Being a Dog: Following the Dog Into a World of Smell
by Alexandra Horowitz
Simon & Schuster (2016)
As Groucho Marx would have it, “outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read”.
But it is to those insides that Alexandra Horowitz takes us to find out just how man’s best friend ticks – and in the process provides a bravura demonstration of two of the most vexed concepts of biology: “biosemiotics” and “umwelt”.
To call Horowitz a dog person would be a serious understatement. She is a researcher in dog cognition at Barnard College in New York, where she has taught since 2004. She is also the director of the Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab, which looks into the thinking behind such things as dog-human play, the validity of anthropomorphism, be it of the dog’s understanding of “fairness”, or an analysis of the “guilty look” Fido will assume when caught chewing the rug.
But dog research is more than a day job to her. She is clearly obsessed by the animals – both her own dogs (Finnegan and Upton) as well as the species in general.
Her previous excursion into viewing the world from a dog’s perspective for the lay reader, Inside a Dog, made it to the top of every bestseller list and stayed there for weeks, a testament to our enduring fascination with the animals – the only ones, incidentally, that will look we humans in the eye.
Doggie she may be, but Horowitz’s view is unsentimental, and she and her research are dedicated to reminding us that, no matter how close a bond we may feel to our companions, they remain at all times a separate species with their own responses, reasoning and values.
Combining her own experiences of canine behaviour in civilian life, as it were, along with lab experiments (her own and others’), Horowitz painstakingly builds us a picture of the world of the dog – its “umwelt” – and a compelling view of how the animals might communicate with each other and the world at large.
Horowitz introduced us to the concept of Uexküllian umwelt in her earlier book but Being a Dog takes us a great deal further, attempting to recreate the world through a dog’s nose.
The word Umwelt, with a capital U, means environment in German. But German biologist Jakob Johann Baron von Uexküll coined it to mean something more: the total environment that surrounds an organism, not just in the immediate vicinity, but as far as the creature’s perception can reach.
While the field of study later found favour with biologists, it was the philosophers who were the earlier adopters, attracted to the concepts for which they found useful application in philosophy of mind. Uexküll’s idea of the umwelt, for example, plays a central role in Martin Heidegger’s major work Being and Time, published in 1927.
As professor at the University of Hamburg in the 1920s, Uexküll founded the Institut für Umweltforschung. He was fascinated by how umwelt worked and, by extension, how living creatures could use their environments to signal intentions and messages to other living creatures – the field we now know as biosemiotics or, when dealing solely with animals, zoosemiotics.
Uexküll concluded that each viewpoint was species-specific and quite unlike the Darwinian concept of an environment that exists objectively and to which organisms adapt. Rather it is a “world in itself”, highly subjective and based all but solely on the organism’s mode of sensory perception.
In the dog, that sensory perception overwhelmingly relies on smell – and it is with the business of the dog’s nose that this book is largely concerned.
Horowitz takes exploration of the dog’s umwelt to a new level – even so far as kneeling beside a tree in New York to sniff where her mutt Finnegan had just sniffed in order to see the world from his point of view
After explaining the science behind the dog’s truly remarkable sense of smell, Horowitz urges us to have faith in our own nose – feeble though they may appear by comparison.
Horowitz urges us to have faith in our own nose – feeble though they may appear by comparison
While our noses might lack the same canine superpowers, Horowitz believes we can still put them to better use than we do. In fact, it is neglect that has led to a loss of our powers, she argues, stating that a dog’s world of scents “is rich in a way we humans once knew about, once acted on, but have since neglected”.
She joins an art project to create “smellscapes” of cities, hoping to learn a new way of “seeing” a place, partly to develop her own skills and partly to think more like a dog.
Along the way, Horowitz delivers a wealth of interesting insights into being a dog. She debunks, for example, the belief that dogs are “marking their territory” by peeing on trees. If this represented the scope of their “ownership”, it would clearly lead to vast and random territorial claims.
Rather, she argues, it is a semiotic device, explaining to all who would smell, who the dogs are, their sex and health status and perhaps a raft of other personal information we can only guess at.
Smells can also provide the dog with insights into the world around it – the rising odours from the earth can signify lower atmospheric pressure and the imminent onset of rain, for example.
Similarly, a wagging tail can tell a story – and not just of friendship. Like scratching the ground after a poop, to release and spread scents from their paw pads, wagging a tail can help spread the unique essence of dog, so important to the animal’s signalling to others.
We learn a wealth of factoids, including why a dog licks and why male dogs will greet others by sniffing the tail area and females the face.
Horowitz even moves from amateur to professional canine sniffers – the drug and explosive detection dogs and those that can nose out the scent of cancer in humans.
This is a great book whether you are into dogs or not. It’s funny, engaging, at times charming and always thought-provoking. By the end, Horowitz will have you smelling the world in a way you never thought possible – bringing out your inner dog.
Bill Condie is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.
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