Life Science

A Dog’s World, According to Science

One scientist recreates the worldview of mankind’s best friend

December 10, 2010

To a dog, the world is smelly, ever-changing and full of human knees. So says Alexandra Horowitz, a cognitive scientist who studies animal behavior at Barnard College in New York City. Usually we depend on fiction to show us the point of view of others, but Horowitz wants to know what science can tell us about dogs’ worldviews. “I’m interested in how we can use a careful study of behavior to make inferences about the minds of all animals, in particular about dogs,” she said during a talk she gave on October 30 at the Brooklyn Public Library.

Using her own research and other studies, Horowitz has reconstructed the canine mind in her book Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know. Scribner published Inside of a Dog last year and issued a paperback version in September. The book has stayed on National Public Radio’s top-15 list of the nation’s best-selling nonfiction paperbacks ever since. In an interview a few days before Horowitz’s talk, Clive Wynne, a psychologist who studies animal behavior at the University of Florida and who isn’t involved in Horowitz’s research, articulated the question many Americans apparently share: “There are 75 million dogs living in homes in the United States. What the heck is going on with these animals?”

Horowitz’s book and talk covered many peculiarities of doggy senses, from why canine smell is so extraordinary to how dogs may perceive time differently from people. Because dogs depend on smells to receive information about the world, they sense the passage of time by judging the degree to which smells have faded on an emptied food dish or a peed-on fire hydrant. A dog has to keep sniffing to get a handle on a constantly fading world, said Horowitz. Yet their worldview has the fragrance of the future in it, too: they know what’s coming around the corner before you do if the wind carries the smell to them. “Smells don’t arrive at the nose with the same even regularity as light waves arrive at the eyes,” said Horowitz.  “To a dog, the world runs at a different rate.”

Horowitz’s work is, unsurprisingly, popular with dog owners. Nearly all of the approximately 40 audience members at the library talk owned dogs. But understanding dogs’ mindsets isn’t just a fun exercise for doting owners, said Wynne. Insights into the canine mind help us understand a major part of our lives. Domestic dogs are “ubiquitous” in human societies, he said, “yet our scientific understanding of this animal is pretty shallow.” Because things can go wrong in the age-old dog-human relationship—4.5 million Americans are bitten by dogs every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—“we ought to struggle to understand this animal more deeply,” Wynne said. He likes Horowitz’s research for its “creative and original approach to something we’ve all worried about for a long time.”

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About the Author

Francie Diep holds her B.A. in English from the University of California, Los Angeles, where she took as many science classes as she could in between her major requirements. After graduating, she worked as a TA for biochemistry and functional genomics labs at UCLA. After three years at the bench and chalkboard, she is eager to put her writing skills back to work reporting science stories.

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