7 Questions with Alexandra Horowitz

Mar 21, 2011
Outside Magazine

Alexandra Horowitz Alexandra Horowitz on her bestseller Inside of a Dog, summer tips for your pooch, and why the Far Side gets it right. To listen to the extended interview click here, or subscribe to our iTunes podcasts.—Stayton Bonner

How does a Columbia University psychologist end up writing about dogs?
Accidentally. I was curious about my dog Pumpernickel’s mental life and realized dogs had never been taken seriously as cognitive subjects. I studied play behavior, thinking that might give us insight into what animals know and understand. Dogs are the pre-eminent players of the animal kingdom.

For our Outsidek9.com readers, what are some of the better outdoor activities this summer?
If you watch how dogs and wolves run, they don’t do six miles and then stop. They sprint and then stop. So running is great if you’re in a position where you can be off-leash with them. They’re great hikers. Really good climbers.  Anything in which they can participate is a good outdoor activity. They want to be with you, more than anything else.

Is the Far Side cartoon where the owner gives a long speech and the dog just hears “blah, blah, blah, Fido, blah, blah, blah” accurate?
Larson’s a pretty good observer of animal behavior. A dog will simply pick out his name because that’s the word we mostly use with him. But if you’re very careful to use the same words when describing objects or events every single time, then your dog will become attuned to those words. Recent research underscored the dog’s capacity to understand when John Pilley trained his dog Chaser to recognize the names of 1,022 different toys. The fact that dogs can take on another species’ use of nouns and verbs is wild. The cross-species gap is big and we don’t bridge it, so it’s interesting they do.

Inside of a Dog, Photo by Erin Vey                                               Inside of a Dog, Photo by Erin Vey

Why do they go nuts for playing fetch?
All cells of the eye function by converting electromagnetic radiation into electrical activity. We’re really taking little snapshots of the world when we have our eyes open. The rate at which we take these snap-shots—the flicker-fusion—is for humans 1/60th of a second. Our brains smooth these over. Dogs have a higher rate. They’re taking more snapshots. They might actually see something happening a split-second before we do and could react a split-second faster. So maybe the ability to snap something out of the air isn’t just due to muscular prowess or predatory instinct but also due to their eyes working a little faster than ours.

How do dogs “smell time”?
It’s my way of trying to understand how being a creature of the nose shapes your perception of the world. For example, tracking dogs are able to tell the odor difference between a left and right footstep. Sniffing something under foot is like smelling the past and sniffing something on the breeze is like smelling the future. Their experience of time has olfaction as a major part of it. What an expanded view of the present moment. It has a little of both the past and future in it.

Are they marking territory when they pee on hydrants?
It doesn’t look like they’re marking territory. Wolves do this, but how many dogs walk around an apartment peeing on the wall? It seems that marking for dogs has changed to where it’s simply information leaving for other dogs. So another dog peeing in the same spot is less an act of marking territory and more an, “Oh, this is a good spot because someone else has been here.” It’s like a bulletin board.

It’s like their Facebook.
They were way ahead of us in this particular game. Theirs is a smellier Facebook.

Want to volunteer your dog for science and treats? Go to canidcognition.com.

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