Q&A: Alexandra Horowitz, Author of Being a Dog

horowitz-jpg101716To most dog owners, pets who insist on sniffing every fire hydrant and tree are nuisances. But in her latest title, Being a Dog: Following the Dog into a World of Smell (Scribner, see review, LJ 10/15/16, p. 107), Barnard College professor Alexandra Horowitz points out that for these animals, the olfactory sense is essential. Conducting research and learning how to rely on her own sense of smell, the author took a nosedive into the canine domain to ­understand a dog’s point of view.

LJ: Being a Dog discusses using your nose to inhabit the world as a dog does. What was your biggest takeaway from this experience?
The most surprising thing about using my nose was realizing how little I typically smelled to begin with. I’m reminded of that old (flawed) saying, “We only use ten percent of our brains.” While the idea of a mostly inactive brain makes no sense at all, the average nose does seem to be wildly underused. Just beginning to practice intentionally smelling opened up a new dimension of experience in my daily life. So might it be for other people who dare to put their noses to things and smell.

beingadog-jpg101716One of the most fascinating parts of your book was learning how a sense of smell is crucial to dog psychology. However, smell isn’t as important for humans. Do our own assumptions and perceptions limit us when it comes to studying canines?
Absolutely. Even for scientists, it’s hard not to begin with a human-centric point of view, in terms of what questions are important to ask or what a scene (or an ­experimental setup) “looks like” to an animal. Though many are very conscientious about trying to imagine the animal’s umwelt, or point of view, there is a long history of ignoring what is important for the animal, even when studying them.

Researchers working with lab mice, for instance, now know much more about how to enrich the animals, socially and cognitively, so that they develop normally; this wasn’t always the case. Dog cognition research spent the first decade looking mostly at dogs’ performance on visual tasks: surprising, when you’re dealing with an olfactory creature.

How did your findings influence your relationship with your pet dogs?
Since I began studying dogs, and ­especially since I started investigating their olfactory prowess, I’ve become far more interested in seeing what they do—letting them be dogs—than getting them to fit in with my world. When we go outside together, for instance, I try to let them lead—where we go, at what pace, where we linger—instead of just “taking them for a walk” on my terms. I let them stop and sniff, of course. I let them sniff me, and warn visitors to my home that they are nosey dogs. We play nosework games (which are like smelly treasure hunts), and often I ask them to find something missing in the house [using their] nose.

You’ve met a lot of dogs who use their noses to help people with important jobs. What makes for an ideal sniffer dog?
A few breed types are most often seen working as detection dogs, but any dog with a nose has good enough equipment to detect. What differs among dogs is their drive. Dogs who will do anything to get their tennis ball are good candidates to be detection dogs: they need only learn that to get the ball, they need to find the odor and “alert” to it—telling a handler they’ve found something.

When watching detection dogs being trained, I often thought that they were like the antipet. The best dogs for this work have a lot of energy and drive, they are sometimes taught to bark, and they are relentless. Hardly the patient, couch-sleeping, nonbiting dog we seem to value in our homes. But terrific dogs.

You mention that many dogs are losing their sense of smell. How can we ensure that these animals retain this sense?
It’s true. Living in our vision-centered world, with their lives mostly organized by humans, dogs stop paying as much attention to smells. When I’ve done research looking at companion dogs’ interests in various smells presented to them, it’s hard to get the average dog interested in smelling the experimental canisters at all. That’s likely because they’ve been pulled away from and otherwise discouraged from smelling most things— the smells on the sidewalk or in the grass; other dogs they meet. Every day I see dogs yanked away from a sniff they are taking of a recently marked building corner, or kept a great distance from another dog that they really, really want to sniff. Dogs get it and stop sniffing so much.

Just the slightest opening, though, and they can resume using their glorious noses. Take your dogs to a nosework class. Let them stay and sniff that rose/fireplug. Let your dogs smell one another: that’s how they meet and get information about one another. Just because it’s impolite for us to stick our noses in one another’s rumps, we shouldn’t project that onto dogs.

Mahnaz Dar, School Library Journal

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Mahnaz Dar About Mahnaz Dar

Mahnaz Dar (mdar@mediasourceinc.com) is an Associate Editor for School Library Journal, and can be found on Twitter @DibblyFresh.