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inside of a dog

19 august 2014

First off, let me say that I'd have had more use for Alexandra Horowitz's Inside of a Dog if it had been about cats. I've lived with dogs and been very fond of them, but for the past few years it's been mostly me and my cat Whisper Wilson, and I have no idea what he's thinking at times.

I do know that cats are mentally different from dogs, and not just because I read a lot of Internet memes. Whisper just tried to distract me from writing this paragraph – I think – and he did so by butting the bottom of my flipflop with his temple. A dog would have sat by my side wagging his tail and visibly restraining a leap up to lick my face. Whisper doesn't lick my face. And unlike any dog, he occasionally walks across my axdrttuyyyyyyyyyyiu,ipo]p[

OK, he's being good now. I attribute to my cat an animus against my writing about dogs, but as Horowitz notes, that's anthropomorphism. She is refreshingly open about how anthropomorphizing is a very human trait, one that it goes against our own animal nature to suppress. But, says Horowitz, we must "anthropomorphize with Umwelt in mind" (294). The concept of Umwelt, developed by Jakob von Uexküll, is simple but powerful. Different species of animal, including us, inhabit what might as well be different worlds – because they perceive such radically different aspects of the world we share.

The countervailing theme in Horowitz's book is that dogs, of all other animal species, share worlds most closely with humans. It's an idea not far off from Michael Pollan's popular argument (in The Botany of Desire that some plant species have evolved in tandem with ours (apples, potatoes, marijuana). We often feel that dogs understand us, exhibit sympathy, share our interests and our boredoms. They do and they don't, of course: people generally aren't fascinated with smelling dried traces of urine. But there's enough of an overlap in human and canine concerns to make them perfect companions. And they've been selected out of wolfhood, naturally and artificially, to demonstrate that companionship.

Horowitz approaches her topic from two perspectives: a review of experimental work in dog psychology (one of her own academic fields), and a personal memoir of her late dog Pump, presented in italic font and interleaved with the expository sections. I liked the expository sections better. Horowitz is an engaging writer, but she's no J.R. Ackerley. The italic sections of the book seem a bit generic. Deliberately so, because their purpose is to communicate experiences that all dog owners share. But far more intriguing are the passages where Horowitz takes a dog behavior we all know about, and considers it in the light of experimentally-gained knowledge.

Much of the literature on dog cognition comes from scientists who "run" dogs on carefully-constructed trials, isolating variables as they go to get a sense of just what dogs can and will do. Rats were long the preferred runnable animals, of course, but though rats provide most of the framework for experimental psychology, dogs provide some contrasts. In many respects, dogs grade out as "smarter" than monkeys and even apes, at some tasks – though "smarter" isn't the right word. Dogs have more nuanced approaches to human psychology than apes, in many ways. And that makes sense, because humans and apes spent millennia avoiding each other, and humans and dogs have spent the same epochs growing closer.

In particular, though the evidence is limited and a bit contradictory, dogs seem to have a "theory of mind" that exceeds most other species'. Horowitz points to experiments where a subject must work out a problem not independently but by appeal to humans who know the solution (193-96). Dogs are apparently better than any other animals, even the brainiest ones, at knowing that people know things.

Dogs "fail" on other classic measures, of course. Apes, dolphins, and some elephants can recognize themselves in mirrors; dogs couldn't care less. But it's not that they are or aren't "intelligent." Horowitz implicitly complicates discussions of intelligence in any population of any creature. Dogs have a different way of making their way cognitively in the world, not better or worse, than other creatures. Above all, they have developed social skills, specifically skills for dealing with humans. They had the genetic potential for such talent, and breeding has greatly enhanced it. Dogs know when we're happy and when something's wrong. (Horowitz does refute the idea that dogs are particularly good at getting help when we fall into the well, though.)

Though to return to my initial theme, I wonder what's been done in the field of cat cognition. There may be books out there I don't know. There may also be a sense that cats have better things to do than participate in research. The process of cat domestication has been historically much different than that of dogs: they're less social, less trainable, more commensal than collaborative. I like to think that Whisper Wilson is a prodigy of good sense, though. Now it would help if he would get off my book so I can copy the bibliographical citation.

Horowitz, Alexandra. Inside of a Dog: What dogs see, smell, and know. 2009. New York: Scribner [Simon & Schuster], 2010.