Thursday, May 12, 2011

Review: Inside of a Dog, by Alexandra Horowitz

Reviewed by Christina

Complete Title: Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know

: 2009

It's about: Alexandra Horowitz, an animal cognitive scientist and dog enthusiast, has gathered all the dog science and she presents it here. Her goal is to enlighten the reader to the realities of dogs' Umwelt, or life experience. This includes their history (evolution and domestication), sensory capabilities, and what they know about the world. She also muses on the experience of being a human who shares her environment with a dog, and she intersperses the text with anecdotes about her own beloved dog, Pumpernickel.

I thought: I had very high expectations for this one. During the time that I was on the library's wait list for Inside of a Dog, I read four (five, if you count the fictional Where the Red Fern Grows) other books about dogs. Yeah, I tend to get a little obsessed with things. But not without reason, and in this case the reason is super cute. Her name is Stella.

Anyway, back to business. I was really looking forward to reading some science about dogs, since dog training and advice books tend to be roughly 95% opinion. And Ms. Horowitz definitely delivers in the science department. She sites previous research (her own and others'). She warns against anthropomorphizing. She plays the devil's advocate, mentioning multiple interpretations of data. Information is presented in detail and in an authoritative tone; she writes like a professor (and she IS a professor, btw). In general her style is a little thicker than some other popular nonfiction I've read, but still accessible.

In college I took a class called Human and Animal Minds that covered quite a lot of the same material found here. And if you've spent a fair amount of time with dogs, you might not be enthralled with the author's observations about the experience of living with a dog. So overall I didn't feel as enlightened and amazed as I hoped. Still there are lots of interesting tidbits in this book, and I did learn some cool things, like why dogs chase bikes and skateboards, how dogs can catch balls and frisbees so well, and why dogs don't watch TV. So if you're curious and enthusiastic about our canine companions, Inside of a Dog is worth checking out.

Verdict: It didn't completely fulfill my hopes and expectations, but still stick it on the shelf.

Reading Recommendations: Brenna at Literary Musings has also reviewed Inside of a Dog here, if you want a second opinion.

Warnings: nope, none.

Favorite excerpts:
"Imagining that dogs' thoughts are but cruder forms of human discourse does the dog a disservice. And despite their marvelous range and extent of communication, it is the very fact that they do not use language that makes me especially treasure dogs. Their silence can be one of their most endearing traits. Not muteness: absence of linguistic noise. There is no awkwardness in a shared silent moment with a dog: a gaze from the dog on the other side of the room; lying sleepily alongside each other. It is when language stops that we connect most fully."

"Even with a scientific take on the dog, we find ourselves using anthropomorphic words. Our dogs... make friends, feel guilty, have fun, get jealous; understand what we mean, think about things, know better; are sad, are happy, are scared; want, love, hope."

"Every dog owner would agree with me, I suspect, about the specialness of her own dog. Reason argues that everyone must be wrong: by definition, not every dog can be the special dog- else special becomes ordinary. But it is reason that is wrong: what is special is the life story that each dog owner creates with and knows about his own dog."

What I'm reading next: The Virgin Suicides, by Jeffrey Eugenides