Being a Dog, by Alexandra Horowitz****

beingadogHorowitz is the author of Inside of a Dog, and here she follows it up with an examination of the sensory experiences a dog encounters, primarily that of smell.  I received my DRC courtesy of Scribner and Net Galley in exchange for this honest review. And though I’ve never been a science maven, Horowitz’s unbridled enthusiasm for dogs had me at hello. It’s a book bound to engage any dog lover.

So, do you have a dog?

I’ve had a dog nearly all of my 58 years, with a brief interim here and there.  I’ve never been dogless long, though; either a dog has found me, or I’ve gone looking for one. And so I was glad of the opportunity to read more about what makes my dog—right now it’s Ox, the oversized beagle puppy—work. I’d read a fair amount about dogs, particularly beagles, my favorite breed, and I thought I was well schooled, but I learned a great deal from Horowitz that I hadn’t known before, or in one main instance, in a way I had known intellectually, but not in my gut.

Almost every dog lover has heard at some point that a dog tends to be governed by its smell, and that this is its dominant sense. But until Horowitz took it apart for me and gave me the details, I didn’t grasp the implications. For example, when we throw the ball, the dog pauses before running after it, right? And with our last little dog, my husband and I would note that he wasn’t really looking in the right place, and we concluded that he was as dumb as a box of rocks. We’d yell; we’d point to it. And eventually, after he had sniffed its perimeter, he’d hone in on the ball and bring it back. And this book explains why that is exactly the correct way to do the job, if one is a hound (or other dog) rather than a human.

Sight is so important to us humans; next comes hearing. If we are in a carnival’s haunted house, and if the first room is sightless and soundless, what do we do? Do we sniff? Of course not! We fling out our arms in front of us or to the sides, partly to find out where things are, and partly to protect ourselves from slamming our face into a hard surface. And now when I consider Ox’s sense of scent, after which is hearing, I realize that by the time he has to look at something, he’s probably gained most of the information he needs already. Why would we fling our hands out in an ungainly manner if we can see and hear? And so indeed, why would my beagle do a visual scan if he can find what he wants through the use of sniffed air currents and hearing? After all, he always brings the toy back to us.

Chapters that engaged me less contained miniature chemistry and physics lessons, never my favorite, and some had longer passages having to do with human olfactory sense than I really wanted to read. I confess after the first few times the author moved from dogs’ senses back to those of humans I skimmed until we were back to the dogs.

There was so much here I hadn’t seen. For example, where does one find the best material for search and rescue dogs, or arson, bomb, drug, cadaver dogs, and so forth? I’ll give you a hint: I was crushed to find out that my beloved hound dogs aren’t necessarily the favorites here.  But it sure is interesting!

Once I had read this book, I felt that I knew my dog a lot better, and this new information solved many of Ox’s previously puzzling habits. To learn more, check out Horowitz’s new release, which became available to the public yesterday.

Because although I don’t know whether a dog is man’s best friend…I know he’s mine.

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