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Dogs. There are an estimated 800 million of them in the world today, and they occupy a unique position in our society. They share our homes, our yards, and for some of us, even our beds. We love them, we worry when we leave them, we feed them, we walk them, but who are they really? What is it like to be a dog? Renowned dog cognition expert and psychology professor Alexandra Horowitz believes the tendency to answer those questions from a strictly human perspective misses a profound opportunity.
In her March 2018 New York Times opinion piece entitled “Is this Dog Actually Happy?” Horowitz urges dog lovers to refrain from perceiving their canine companions as “quadruped” versions of human beings. She makes a case that as beloved by and attuned to people as they can be, their experience of the world is distinct, mysterious, and worthy of respect and understanding.
Investigating the thought processes and behaviors of dogs has been at the center of Horowitz’s research, teaching, and — as evidenced by her opinion pieces and bestselling books — deepest concerns. Her discoveries have helped to elucidate the mysteries behind those wagging tails, floppy ears, and searching eyes. So much of what makes a dog a dog stems from their noses and their highly sensitive and powerful olfactory receptors, their sense of smell.
“I am fascinated by olfaction, which is so keen in dogs and thus makes up a large part of their experience. It’s challenging and interesting to study what they know or think through smell since we visual creatures don’t have great olfactory imaginations,” says Horowitz.
At the Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard, she and her team, which includes as many as 10 Barnard student researchers and a lab manager, have devised methods to leverage this olfactory imperative to dive into the psyche of a dog. They are currently studying whether smells can be paired with positive experiences such that the smell brings about an associated positive state of mind. (The lab is funded by a generous gift from April Benson ‘73.)
“If so, people could potentially use those smells as anxiolytics [anxiety relievers] to help dogs in stressful or anxiety-provoking situations,” says Horowitz. In another study, the lab is exploring the dog-owner relationship and whether different enrichment toys have different effects on dogs’ general well-being.
The lab also serves as a training ground for aspiring researchers. Carol Arellano ’23 began working with Horowitz during her sophomore year. “Since starting my work with the lab, my perspective on how dogs perceive the world has definitely changed,” says Arellano. “I’ve learned to isolate my human biases from my observations and adopt an entirely new perspective when considering how dogs experience and engage with the world.”
Among Horowitz’s earlier findings are those that have debunked beliefs about how dogs think and feel. For example, many owners tend to believe when their dogs cower and tuck their tails between their legs, they are feeling guilty for breaking a rule. Her study, however, on this behavior found that dogs will cower in this manner even if they haven’t broken a rule but rather if they anticipate being scolded. “The guilty look can be seen as a response to the cues that an angry owner gives to their dogs rather than the product of guilt,” explains Arellano.
Kelly Chan is a lab manager. “Alexandra has this great dynamic in the lab rooms,” says Chan. “She lets you design your own studies and work in the group.” This can be a creative and intellectual challenge. “Since we cannot measure a dog’s response and behavior in the sense we can with humans, we need to be sure we are designing [the studies] properly and running statistical analysis. It’s the best of both worlds: creativity and science.”
What brought Horowitz to study dog cognition? It wasn’t a focus of her early life. Having grown up in the foothills of Colorado, she wasn’t even especially interested in the sciences. She was drawn to philosophy, and that became her focus in college. It was in graduate school at the University of California, San Diego, that she became compelled by nonhuman animal minds and how they work. Scientific questions about what other animals know, perceive, and understand — and how we can find out — fascinated her.
“I believed that ethology, studying animal behavior in their natural environment, was the most promising method — and I thought play behavior was a promising means of entry,” says Horowitz. That idea led her to notice the most ubiquitous of nonhumans, dogs. A bonus: they happen to play all the time and right before our eyes.
“While big-brained animals like chimps and dolphins were popular research subjects, no one at the time — at my school, or anywhere, as far as I knew — was studying the dog mind. But I found a biologist who looked at canine behavior who could guide me, and I had a very open-minded dissertation committee, and so I began a study of the evidence for the theory of mind in the dyadic play of dogs,” says Horowitz, who found herself on the leading edge of the first wave of dog cognition research. As such, the field was wide open for discovery.
“I became interested both in the perceptual abilities of dogs — how they see the world through olfaction — and, completely separately, in the anthropomorphisms we make of dogs in our relationships with them. And of course, I still study play and am impressed by the skill with which they play with not just dogs but people and even other species.”
We share this planet with nonhuman animals: We own them, use them, live with them, eat them. I think it’s important on a basic level to know about them, to understand their abilities and capacities.
Along the way of a career trajectory that continues to ascend, Horowitz has authored several books. Among them are the #1 New York Times bestseller Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know; Being a Dog: Following the Dog Into a World of Smell; and Our Dogs, Ourselves: The Story of a Singular Bond. Her newest book, The Year of the Puppy: How Dogs Become Themselves — which has been widely covered in the press, including The New Yorker and The New York Times — is a scientific memoir tracing the critical early development of her family dog Quiddity’s first year of life.
For Horowitz, there’s unequivocal value in really understanding dogs and giving their unique sensibilities respect: “We share this planet with nonhuman animals: We own them, use them, live with them, eat them. I think it’s important on a basic level to know about them, to understand their abilities and capacities.”
Her advice to those who want to know more about the canine in their life is simple: Observe them.
“If you look at the dog in front of you and try to imagine them as an unknown, alien creature, instead of making assumptions about everything you think you know about that dog — what they’re like, what they want, who they like or don’t like — you begin to see what their actual behavior is.”
And above all, she adds, “as we see the world, your dog smells it. Let them sniff that thing, sniff you, sniff each other. It’s their way of knowing about the world.