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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

BOOK REVIEW: "Inside of a Dog"

Inside of a Dog.  What Dogs See, Smell, and Know.

- by Alexandra Horowitz, PhD in cognitive science
  2009, Scribner, New York
  ISBN 978-1-4165-8340-0

Alexandra Horowitz, a self-proclaimed "dog-lover" and scientist, strives to mesh what dog-owners sense about the remarkableness of their pets with current biological and psychological scientific studies of the canine.  

Her book, Inside of a Dog, is readable to the non-scientist, with loads of sources cited at the end of the book, arranged by chapter.  Just in case you are interested in reading the research on your own.

But you don't have to.

Horowitz's writing is interesting, entertaining, and easy to understand, even when citing studies by  scientists such as the German biologist Jakob von Uexkull or Russian geneticist Dmitry Belyaev (pages 20 and 35).  She introduces each chapter with a short narrative of her dog, Pumpkin, which relates to the topic of the chapter.

Horowitz warns against "anthropomorphisms"--projecting human traits onto our dogs' behavior.
...we are bringing animals inside and asking them to become members of our families.  For that purpose, anthropomorphisms fail to help us incorporate those animals into our homes, and have the smoothest, fullest relationships with them.  This is not so say that we're always wrong with our attributions:  it might be true that our dog is sad, jealous, inquisitive, depressed--or desiring a peanut butter sandwich for lunch.  But we are almost certainly not justified in claiming, say, depression from the evidence before us:  the mournful eyes, the loud sigh.  Our projections onto animals are often impoverished--or entirely off the mark...   p. 15-16

There were two specific things I learned from reading Horowitz's book which cause me to ponder what I think I know about dogs.  Canine olfactory and visual senses.


OLFACTORY

I understand that dogs view life through their noses more than humans do, but what I didn't realize is that dogs possess a vomeronasal organ between the roof of their mouth and their nose.  This specialized "sniffing" machine captures pheromones, hormone-like chemicals secreted by animals.  The wet nose of a dog helps the dog's vomeronasal organ to distinguish these chemicals.   So, dogs not only have two to three hundred million smelling receptors (humans have a mere six million) to help them sense the world through their noses, they have an additional sensing organ!

FLD Mike's wet nose.


VISUAL

Surprisingly, I did know prior to reading Inside of a Dog that human eyes "see" at the rate of about 60 frames per second, but I didn't know that this is called the "flicker-fusion" rate.  What I learned is that dogs "see" at a faster rate than we do, at 70 to 80 frames per second.  It's not just that they see things faster, but they see "more" things every second.  To demonstrate, think of high-speed photography and how it "freezes" motion that our eyes cannot discern.  Amazing, isn't it?

Gypsy, taking in the world.

I recommend Horowitz's book to anyone interested in learning more about dogs.  You will not be disappointed.  

You can read about Alexandra Horowitz by clicking here, or her learn more about her book Inside of a Dog (including excerpts) by clicking here.


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