trauma affects every aspect of the survivor’s life and behavior — and gathering the courage, compassion, and forgiveness to face the trauma and heal.

Though chock-full of stories about Will, Dr. McConnell’s troubled border collie puppy, and sprinkled with tales of other traumatized and terrified dogs she has helped over the years, The Education of Will is primarily Dr. McConnell’s story. It is deeply personal; writing in is courageous and testament to her ability to examine the worst experiences a person can have, work through them, and share them in all their frightening, embarrassing, horrifying detail.

If you’re a dog person, you should read this book — and Dr. McConnell’s other books, her blog … If you are a human being, you should read this book. If you’re a dog with fear-based behavior problems or a dog who’s experienced trauma, you should read this book (ask your human to help).

Will, as an eight-week-old puppy, reacted to sudden noises with explosive terror. Dr. McConnell has no explanation for this; he did not, as far as she knows, experience any trauma in his first weeks. He was terrified of other dogs, particularly if they were inside his house. However, he adored any and all people. Her work with him was painstaking and slow; they experienced frustrating setbacks, as it is not always possible to control a frightening environment and avoid noises, dogs, injuries, and any previously unknown triggers.

As I read the first chapters, I wondered whether I’d have the patience and skill to work through problems like Will’s. I thought about how the agony of his early weeks and months affected his overall quality of life and that of Dr. McConnell’s other dogs. I wondered whether there are more than a handful of behaviorist or trainers who could cope with a dog like Will. I know that there are literally thousands of dogs like him.

Unfortunately, many dog owners see the behavior of a dog like Will — lunging, barking, maybe snarling or even biting — as aggression. It often manifests as aggression, sure, but at its core, it is fear. In her work with aggressive and fearful dogs, Dr. McConnell had to face her own fears as well as convince the dogs’ owners that their dogs needed compassion and patience as they worked to overcome the fear underlying the dogs’ aggression.

Too often when dogs act out, trainers perpetuate the myth that the dog is “being dominant” and that owners need to “be the alpha.” This approach only encourages responses, like yelling at the dog, hitting him, or administering leash corrections, that are likely to exacerbate the dog’s fear and escalate the aggression. Fearful and traumatized dogs need lots of patience, gentleness, and understanding, not violence or punishment. Some will recover; many will not. Will is so lucky to have landed with Dr. McConnell — as are the thousands of clients and dogs she’s helped throughout her career.

This is the best dog book and non-dog book that I have read in a long time. In case you are still wondering where I stand: Four paws up. Read this book!

Being a Dog

Alexandra Horowitz’s new book, Being a Dog, is as much about being — and sniffing as — a human as it is about dogs and their world of smells. Horowitz does a great job breaking down the science of how dogs smell and how humans do (or, rather, fail to). I finally understand how different the dog’ s sense of the world is, in a way that superficial comparisons of the number of smell receptor cells dogs and humans have never could convey.

Dogs process and understand smell in a completely different way from humans. Smell is an entire language. Sniffing stuff on a walk is like reading an entire encyclopedia. Horowitz says that dogs don’t judge smells the way we do either. Smells are information; neither good nor bad. That explains a lot!

A couple of weeks ago, I described “smell walks” but I wasn’t sure exactly how these were supposed to work. Jana will be devastated to learn that not all walks need to be smell walks, but she will be delighted with the news that she deserves frequent smell walks. She sort of gets them already: The rules are that the dog gets to decide what direction to head, when to change direction, when to stop, and when to continue moving. If you and the dog never make it down the front steps, so be it. Luckily, we don’t have front steps.

I’d guess that it’s best to smell-walk one dog at a time, though Cali seems pretty happy with letting Jana choose smell sites. One must not head out on a smell walk when one is pressed for time. Especially if one is walking Jana; her smell walks could easily last from breakfast until dinner, especially if one remembered to bring refreshments for along the way.

There’s a lot more to the book than smell walks, though. There’s a lot of science, much of it having nothing to do with dogs but lots to do with smells. There are some great chapters on working dogs that barely scratch the surface of what career options are out there for dogs with working noses. There’s also a description of Horowitz’s experience taking her dog to a nosework class. He, like Jana, was a natural. But her descriptions of some of the other class members, nose-impaired and inhibited, were very sad.

Nosework classes are a dog’s idea of heaven on earth. The dog is in charge. The human cannot tell her “no” or hold her back. She gets to climb on things and under things and stick her nose anywhere she wants to. She can bark as much as she wants. And the reward for finding something smelly is a ton of treats. Not hard to figure out why Jana loved it. Cali would, too. She deserves a smell class of her own, come to think of it.

The book is definitely worth a read. Horowitz’s last book, Inside of a Dog, was billed as offering insight into how dogs experience the world. But I think that Being a Dog does a much better job of that. Scent is what defines the dog’s world; as much as most humans rely on what they see to understand the world, dogs turn to scent. Gaining a better understanding of what that means is the best way to try to understand dogs. When you’re done, sign your dog up for a nosework class. Maybe Cali and I will see you there!

An Idea Whose Time Is Up

A recent Freakonomics podcast featured various politicians talking about one idea about elections that they wish would die, go away, never be mentioned again. I like that idea because I have a long list of absurd ideas about dogs and other nonhumans that I wish would go away and die a miserable, lonely death.

High up on that list is one that is getting a lot of attention these days, due to the unfortunate publication of a new book by novelist Tom Wolfe: the idea that only humans use language. Though I am one of the few people I know who disliked Bonfire of the Vanities, I had some professional respect for Wolfe as a writer until I heard his interview on NPR about his new book.

Wolfe essentially suggests that if evolution occurs, it only happens to nonhumans. That’s bad enough. But what really got my blood boiling were his comments on language. In the interview, Wolfe made the absurd claim that no evidence of anything resembling a language has ever been seen in a nonhuman. Wow. He really should have done some very basic research, like a cursory Google search, before deciding that. There’s a lot of research out there on animals and language.

Wolfe uses “speech” and “language” interchangeably, which is already a clear indication he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Many languages exist that are not based on speech, the most obvious being American (or any other) Sign Language. Thousands of nonverbal people understand and use language; some even write beautifully. Many actual scientists, even some who believe that only humans use language, have published extensive research on language and how it is separate from and does not require speech.

Wolfe also claimed that speech / language is necessary for any sort of memory or planning. Hmm, how does he explain insects, birds, mammals who store food for the winter (and remember where they put it); any critter who finds his way home once he leaves the den, ever, or who leads his pack back to the marvelous carcass or other food source he’s discovered? Even bees remember and guide others to food sources they’ve found. Memory. Memory, communication, teaching … And wouldn’t pack hunting, as wolves do, require planning? Building a nest or den requires both planning and memory. There’s a lot of research on these topics, too.But t

But really. Let’s focus on dogs for a moment. To establish that these nonhumans use language, remember, and plan, all you really need to do is spend a few days with a dog. Watch a dog come up with really clever plans for appropriating a coveted bone or toy from his sibling, or walk a dog who remembers where that lovely dead thing she rolled in last week was, or see how excited the dog gets when she recognizes the drive to the dog beach?

I could list, literally, thousands of examples from my own experience, reading, research, and students’ and friends’ stories. So could anyone who has ever paid much attention to dogs, elephants, chimps, whales, prairie dogs, birds, or any of the many other nonhumans who use language. Memory is essential to learning anything; and it is clear that millions of critters, but especially, and most near and dear to my heart, dogs, learn, remember, plan, use tools, problem-solve, and manipulate humans.

book cover of Beyond Words by Carl Safina My favorite comment on the interview came from an NPR listener who wrote that “It was the equivalent of interviewing an expert on evolutionary biology who never reads novels to get his opinions about how novelists can write better stories.” Yup. Stick to what you know: make-believe. Another good response is this column about why it matters when a famous writer dismisses evolution.

If you want to learn about language, read Chasing Doctor Doolittle or Beyond Words, both beautiful books about what language is and how various nonhumans use it. I’ve written several posts on this blog that address human communication with dogs and dogs’ ability to learn to understand human language. (I’ve never claimed that dogs have speech, and I do know the difference.) You can find those by searching this blog site.

 

Pets and the Environment: A Partial Review of and Response to Run, Spot, Run

Run Spot RunIn Run, Spot, Run, author Jessica Pierce devotes a chapter to “Pet and Planet;” the environmental impacts of owning pets. This chapter considers a few areas: the effects of environmental toxins on our pets, the environmental impacts of pet-food production, and the effects our pets themselves have on the environment. In just a few pages, she really had me thinking hard.

The first one’s relatively easy. I filter our tap water, don’t use horrible chemicals to clean my tiny apartment, don’t buy Jana and Cali those vinyl toys that last about 5 minutes and leach terrible phthalates (whatever they are; all I know is that they’re bad) into our pets’ bodies. Basically, I protect Jana and Cali from environmental pollution as well as I can — and at least as well as I protect myself.

The third one is a bit tougher: how pets affect the environment. I often think that future civilizations, having unearthed millions of those knotted plastic poop baggies, will think that dogs were in charge (they’ll be right …). Pierce also mentions all the stuff we buy our pets. Yep, three cushy dog beds in my minuscule two-dog home. Big basket of toys. At least six leashes. Cali’s cowgirl hat. Stuff galore. I can rationalize the environmental impact of my pets: I don’t go overboard; I don’t generally buy a lot of stuff. All of our life choices have some impact on the environment — and they’re not always bad. I walk a lot more because I have dogs, spend more time outside. I pick up trash so my dogs won’t eat it; I pick up other dogs’ poop at the park. People have children despite their impact on the environment (and they require a lot more stuff than dogs). Getting the typical American child from birth through potty training results in a pretty big pile of plastic diapers. While I think that pet owners and petless people alike should do what’s feasible to minimize the damage they cause to the environment, I am not convinced that it’s a convincing argument against having dogs.

It’s that middle one, the pet-food production argument, where I have the most trouble. I don’t eat meat, mostly because I dislike everything about the food-animal industry. I think that being vegan is the best choice, though I am not there yet.

Cali and Jana are not vegetarians.

I buy high-quality dog foods for them and make sure that all their food is sourced and produced in the USA (or, at minimum, from trustworthy sources that are not in China). But … meat and seafood consumption are key contributors to global warming, pollution, and over-fishing. Ironically, those of us who seek top-quality ingredients for our pets exacerbate the problem. Cheap pet foods use a lot of the waste material from the food industry. The standards for what can be used in animal feed are distressingly and disgustingly low. But by insisting on good quality ingredients, I fuel the same factory farming industry that I have opted (mostly) out of for myself. One suggestion Pierce offers is that people buy sustainable meat and fish for their pets and decrease their own consumption proportionally. That argument has some merit, and I’ve made great progress … on the “reducing own consumption” part.

If the goal of an ethics book is to get people thinking about tough questions, Pierce’s book is already a huge success, and I am only halfway through it. I doubt that anything she says will convince me not to have dogs. But I don’t think that’s her goal. Getting readers thinking will lead to changes in their behavior. Cali and Jana are already looking forward to lovingly home-cooked meals of organic, pasture-raised meat, sustainable seafood, and local organic veggies … in their dreams.

Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel

Beyond WordsI’ve read a lot of academic studies of dogs and other non-humans that seemed silly, but I somehow missed this one, described by Carl Safina in Beyond Words. Safina pokes fun at a researcher who gathered and analyzed video of dogs playing for two years before reaching the somewhat obvious conclusion that when a dog wants to invite another dog to play, he behaves differently if the other dog is facing away from him: He tries to get that dog’s attention before offering a play bow. The dog either barks or uses his paw to attract the other dog’s attention. Dogs don’t play bow to other dogs’ rear ends. Amazing. (For more on this and what it can teach us, see Learning from Real Dogs.)

In ridiculing this and other studies, Safina makes the point that researchers should get out of the lab and watch how real animals interact with members of their own and other species. There is much to love in Beyond Words: The sections on elephants, wolves, and orcas are chock-full of detail, stories, and heartbreaking information about how badly humans screw things up when we don’t understand other species. I’ve written about his discussion of self-awareness and the mirror test. But my favorite section, naturally, had to do with dogs. He writes engagingly about his own dog when he takes on the controversial issue of whether dogs (or any non-humans) have “theory of mind.”

Safina offers several definitions for theory of mind drawn from real studies. My favorite is the one that claims that theory of mind is the ability “to read the minds of others.” Based on the divorce statistics and the number of wars and conflicts of all sorts, it seems that all humans would fail that test. A better definition is “knowing that another can have thoughts that differ from yours.”

Safina provides many, many examples of non-humans, including dogs, showing that they meet this definition; he calls the evidence “blinding” (his emphasis). Any time your dog anticipates your behavior — putting on those shoes means a walk — or asks for anything, like a belly rub, treat, or dinner, your dog is showing that he understands, or at least can make a plausible guess at, what you are thinking or planning and might even be able to influence your decision. Any time a dog fakes you out (or another dog) by playing keep-away with a toy or takes advantage of your inattention — barking while you are on the phone, for example — your dog is demonstrating his mastery of theory of mind.

Safina also takes on the definition of self-awareness, as well as other traits or abilities that some scientists, absurdly, continue to insist that only humans possess, skewering the human-centered irrelevance of the “tests” that purport to demonstrate other species’ lack of these abilities. A thorough discussion of humans’ penchant for believing things that we know not to be true versus non-humans’ evidence-based actions and beliefs leads to his conclusion that “maybe more than anything, what ‘makes us human’ is our ability to generate wacky ideas.”