Thursday, January 20, 2011

The World According to Dogs

I've just finished reading INSIDE OF A DOG, by Alexandra Horowitz. Subtitled "What Dogs See, Smell, and Know," this book with the Groucho Marx title aims to discover, as far as possible, what it's like to be a dog. Highly recommended! The author explores dogs' senses, consciousness, awareness of time, and communication, how much of our language they understand, their relations to other animals and to people, etc. I've always known, of course, that for dogs smell, not vision, is the dominant sense, but Horowitz's in-depth explanation of their olfactory capacities raised my awareness of what that dominance means. In effect, we and our dogs experience different worlds. Objects meaningful to us merit no attention at all from dogs, while we're oblivious to some sensory stimuli very important to them. With their perception of odors, dogs can effectively "see" the past. Their vision is different from ours, too, and not only because their eyes are closer to the ground. They have better peripheral vision than people but fuzzier focus in the center of the visual field. It's likely that they actually can't see an object directly under their paws without backing up a bit. And though they're not colorblind, they do see colors differently from us. A dog shows little interest in images on a TV screen, not only because the image lacks the crucial odor cues of a live animal, but also because of something called the flicker-fusion rate—the number of "snapshots" per minute the eyes can process separately. The human rate is around sixty, so a TV image or a modern film (but not a movie from the early days of cinema) looks like smooth, continuous movement to us. To a dog, with a flicker-fusion rate of seventy or eighty, the same film looks like a rapid series of static images. (This phenomenon might explain why our dog has never tried to chase cars but goes crazy when he sees a moving bicycle or baby stroller.)

The author constantly cautions us against anthropomorphizing our dogs, particularly by assuming an action or interaction means the same thing to the dog that it does to us. Also, she proposes that dogs evaluate objects in terms of their functionality—what's the thing good for? Meant to eat, chew, urinate on, lie on, play with? The canine view of the environment helps to explain why they prefer a human bed to a dog bed for sleeping.

When a dog saves a person from danger (e.g., fire, thin ice), does the pet "know" he has performed a heroic rescue? Horowitz describes an experiment that suggests dogs don't "know" when people are at risk and deliberately set out to save them. In this trial, people pretended to be hurt (e.g., by a bookcase falling on them), and their pets didn't seem especially concerned. As a commenter on Amazon pointed out, though, that's not a fair test. Dogs, with the acute senses Horowitz had already discussed in detail by this part of the book, could certainly tell when their owners were faking. And, if anecdotal evidence is of any value, I've noticed occasions when dogs act "worried" about people's unusual behavior even if no real danger or injury is involved, so they don't all react like the pets in the experiment. If someone lies motionless on the floor, our St. Bernard certainly acts as if he's trying to figure out what's wrong.

Does a dog know when he's been "bad"? Horowitz convincingly demonstrates that what a "guilty" dog is reacting to is anticipation of the owner's wrath, not awareness of having misbehaved.

Read the book yourself to enjoy the multifaceted dimensions of dog behavior this author delves into. Her style is a pleasure to read, and she mixes solid information with entertaining anecdotes about her own pet. I finished the book with a feeling of amazement at how a creature so different from us in numerous ways can share our lives so compatibly. As far as communication with aliens is concerned, many of us already have friendly aliens living in our houses.

On the other hand, for even more alien aliens-in-residence, consider my favorite animal, the cat. Unlike dogs, they're not naturally gregarious animals like us, so the gulf between our world views must be wider. For all I know, our cat may regard us the way Garfield does his "owner": "Ah, the man who cleans my litter box."

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt


  1. How interesting. That last comment about cats is right on the mark but I still love both of mine.

  2. Great post! We have two cats and one dog and "friendly aliens" really fits in many ways, but also "unfriendly aliens" as far as my elderly feline is concerned.

    I agree, JC, we do love them but now I'm they love us??

  3. In so far as we can evaluate the emotions of any living creature without using telepathy, I think we can rightfully say some cats "love" their people, judging from their behavior. (And how else do we judge the emotions of other human beings?) Our cat seeks out our company when there's no food or other tangible benefit in view.