An Interview with Alexandra Horowitz about Our Dogs, Ourselves

“A fuller understanding of the needs of dogs is integral to good living with dogs,” says Alexandra Horowitz.

Interview with Alexandra Horowitz about Our Dogs, Ourselves
Alexandra Horowitz photographed by Vegar Abelsnes

By Zazie Todd PhD

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An interview with New York Times best-selling author, Dr. Alexandra Horowitz, about her wonderful new book, Our Dogs, Ourselves: The Story of a Singular Bond, the importance of dogs' sense of smell, the dignity of dogs, and what happens at the dog cognition lab. Our Dogs Ourselves was the animal book club’s choice for September 2019.

Our Dogs, Ourselves and other great animal books are available in my Amazon store:

Zazie: You’re already written some wonderful books about dogs, including the New York Times bestseller Inside of a Dog. What made you decide to look at the relationship between people and their dogs for this book?

Alexandra: For myself, it was that, even though I’m studying exclusively dogs, I study owned dogs, dogs that live with a person. They come to my lab with people. They’re in my videos interacting with their people. And that dynamic between the dog and the person is of course also fascinating and drives a lot of dog behaviour. Of course people are already studying human-animal interactions. I’m not the first to do it. But I was interested in the sociology of that dyad: how it came to be that there were people bringing their dogs into my lab, so the dogs could be tested in my perceptual settings and my cognition settings. How do we get to that place? How do we get to a place where all the people who bring their dogs in for studies are talking to their dogs? So I wanted to explore that. And of course I live with dogs myself and the nature of our relationship and the importance of that relationship intrigues me.

The cover of the book Our Dogs, Ourselves by Alexandra Horowitz

Zazie: And of course in the book you have some lovely descriptions of what happens in the dog cognition lab. From the dog’s perspective, what is it like for them to come and take part in your research?

Alexandra: I admit that I believe it’s somewhat confusing for a dog to be brought by their person. They arrive with their owner and they are escorted to the lab by a researcher who really doesn’t acknowledge them at all, in order to not create a bias for interest on the dog’s part to the researcher. Then they go to this room where it’s not obvious what’s going to happen. They’ve never been there before. My guess is their first reaction is arousal, excitement, confusion, or nervousness. Then we introduce some procedure; we give them time to explore and then when they settle down a little bit we introduce some procedure which then we often repeat a number of times.

"It’s simply realizing what their perceptual world is and how that remakes the world in a different colour, the colour of smell."

In my mind, this is not something the dog is accustomed to. It’s a little bit different than ordinary life for them. Even though it ends usually with a lot of treats, and at the final buzzer it ends with them getting to pick out a reward – a toy – to take home with them. My guess is that the whole thing leaves them a little bit perplexed.

Zazie: That’s a lovely ending, that they get to choose a toy.

Alexandra: Yes

Zazie: This question is from book club member Sunny Elmore. She says, do you believe that not referring to oneself as a dog owner, but instead as a dog guardian, will start to change the way people see dogs, and move away from the ‘dogs as property’ belief and trickle down into our legal system?

Alexandra: I do think that it will change the way that people view dogs. So that part of the question, I assent to. I think it’s already changed the way people view dogs. Changing the legal system is a bigger affair: the law isn't quickly responsive to how we’re talking or what society currently thinks. It’s a slow moving process where change operates in very different channels. Still, I endorse using terminology that we think suits the relationship we have with dogs -- because it will, eventually, be a societal attitude change that will push people to consider legislative change.

Interview with Alexandra Horowitz; dogs pick a toy to take home
Photo: pixshot/Shutterstock

Zazie: And then I’ve got a question from another book club member, Ana Sofia Costa. She says you mention that people incorrectly think about dogs’ intelligence compared to the intelligence of a child of a certain age. Please can you explain a bit more about this and clarify if you’re talking about general intelligence or emotional intelligence?

Alexandra: Usually when I’m talking about intelligence of dogs vis á vis a child, it’s because somebody is asking me, “I’ve heard that a dog is as smart as a 3 year old child or a 2 year old child”. And so I’m responding to that already legendary truth and trying to break it down. And when they say that, I think they’re meaning general intelligence, and of course very few people have a grasp of what that really means. So you could say, do you mean intelligence in terms of performance on certain cognitive tests? Here’s a type of social cognitive test, here’s a type of physical cognitive test. And if you mean that, then we can start to compare the performance. But it’s still really different results because you have a child who’s developing into a different kind of mind than a dog is developing into. So I feel like they’re incomparable, this doesn’t make sense. And in fact kind of a little bit demeaning to the dog, frankly. Not because young children aren’t smart in some way, of course they’re fabulously curious and all-seeing, but because dogs are interesting and their cognition is interesting in its own right in terms of what they’ve evolved to perceive and understand and do. It’s reductionist to say it’s just like a human, only a small human.

Zazie: Thank you for that answer. So you have a delightful section on how people talk to their dogs. What do you think that tells us about the human-dog bond?

Alexandra: I think it’s an exhibit of how intimate our relationship with dogs is, how much we’ve brought them into our circle, the special circle of our close companions. My feeling is that most of the utterances we make to our dogs are manifestations of the inner speech that’s happening in our heads, a conversation we’re having with ourselves all the time about what’s happening, or what we’re thinking about, or what we plan to do. We’re talking to the dog as though they were in that conversation with us in our head. We let them in on our private thoughts, essentially. We assume they’re in on our private thoughts. I think that’s a real exemplar of how the dog-human bond is profoundly different than it used to be. We’ve always had close relationships with dogs but I don’t think they were this intimate with us.

"I live with dogs myself and the nature of our relationship and the importance of that relationship intrigues me."

Zazie: You raise several issues in the book about things that people could do better. One of them is to do with breeding dogs. What do you think people need to know about dog breeding?

Alexandra: The fact that purebred dog breeding is so recent, if I just focus on purebred breeding because of course breeding is a much bigger topic. The fact it’s so recent and that purebred dogs’ stories diverge from their ancestral stories 100-150 years ago is surprising. I think that might change what we think about what purebred dog breeding is on its face. It’s not this thing that we’ve always done all along, and that dogs have endured for 2000 years. It is in fact deleterious to many if not all the purebred dogs to be inbred, and that’s problematic and is changeable. We can change that. Dogs could be bred for health. So I think that’s important for people to know.

An interview with dog scientist, Alexandra Horowitz
Photo: dezy/Shutterstock

Zazie: And then you raise some interesting questions about spay/neuter surgery, and say that dogs are being asked to undergo a surgical procedure on behalf of us. What would you like to see happen about this?

Alexandra: You hit the point that I think is at the centre of it for me: the misdeed or misbehaviour of humans. We take this resourceful carnivore and then we change them into a dependant on us, and then we lose them or lose track of them or release them, and then we have so many more that we need to kill the excess. And then we ask new members of the species to undergo a surgery which will systemically affect them, for our behaviour. I think that’s the core of it. What I wanted to do with this was first to start a discussion about all the elements of this mandatory spay/neuter idea, the idea that spaying or neutering is the responsible thing and that’s kind of the end of one’s responsibility vis á vis overpopulation of dogs. There are so many complicated elements of it: having to do with the biology of it; having to do with the history of it; and the sociology of it, and our responsibilities. I think it’s worth having a discussion as a society about whether it’s the best one size fits all method going forward.

Zazie: Do you think better education for people who have dogs is part of the solution?

Alexandra: Absolutely, yes. One could say, anyone can have a child and they don’t have to know about children, they don’t have to be educated about children. But in point of fact, most people do educate themselves about children or if they’re wilfully mistreating their children or neglecting their children, the state or the government takes their children away. There’s a corrective. We believe that human dependants who can’t take care of themselves need to have somebody looking after them who understands their needs. And I think that a fuller understanding of the needs of dogs is integral to good living with dogs, societally. So I think it’s really important. To me it all comes back to the property status, the legal status, because if they’re always personal property I’m not sure how overall our stance can change for dogs. People will always have the right to have a dog, to spontaneously get a dog. You or I could acquire dogs online by the end of this conversation. There’s no restriction on that. So as long as we have the ultimate right to own a sentient creature then I think there’s a limitation on what education can do to improve their lives. But that doesn’t mean it would be negative, it would be a serious positive, if people were more educated about what’s necessary for the wellbeing of a dog.

The cover of the book Being a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz

Zazie: You’ve also written a lot about the importance of a dog’s sense of smell. Do you think education on what smell means to a dog would be helpful too?

Alexandra: Yes, and I think that’s the feedback I’ve received on my books, the latter of which is really focussed on the sense of smell as you know [Being a Dog: Following the Dog Into a World of Smell]. I think having that understanding, which is a little surprising to people, even people who know a lot about dogs, know that dogs have a good sense of smell, has made a profound difference to them in their interactions with dogs and what they allow their dogs to do, and their feelings about their dog’s behaviour. You know, seeing it as a natural behaviour and something to be celebrated and understood, versus an obnoxious or rude or confusing behaviour, has actually helped the relationship. I’ve heard that in the past. I hope that continues to be the case.

Zazie: That’s interesting, because that’s the kind of feedback I’ve also had on your answer to the question I asked you about ‘the one thing that would make the world better for dogs’. You talked about the importance of allowing dogs to sniff and understanding their sense of smell. People have reported back that this makes a big difference to them. So that was really nice!

An interview with Alexandra Horowitz about Our Dogs, Ourselves
A quote from Horowitz's answer to the question of how to make the world better for dogs.

Alexandra: Great! I’m glad to hear it. I think it’s partly as a species that doesn’t spend a lot of time celebrating smelling, we are confused by their preoccupation. And seeing it differently, as part of their perceptual experience, and a kind of mystical and magical one, because it’s different than ours, but an extension of ours, is neat for dog people.

Zazie: Definitely. So at the end of the book you wrote about how Martha Nussbaum says animals have intrinsic dignity. How do you think we can help dogs have a dignified existence?

Alexandra: I love Lori Gruen’s and others’ ideas about the dignity of an animal. I would follow through with her and what I imagine would be her response to that, which I assent to, which is that by letting the animal be the animal they’re meant to be, letting the dog be the dog they’re meant to be, and letting them do behaviours that are appropriate to the species, and not trying to restrict them because of malformed ideas of how they should act in every circumstance. And not seeing them as objects of ridicule, but celebrating their pleasures on their terms.

Zazie: Just to pick up on the issue of them as objects of ridicule, what goes wrong for dogs when we see them as objects of ridicule?

Alexandra: It is in fact the lack of acknowledge of the dignity of another species. My interest in that respect is that when one ridicules someone else, it’s because of our knowledge of what it means to be humiliated, what it means to be seen by social others, the feeling that one has oneself, another person has, and also the knowledge that others are seeing one that way. And also not being seen for who one is, honestly. Ridicule is fundamentally highlighting and exaggerating something that you are not. We don’t know if dogs feel humiliated and ridiculed. We don’t know if they could see that they’re being seen and laughed at. But it is certainly doing the latter which is not seeing who they are.

"Dogs are interesting and their cognition is interesting in its own right in terms of what they’ve evolved to perceive and understand and do"

Zazie: Not seeing dogs as dogs. In your book you say, “looking at dogs has changed the very way I see the world.” For most people, how do you think their dog has changed how they see the world? And what are they missing as the main ways they should see the world through their dog?

Alexandra: I don’t know for other people if or how living with dogs has changed the way they see the world. I know it has changed many people’s worlds to have this companion and to feel the love of a non-human other and to feel love for that non-human other. I think that is world changing. But I can’t speak for other people. I think that for me, and maybe this does extend to others, it’s simply realizing what their perceptual world is and how that remakes the world in a different colour, the colour of smell. And it’s also seeing how dependent they are on us for everything, how much control we have over their lives, and wanting to open up more possibilities for them within that life. Assuming we’re going to continue to live with dogs, we’ll always have some control over their lives, but it's wanting to open up more things because you don’t realize how closed their world is. I think naturally as a dog’s person, the dog’s there when you need them to be there, and maybe people miss them a little bit when they’re gone, but aren’t imagining them having subjective experiences the whole time and fascinated by how they could improve that experience. I think that that’s what it’s made me attuned to.

Zazie: What’s your favourite part about being a dog cognition researcher?

Alexandra: It’s an unsurprising answer, but it’s seeing all the dogs! I literally feel pleasure and I feel relaxed when I see dogs. I like to see all these different characters. And so they all wander into my lab and I get to meet individuals I never would have me. Maybe unsurprising, but there it is on its face: I get to think about dogs all day.

Zazie: Fantastic. As I said I loved your book. I think it’s delightful and there’s lots of food for thought in there as well. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me about it. Is there anything else you’d like to say?

Alexandra: Only to thank you and your book club for reading it and for your questions, and for all the work you do.

Zazie: Thank you!

Thank you to Dr. Alexandra Horowitz for the wonderful interview, and to book club members Sunny Elmore and Ana Sofia Costa for their great questions.

You can follow Alexandra Horowitz on Twitter and the Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College on Facebook.

Bio: Alexandra Horowitz is the author of the New York Times best-sellers Inside of a Dog:What Dogs See, Smell, and Know and Being a Dog: Following the Dog into a World of Smell; her new book, Our Dogs, Ourselves, was published in September. She is a Senior Research Fellow at Barnard College, where her Dog Cognition Lab performs research on a wide range of topics, including dog olfaction, emotions, and play behavior.

Books by Alexandra Horowitz:
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