Arts & Entertainment

The truth about dogs

ScienceHeroismHealthJohn GroganHuman Interest

I love dogs as much as the next person — OK, more than the next person.

But I have my doubts about the red-hot genre of "doggie wisdom" books, in which dogs teach us valuable lessons about what it is to be, well, human.

Sure, a headstrong pup can comfort his humans in a time of need ("Marley & Me," by John Grogan). An affectionate canine can help a perpetual adolescent take her first wobbly steps toward adulthood ("You Had Me at Woof: How Dogs Taught Me the Secrets of Happiness," by Julie Klam). But do the dogs involved know or care that that's what they're doing? Or are we just projecting our human dramas onto creatures more interested in chewing shoes and chasing squirrels?

Fortunately for the skeptics, there also are books like "Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know" — a serious, scientific exploration of the dog experience that has been on best-seller lists for more than 41 weeks.

Author Alexandra Horowitz introduces us to an animal that may be less concerned with our personal safety than we'd like to believe — and more concerned with how we smell. (How frustrating to the finely tuned canine nose that we obscure our signature scents by washing frequently and covering our feet with shoes and socks!)

Horowitz recently answered our questions about separating (canine) fact from fiction.

Q: It seems to me one of the biggest differences (between humans and dogs) from the human perspective is language, and the biggest difference from the dog perspective is smell. You make a pretty powerful argument that smell is central for dogs.

A: Their brains say so, their anatomy says so. That's kind of a nice way of looking at it. We kind of can't imagine the dog doesn't live without language, and maybe the dog can't imagine that we don't live without this smell experience.

Q: What's it like to be a dog, from the perspective of smell?

A: My guess is that instead of seeing the world, they're experiencing the world in smell first. Not to the exclusion of seeing, but smell first, and this means that maybe you would have a slightly different fluidity than in a visual world. Odors don't have the same constancy as light does.

If you have to rely on smell to get information about an object, you need to be near that object, or you need to have that object emitting a lot of smell, or you need for there to be a breeze that brings that smell toward you. It's not as though that object doesn't exist for a dog, but it would exist more at different times, and maybe a distant object would exist for him where it wouldn't exist for us, because (he could smell it).

Q: People are very tied to the notion of the heroic dog, but you write about a fascinating experiment in which dogs didn't seem interested in saving their owners at all.

A: The experiment (featured) someone lying under a fake bookcase screaming for help or being entirely quiet, as though they'd had a heart attack, and the dogs didn't act as if their owners needed saving.

Now, did (the experiment) close the book on whether dogs can be heroic? No. I think dogs can act heroic, whether or not they understand what they're doing. And also I think (dog heroism) should be tested in a better way. And yet we never hear the stories of the dogs that do not save their owners from the fire, or the child from the raging river. We only tell stories of great deeds in these cases. We totally ignore the examples that would serve to undermine our preconception.

Q: You write so movingly about your own dog, Pump. Is it possible to love a dog and yet view it from the scientific perspective? Do you anthropomorphize?

A: I anthropomorphize. The dog I live with now, Finnegan, he has an enormously, flamboyantly proud posture when he has a ball that he particularly likes or has stolen from another dog, and I will always call him proud, even though I don't know that he's proud. I don't think it takes away from my admiration or interest or love for him at all to be able to question the emotional attribution that I make to him. In fact, it's so much more interesting to me to be able to see him in more than one way.

nschoenberg@tribune.com

'Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know'
By Alexandra Horowitz
Scribner, 384 pages, $16 (paperback)

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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