Alexandra Horowitz teaches psychology at Barnard College. Her specialization is cognitive science, the science that studies thought, and she has spent lots of time comparing human thought to that of rhinoceroses, bonobos (you know those really hip monkeys), and dogs- the hippest of all the three species.
While Horowitz has nothing but respect for dogs, she hopes to persuade us to understand that dogs do not see things as human beings do. Canine thought is different from human thought no matter how much each enjoys the other’s company. For example, dogs do not want to earn money so they can buy premium dog food. They just want to eat- anything at all and the more fetid the better. (Well, not Raja who prefers to avoid food, but he’s different.) While dogs may seem a bit indiscriminate in some areas- to us- Horowitz points out that dogs notice things we choose not to notice. And we are not referencing sensitivity to smell, sound and twilight lighting that are hallmarks of dog perception; Horowitz means that dogs notice irregularities.
“Dogs don’t stop looking- at the gimpy walk, at a rush of leaves…, at our faces. The urban dog may be bereft of natural sights, but he is rich in the odd: the drunken man swerving through a crowd, the shouting sidewalk preacher, the lame and destitute. All get long stares from dogs who pass them. What makes dogs good anthropologists is that they are so attuned to humans: they notice what is typical, and what is different. And… they don’t become inured to us, as we do- nor do they grow up to be us.” (163)
Thus, dogs come to know us and they anticipate us- giving us that eerie and wonderful feeling that our dogs see more layers of the world than we do. (Yes, Raja, I know it’s true, you do. You so do.)
My favorite parts of the book begin on page 241, “What It Is Like” to be a dog. I enjoy the way Horowitz reminds us that dogs do not see at our level and that they do not see or interact with what does not relate to them- which explains how much dogs enjoy the smelly, swirly, tactile world they know intimately near the ground- a world we keep our noses out of.
What I would like to see Horowitz address in her next books would be the companion socialization of small dogs specifically. While I have been schooled not to say “Raja loves to go on the airplane,” nothing he does suggests he’s not wildly happy to go on a plane ride. Yes, I know that’s the genetic encoding for ultimate companion dog taking over in all unusual and un-canine activities- but I’d like to hear what a psychologist might say about how companion dog wiring and general dog wiring interact.
And I’d like to read a little more science. Horowitz’s “Notes and Sources” yield lots of primary materials I want to read, but unpacking more science in her works for non-academic readers would help her, even more, to reveal the intriguing, logical and emotional, cognition of dogs. Raja and I recommend you read this thoughtful, respectful, dog-loving book.