Being a Dog: Following the Dog Into a World of Smell - Alexandra Horowitz

Being a Dog

by Alexandra Horowitz


As a fan of Alexandra Horowitz's pop-animal-behavior-science book, Inside of a Dog, the contents of Being a Dog were something of a surprise. More reminiscent of Mary Roach'sGulp than its behavioral-science-heavy predecessor, Being a Dog is at least as much about the author's quest to experience the world through a dog's perceptions as it is about dogs themselves. Horowitz puts it best: just as books on animal comparative cognition tend to focus mostly on how the animals stack up against human perception and intelligence,Being a Dog is effectively a book about "Seeing if we can do what dogs do.... [human] comparative cognition, written by the dogs." As part of Horowitz's quest to experience the world through her nose in order to better understand her dogs, she does everything from taking the dogs on sniff-walks to sniff where they sniff, signing up for descriptive scent studies, visiting schools for detection dogs to see how they learn, and joining excursions to track wildlife by the smells they leave behind. She explores the extent to which humans focus on vision over scent, to the point that our vocabulary is effectively unable to even describe smells past much more than simple good/bad polarities. "Smelly," "odorous," "noisome"... despite their nonjudgemental root words, these adjectives don't just mean a strong smell, but also an unpleasant one.

Dogs, on the other hand, are masters of scent processing. They have hundreds of millions of receptor cells, compared to our six million. If spread out flat, their olfactory epithelia would completely cover their entire bodies. Ours would cover the surface area of a single mole. Their noses actually create tiny wind currents, called "schlieren," that help bring the smells closer to them. As one might expect, the sense of smell guides doggy behavior in the same way that vision guides our own. While dogs fail the standard animal cognition "mirror mark" test--identifying a change to their image-- they do pass an equivalent "sniff mirror" test. Dog owners are vastly familiar with their companions' tendency to sniff at strangers, but I, at least, was unaware that even behaviors such as tail-wagging and pawing may be about spreading the dog's scents to others. Anyone who has ever walked a dog knows all about marking and can easily distinguish it from "real" peeing. But according to studies that Horowitz cites, dog marking and countermarking seems to be informational rather than territorial. When doggy walk behavior is analyzed, it turns out that sniffing far outpaces marking: dogs "read" far more "pee-mail" than they compose.

While the opening of the book discusses the mechanics of dog noses, the latter part of the book describes Horowitz's quest to attempt to smell like a dog: she goes to sensory labs, dog training centers for everything from drug-sniffing dogs to dogs trained to detect hypoglycemia and hyperglycemia to joining a truffle hunt. If dogs experience the world primarily through smell, then the task to see the world through a dog's nose is almost incomprehensible to humans. Our world is ruled by vision-- the very expression to "see the world" expresses our dependency on sight. We have dozens of common color words, yet we pretty much only describe odors only in terms of the things that create them--skunky, flowery-- or by their taste--sweet, salty. And there is a good reason for this: our sense of smell may be nothing close to a dog's, but it's actually not that bad. The major distinction is that our sense of smell focuses on the vomoronasal component, allowing us to experience a much richer taste than is actually available through our tastebuds.

Being a Dog seeks to open the world of smell to our uncomprehending noses. While reading it, I was amazed at how little attention I pay to smell. I started consciously experiencing and trying to describe and categorize the smells I experienced on my daily bike rides and was amazed at how distinctive each location was: the sharp marshiness as I rode particularly close to a slough, the undertones of sunwarmed timber as I rode over a bridge, the tang of exhaust as the wind shifted from the direction of the highway. If you're looking for a guide to doggy behavioral cues, then you're better off checking out Horowitz's earlier book, Inside of a Dog. However, if you're interested in joining Horowitz's quest to experience the world through a dog's nose, then Being a Dog is definitely worth checking out. Through Horowitz's tale of her sensory journey, you may find yourself getting a glimpse of your dog's world.

~~I received this ebook through Netgalley from the publisher, Scribner, in exchange for my honest review. Quotes are taken from an advanced reader copy and while they may not reflect the final phrasing, I believe they speak to the spirit of the book as a whole.~~

Cross-posted on Goodreads.