Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Smell This: Review of BEING A DOG, Alexandra Horowitz

Alexandra Horowitz
$27.00, hardcover (our price $21.60)

 Alexandra Horowitz is a leading researcher in dog cognition, as proved by her bestselling book INSIDE OF A DOG. But here, she turns the tables and asks not only how dogs’ sense of smell works and why, but how we humans can attain the same level of olfactory expertise. Is it even possible for us, with our puny, downward facing feature, to come close to experiencing a dog’s vast smelly world? And, do we really want to experience such a bombardment of scents, some of which are nauseating to our delicate senses?

With great humor, insight, and obvious devotion to all things canine, Horowitz dives right in, barely hesitating to dip her nose into places where only a dog would go. When she spies her dog over-interested in something, and making the motion of rolling in it, she pulls him away, and studies the remains of a squirrel:

“I must smell it. I bend over. It is not difficult to smell. Sweet and foul together—not the kind of smell that is appropriate for a squirrel who recently was chattering and racing up trees.”

She abstains from rolling in it, but she notes the power the scent of death holds on us. Dogs are drawn to it, but humans are repelled by it. And though it is not difficult to smell, as she says, it is difficult to describe, because it evokes sensations and responses in us that go beyond words.

To a dog, odors are not just interesting, they are floating histories, describing who, what, where and why. An animal was here, where did it go? Is it ill, young, edible, or dangerous? Is it dead? Combined with their sight and hearing, also both exceptional, dogs’ noses provide them with unending entertainment. Imagine how fascinating a walk in the woods must be. It’s like binge-watching TV shows, only more intellectually satisfying.

Horowitz also studies the training of pups to become search and rescue, cancer detectors, and police assistants. For a dog to be able to pick out the scent that the trainer wants to know about amidst so many other distractions floating through the air is humbling, to say the least. All dogs, not just those who are trained, seem to have the ability to smell dying cells, and they are as drawn to that odor as to the dead squirrel in the woods. This ability has led to cancer detection in otherwise seemingly healthy individuals. Such stories are truly amazing and a little terrifying. If your dog seems suddenly interested in a spot of your body, you’d be wise to visit your physician.

Horowitz suggests that we all attempt to join our dogs in the smellfests they enjoy. Following her dictum, I sought to increase my ability to smell the world around me, and to describe what I was detecting. I joined my dogs in the woods, raising my pitifully undersized nose to the air, struggling to sniff out what they were smelling. I did catch a slight hint of skunk, but it waivered and vanished before I could really grasp where it was coming from. Beyond that, I could smell the fall leaves, a kind of brittle, earthy scent. Maybe I was also picking up the odor of fungus. Or maybe it was dead trees. I couldn’t distinguish, and I soon grew tired of sniffing. My dogs, however, never tired of it, and seemed to relish the woods’ abundant news. I’ve never felt so left out.

The plethora of books about animal cognition studies is a gift to animal lovers, because they not only provide some enlightening glimpses into your four-legged companion, they also reveal how very much we have to learn, and how little we truly understand the animals around us. With writers like Alexandra Horowitz assisting us, however, we will inch ever closer to true empathy.

Rated: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

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