Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Must read: Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz

Alexandra Horowitz. Photo by Vegar Abelsnes
Buying me a book about dogs is no easy task; shelves are overloaded with dog books nowadays, not all of their pages filled with quality information.
At Christmas, my friend Allison demonstrated just how well she knows me when she brought me the gift of Alexandra Horowitz's Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell and Know.
I mentioned the book briefly in last week's posts about eye contact, but the book merits more attention than that.
The first clue that this was going to be a great read was Horowitz's credentials. She teaches psychology at Columbia University and went through a graduate program studying animal behavior.
It was the prelude, though, that really gave away how good this book was going to be.
Horowitz wrote about how, while going to graduate school and being part of research groups studying highly social creatures, she spent a lot of her down time with her dog Pumpernickel at dog parks.
Buy it
"I learned the science of careful observations, data gathering, and statistical analysis," Horowitz wrote. "Over time, this way of looking began seeping into those recreational hours at the dog park."
She continued: "I never saw Pumpernickel — or any dog — the same way again. Far from being a killjoy on the delights of interacting with her, though, the spectacles of science gave me a rich new way to look at what she was doing: a new way to understand life as a dog."
Though not in graduate school studying animal behavior (though I would be if I won the lottery), it was when I began researching canine behavior years ago that transformed the way I see dogs.
It was not what I read in the journals and books, but how I saw that knowledge come to life in watching dogs — particularly dogs around other dogs — that gave me a whole new perspective of the four-legged creatures we share our homes with.
One of my most memorable vacations I refer to as the dog weekend. We went up north with a bunch of friends and four dogs.
The four dog weekend, clockwise: Rona, Ruger, Sensi & Maggie
There was never a dull moment dog watching — from how the lift of one dog's head out of a leisurely nap under the picnic table affected the rest of the napping dogs to how body language indicated which dog would actually get retrieve the ball even though all four were chasing it, to how they manipulated each other to get the toy they actually wanted and not least of all, how one dog was able to keep the peace when two others were having a disagreement — it was a constant flow of communication that I could hardly keep up with.
Just as we yammer on endlessly around our friends, so do our dogs.
As amazing as it can be to watch and understand a group of dogs communicating amongst themselves, it's what that insight brings to the dog-human relationship that can be downright life-changing.
Suddenly, communication with your dog becomes a two-way street. And anyone who has ever lived with a dog would agree that being able to understand what's going on in that canine head has value that quite simply makes life easier.
Fortunately, it's not difficult to learn what you need to know — especially when the world has given us people like Horowitz and Jean Donaldson (author of my all-time favorite dog book, Culture Clash) who are both well-informed and engaging writers.
So, pick up a copy of Horowitz's Inside of a Dog. Read it, then head to the dog park and see all that knowledge come to life.
One last quote from Horowitz's book: "I've gotten inside of the dog, and have glimpsed the dog's point of view. You can do the same."
It's true. You can.

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