April 21, 2010
Alexandra Horowitz, author of Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know, takes us into the dog’s world in a way few authors have before. She describes in great detail their umwelt: their subjective or self-world.
Not only does the the book provide insights into a dog’s sight, sound and olfactory abilities, it also explains the wondrous dog-human bond. Horowitz asks us to consider what accounts for our bond with dogs, and offers eleven worthy explanations: they’re diurnal, a good size, their body is familiar with parts that match ours, they move more or less the way we do, they have a relaxation to their stride and a grace to their run, they are manageable, we can leave them by themselves for long stretches of time, they are readable, they are resilient and reliable, their lifetime is in scale with ours, and they are compellingly cute. While all of these are relevant she says, “They don’t fully explain why we bond.”
The human-dog bond, we learn, is formed over time. Not just on looks, but on how we interact together. Horowitz suggests that there are three essential behavioral means by which we maintain—and feel rewarded by—bonding with dogs. The first is contact, the second is a greeting ritual, the third is timing (the pace of our interactions with each other) Together, they combine to bond us irrevocably.
Horowitz believes that the bond strengthens and changes us. Physically we are calmed by simply petting a dog, and the social support they offer us reduces our risk for various diseases, from cardiovascular to diabetes to pneumonia, and provides better rates of recovery from the diseases we do get. The bond with our dogs makes us someone who can commune with animals, and according to Horowitz, “a large component of our attachment to dogs is our enjoyment of being seen by them.”
Thereby understanding and respecting our bond provides a good philosophy for training: train thoughtfully. “Teach your dog the things you want in a way he can understand: be clear (about what you want him to do), consistent (in what you ask and how you ask it), and tell him when he has got it right (reward him straightaway and often). Good training comes from understanding the mind of a dog—what he perceives and what motivates him.”
Horowitz advocates for being a patient trainer since training can take a long time. Be clear about what behaviors you dislike and be consistent in not reinforcing them. Perhaps one of the greatest pieces of advice she gives (we know dogs will appreciate this one) is to allow for his “dogness” which includes occasional rolls in whatever-that-thing is, traipsing through mud puddles, walking off leash when you can, and allowing approaching dogs to smell each other’s rumps.
Horowitz writes “animalness matters”, and suggests that we take the time to learn what makes our dog tick, and adapt to their capacities rather than simply expecting them to adapt to our strange notions of how to be a dog.
How do you let your dog express his dogness?