Conversations With Dogs
Reflections on the unique role our pups play in our lives
Sometimes people ask me why I study dogs. Apart from the obvious pleasures of spending my life observing, studying, and being around dogs, what is it that makes them scientifically interesting? There are a dozen answers to that—from their impressive social-cognitive skills to their entirely different (olfactory) worldview—but the reason I got especially interested is because of their special status in our lives. In particular, the familiarity of dogs leads us to make all sorts of assumptions about them. Why, dogs are accompanying us constantly—there may be dogs by your side now—and though they are likely not reading along with you, it feels as though they are in on whatever we're doing, doing it with us, in the fullest sense of “with.” (That they don't speak up and protest even feels like validation of this sense.)
The very fact of their familiarity, and the ease with which they move among our species, is the reason I came to write my new book.
I research dog behaviour in two ways: first, I observe dogs in their natural environment, usually outside, among people and other dogs; second, I bring dogs and their people into my lab, where the dogs face some puzzle or task and I record what they do. Recently, most of my research is targeted to better understand what it's like to perceive the world as they do—through their nose. We've studied whether they detect quantity via olfaction; their recognition of themselves, other dogs, and their owners by smell; and if participating in scent games makes them more optimistic (it did).
“Somebody has a bagel, and it’s not you. And it’s not gonna be you with that kind of behavior.”
(Man to rapacious hound)
“I see you doing weird stuff. Cut it out.”
(Woman to one of her four small dogs)
“You guys are going to have to get coordinated.”
(Woman to two dogs pulling in different directions)
In all kinds of studies, even while I'm mostly looking at the dogs, I also see the relationship with their people. And as a someone who lives with dogs myself, I think a good amount about the dynamic we have with dogs.
This book emerged from that thinking. How does the dog-human bond work? How did we come to treat dogs the way we do? I was keen to explore the myriad ways we see dogs as reflections of ourselves—in both very sweet ways and sometimes ways that cause us not to see them for who they are.
While 95 percent of us consider dogs our family, dogs are simply property, chattel, in the eyes of the law, and this has a lot of repercussions for dogs. For instance, we are allowed to do things to their bodies, including cropping ears and docking tails; we can breed dogs for profit; we are permitted to give up dogs when they are inconvenient or misbehaved. We can de-sex dogs, and we do, to solve a problem that we humans created and maintain: their overpopulation. At the same time, we buy property for our dogs. There is a multi-billion-dollar industry of collars, harnesses, booties, raincoats, track suits, bedding, every manner of squeaky toys, so our property owns property (I know my dog Finnegan thinks he owns one particular orange and blue ball.)
“If you make it to the end of the fence, you get a biscuit. If you lie down, no biscuit.”
(Woman to Corgi probably not going to make it to the end of the fence)
“We’ve talked about this: No eating stuff you find on the street.”
(Man to foraging dog)
“Be part of the solution, buddy.”
(Woman to dog being part of the problem)
“Don’t even think about it.”
(Woman to thoughtful dog)
We've inherited some of our ways of dealing with dogs from past generations, along with questionable motivations, and they are worth looking at again.
At the same time, to our species' credit, I have observed many ways that we extend our circle to include this other species. One of the non-obvious ways that we treat dogs as people is in how we talk to them. I began overhearing how people spoke to their dogs in public—and they did, quite a lot—and hearing myself talk to my dogs—and I do, quite a lot—and I began recording what people said when I happened by them. We don't quite treat them like we're talking to each other, or to babies, but we often let them in our most private thoughts. We converse with them. Their role is singular. I researched how we name dogs, and we can see a very clear trend to naming dogs with human names. No longer Rexes and Spots, they are Lucy, Bella, Charlie, Daisy, Max, and George. Just like our grandparents, or our hoped-for children.
I very much see the culture of dogdom as worth examining closely. Not just for the dogs. They are friendly, tail-wagging ambassadors for the animal world that we increasingly distance ourselves from. I think we should ask ourselves: How do we live with dogs now? And how should we live with dogs—and all animals—tomorrow?
Dr. Horowitz is a cognitive scientist who studies dogs. She heads the Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab and is the New York Times bestselling author of Inside of a Dog. Her new book is Our Dogs, Ourselves: The Story of a Singular Bond.