Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz
I first came across Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell and Know by Alexandra Horowitz in an article about dog’s amazing sense of smell, when I a few weeks later stumbled upon the book at the library, I immediately grabbed it and dove in. We got our puppy Freya earlier this year, and I’ve been eager to learn more about the inner workings of dog to better understand her and enrich our relationship.
Inside of a Dog did not disappint. Horowitz, who heads the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College, manages to simultaneously educate and thrill this reader. Many, many times would I stop reading and go find my partner to impart the latest interesting fact or piece of information. Some of my favourites included learning about how quickly foxes can be domesticated, that the whole wolf pack hierarchy is a bit of a scam, just how amazing dogs sense of smell is, and their cleverness in learning to use humans as tools. Oh, one more thing… when dogs “kiss” you by licking your face and around your mouth? They’re really hoping you’ll regurgitate whatever you last ate, so they can have a taste as well.
Check out these thought-provoking excerpts – I’m sure you’ll learn something new and fascinating about man’s best friend. I highly recommend Inside of a Dog to all dog lovers.
Dog training books often insist that “a dog is an animal”: this is true but is not the whole truth. The dog is an animal domesticated, a word that grew from a root form meaning “belong to the house.” Dogs are animals who belong around houses. Domestication is a variation of the process of evolution, where the selector has been not just natural forces but human ones, eventually intent on bringing dogs inside their homes.
Later genomic mapping has revealed that forty genes now differ between Belyaev’s tame foxes and the wild silver fox. Incredibly, by selecting for one behavioral trait, the genome of the animal was changed in half a century. And with that genetic change came a number of surprisingly familiar physical changes: some of the later-generation foxes have multicolored, piebald coats, recognizable in dog mutts everywhere. They have floppy ears and tails that curl up and over their backs. Their heads are wider and their snouts are shorter. They are improbably cute.
For instance, it is high time we revampt the false notion that our dogs view us as their “pack.” The “pack” language – with its talk of the “alpha” dog, dominance, and submission – is one of the most pervasive metaphors for the family of humans and dogs. It originates where dogs originated: dogs emerged from wolflike ancestors, and wolves form packs. Thus, it is claimed, dogs form packs. The seeming naturalness of this move is belied by some of the attributes we don’t transfer from wolves to dogs: wolves are hunters, but we don’t let our dogs hunt for their own food. And though we may feel secure with a dog at the threshold of a nursery, we would never let a wolf alone in a room with our sleeping newborn baby, seven pounds of vulnerable meat.
Still, to many, the analogy to a dominance-pack organization is terribly appealing – especially with us as dominant and the dog submissive. Once applied, the popular conception of a pack works itself into all sorts of interactions with our dogs: we eat first, the dog second; we command, the dog obeys; we walk the dog, the dog doesn’t walk us. Unsure how to deal with an animal in our midst, the “pack” notion gives us a structure.
Unfortunately, it not only limits the kind of understanding and interaction we can have with our dogs, it also relies on a faulty premise. The “pack” evoked in this way bears little resemblance to actual wolf packs. The traditional model of the pack was that of a linear hierarchy, with a ruling alpha pair and various “beta” and even “gamma” or “omega” wolves below them, but contemporary wolf biologists find this model far too simplistic. It was formed from observations of captive wolves. With limited space and resources in small, enclosed pens, unrelated wolves self-organize, and a hierarchy of power results. The same might happen in any social species with little room.
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. A typical pack includes a breeding pair and one or many generations of their offspring. The pack unit organized social behavior and hunting behavior. Only one pair mates, while other adult or adolescent pack members participate in raising the pups. Different individuals hunt and share food; at times, many members together hunt large prey which may be too large to tackle individually. Unrelated animals do occasionally join together to form packs with multiple breeding partners, but this is an exception, probably an accommodation to environmental pressures. Some wolves never join a pack.
The one breeding pair – parents to all or most of the other pack members – guide the group’s course and behaviors, but to call them “alphas” implies a vying for the top that is not quite accurate. They are not alpha dominants any more than a human parent is the alpha in the family. Similarly, the subordinate status of a young wolf has more to do with his age than with a strictly enforced hierarchy. Behaviors seen as “dominant” or “submissive” are used not in a scramble for power, they are used to maintain social unity. Rather than being a pecking order, rank is a mark of age. It is regularly on display in the animals expressive postures in greeting and in interactions. Approaching an older wolf with a low wagging tail and a body close to the ground, a younger wolf is acknowledging the older’s biological priority. Young pups are naturally at a subordinate level; in mixed-family packs pups may inherit some of the status of their parents. While rank may be reinforced by charged and sometimes dangerous encounters between pack members, this is rarer than aggression again an intruder. Pups learn their place by interacting with and observing their packmates more than by being put in their place.
Trainers who espouse the pack metaphor extract the “hiearchy” component and ignore the social context from which it emerges. (They further ignore that we still have a lot to learn about wolf behavior in the wild, given the difficulty of following these animals closely.) A wolfcentric trainer may call the humans the pack leaders responsible for discipline and forcing submission by others. These trainers teach by punishing the dog after discover of, say, the inevitable peed-upon rug. The punishment can be a yell, forcing the dog down, a sharp word or jerk of the collar. Bringing the dog to the scene of the crime to enact the punishment is common – and is an especially misguided tactic.
This approach 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. Instead of a punishment happening to them, they’ll learn best if you let them discover for themselves which behaviors are rewarded and which lead to naught. Your relationship with your dog is defined by what happens in those undesired moments – as when you return home to a puddle of urine on the floor. Punishing the dog for his misbehavior – the deed having been done maybe hours before – with dominance tactics is a quick way to make your relationship about bullying. If your trainer punished the dog, the problem behavior may temporarily abate, but the only relationship created is one between your trainer and your dog. (Unless the trainer’s moving in with you, that won’t last long.) The result will be a dog who becomes extra sensitive and possibly fearful, but not one who understands what you mean to impart. Instead, let the dog use his observation skills. Undesired behavior gets no attention, no food: nothing that the dog wants from you. Good behavior gets it all. That’s an integral part of how a young child learns how to be a person. And that’s how the dog-human gang coheres into a family.
What’s this like? Imagine if each detail of our visual world were matched by a corresponding smell. Each petal on a rose may be distinct, having been visited by insects leaving pollen footprints from faraway flowers. What is to us just a single stem actually holds a record of who held it, and when. A burst of chemicals mark where a leaf was torn. The flesh of the petals, plump with moisture compared to that of the leaf, holds a different odor besides. The fold of a leaf has a small; so does a dew-drop on a thorn. And time is in those details: while we can see one of the petals drying and browning, the dog can smell this process of decay and aging. Imagine smelling every minute visual detail. That might be the experience of a rose to a dog.
To dogs, we are our scent. In some ways, olfactory recognition of people is quite similar to our own visual recognition of people: there are multiple components of the image responsible for how we look. A different haircut or a newly bespectacled face can, at least momentarily, mislead us as to the identity of the person standing before us. I can be surprised what even a close friend looks like from a different vantage or from a distance. So too must the olfactory image we embody be different in different contexts. The mere arrival of my (human) friend at the dog park is enough to set me smiling; it takes another beat before my dog notices her own friend. And odors are subject to decay and dispersal that light is not: a smell from a nearby object may not reach you if a breeze carries it in the other direction, and the strength of an odor diminishes over time. Unless my friend tries ducking behind a tree, it’s hard for her to conceal her visual image from me: a wind won’t conceal her. But it might conceal her from a dog momentarily.
When we return home at a day’s end, dogs typically great our cocktail of stink promptly and lovingly. Should we come home after having bathed in unfamiliar perfume or wearing someone else’s clothes, we might expect a moment of puzzlement – it is no longer “us” – but our natural effusion will soon give us away.
…What smells clean to us is the smell of artificial chemical clean, something expressly non-biological. The mildest fragrance that cleansers come in is still an olfactory insult to a dog. And although we might like a visually clean space, a place rid entirely of organic smells would be an impoverished one for dogs. Better to keep the occasional well-worn T-shirt around and not scrub the floor for a while. The dog himself does not have any drive to be what we would call clean. It is no wonder that the dog follows his bath by hightailing it to roll vigourously on the rug or in the grass. We deprive dogs of an important part of their identity, temporarily, to bathe them in coconut-lavender shampoo.
…Dogs, too, respond with alacrity to baby talk – partially because it distinguishes speech that is directed at them fromt he rest of the continous yammering above their heads. Moreover, they will come more easily to high-pitched and repeated call requests than to those at a lower pitch. What is the ecology behind this? High-pitched sounds are naturally interesting to dogs: they might indicate the excitement of a tussle or the shrieking of nearby injured prey. If a dog fails to respond to your reasonable suggestion that he come right now, resist the urge to lower and sharpen your tone. It indicates your frame of mine – and the punishment that might ensue for his prior uncooperativeness. Correspondingly, it is easier to get a dog to sit on command to a longer, descending tone rather than repeated, rising notes. Such a tone might be more likely to induce relaxation, or preparation for the next command from their talky human.
Dogs also have a higher flicker-fusion rate than humans do: seventy or even eighty cycles per second. This provides an indication why dogs have not taken up a particular foible of persons: our constant gawking at the television screen. Like film, the image on your (non-digital) TV is really a sequence of still shots sent quickly enough to fool our eyes into seeing a continuous stream. But it’s not fast enough for dog vision. They see the individual frames and the dark space between them too, as though stroboscopically. This – and the lack of concurrent odors wafting out of the television – might explain why most dogs cannot be planted in front of the television to engage them. It doesn’t look real.
If we revisit some of the problem-solving tests on which wolves performed so much better than dogs, we now see that the dogs’ poor performance can there too be explained by their inclination to look to humans. Tested on their ability to, say, get a bit of food in a well-closed container, wolves keep trying and trying, and if the test is not rigged they eventually succeed through trial and errors. Dogs, by contrast, tend to go at the container only until it appear that it won’t easily be opened. They they look at any person in the room and begin a variety of attention-getting and solicitation behaviors until the person relents and helps them get into the box.
By standard intelligence tests, the dogs have failed at the puzzle. I believe, by contrast, that they have succeeded magnificently. They have applied a novel tool to the task. We are that tool. Dogs have learned this – and they see us as fine general-purpose tools, too: useful for protection, acquiring food, providing companionship. We solve the puzzles of closed doors and empty water dishes. In the folk psychology of dogs, we humans are brilliant enough to extract hopelessly tangled leashes from around trees; we can magically transport them to higher or lower heights as needed; we can conjure up an endless bounty of foodstuffs and things to chew. How savvy we are in dogs’ eyes! It’s a clever strategy to turn to us after all. The question of the cognitive abilities of dogs is thereby transformed: dogs are terrific at using humans to solve problems, but not as good at solving problems when we’re not around.
Further suggestive evidence that dogs know their size comes from their rough-and-tumble play. One of the most characteristic features of dog play is that socialized dogs can, by and large, play with almost any other socialized dog. This includes the pug who leaps onto the hocks of the mastiff, reaching his knee. As we’ve seen, big dogs know how to, and often do, moderate the force of their play to smaller playmates. They can withhold their fiercest bites, jump halfheartedly, bump into their more fragile playmates more gently. They might willingly expose themselves to attack. Some of the largest dogs regularly flop themselves on the ground, revealing their bellies for their smaller playmates to maul for a while – what I called a self-takedown. Older, learned dogs adjust their play style to puppies, who don’t yet know the rules of play.
Play between dogs of mismatched statures often does not last long, but it is usually an owner, not a dog, who moves to stop it. Most socialized dogs are considerably better at reading each other’s intent and abilities than we are. They settle most misunderstandings before owners even see them. It’s not the size or the breed that matters, it’s the way they talk to each other.
All the dogs survive the experiment looking well fed and a little bewildered. In many of the trials, the dog could be models for the guilty look: they lower their gaze, press their ears back, slump their body, and shyly avert their head. Numerous tails beat a rapid rhythm low between their legs. Some raise a paw in appeasement or flick their tongue out nervously. But these guilt-related behaviors did not occur more often in the trials when the dog had disobeyed than in those when they had obeyed. Instead there were more guilty looks in the trials when the owner scolded the dog, whether the dog had disobeyed or not. Being scolded despite resisting the disallowed treat led to an extra-guilty look.
This indicates that the dog has associated the owner, not the act, with an imminent reprimand. What’s happening here? The dog is anticipating punishment around certain objects or when seeing the subtle cues from the owner that indicates he may be angry. As we know, dogs readily learn to notice associations between events. If the appearance of food follows the opening of the large cold box in the kitchen, why, the dog will be alert to the opening of that box. These associations can be forged with events of their making as well as those they observe. Much of what is learned is based, deep down, on making associations: whining is followed by attention, so the dog learns to whine for attention; scratching at the trash can causes it to tip and spill its contents, so the dog learns to scratch to get what’s inside. And making certain kinds of messes is sometimes followed much later by the presence of the owner, which is itself quickly followed by the reddening of the owner’s face, loud verbiage coming out of the owner, and punishment by that reddened loud owner. The key here is that the mere appearance of the owner around what looks like evidence of destruction can be enough to convince the dog that punishment is imminent. The owner’s arrival is much more closely linked to punishment than the garbage emptying the dog engaged in hours earlier. And if that’s the case, most dogs will assume a submissive posture on seeing their owners – the classic guilty look.
In this case, a claim about the dog’s knowledge of his misdeed is importantly off the mark. The dog may not think of the behavior as bad. The guilty look is very similar to the look of fear and to submissive behaviors. It is no surprise, then, to find so many dog owners who are frustrated with attempts to punish a dog for bad behavior. What the dog clearly knows is to anticipate punishment when the owner appears wearing a look of displeasure. What the dog does not know is that he is guilty. He just knows to look out for you.
…In the wild, when parents return to the den, the pups mob them, madly lunging at their mouths in the hope of getting them to regurgitate a bit of the kill they have consumed. They lick at their lips, muzzle, and mouth, take a submissive posture, and wag furiously.
As we have seen, what many owners cheerfully describe as “kisses” is face licking, your dog’s attempt to prompt you to regurgitate. Your dog will never be unhappy if his kisses in fact prompt you to spit up your lunch. This greeting isn’t complete without an excited approach and constant, energetic contact. Ears that were pricked to hear your arrival fall flat against the dog’s head, which dips slightly in a submissive gesture. The dog pulls his lips back and drops his eyelids: in humans, markers of a true smile. He wags madly or beats a frantic rhythm with the tip of his tail against the ground. Both wags contain all the excited running-around energy that the dog suppresses in order to stay close to you. He may whine or yelp with pleasure.
What have you been reading lately?
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