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Anna Espinola

Widely known for her bestselling book Inside of a Dog, Barnard psychology professor Alexandra Horowitz leads a life that dog lovers everywhere can’t help but envy. Horowitz works with animals—mostly dogs—to gain insight into how they perceive the environment around them, and suggests ways in which we as humans can honor those perceptions. This week, Vanessa Ann Sauter got the chance to sit down with Horowitz to discuss her latest book, her perspective on the humanization of dogs, and her late, now-famous canine companion, Pumpernickel.

You've talked extensively about your late dog, Pumpernickel. She seemed to have greatly added to your understanding of canine cognition, even becoming an integral part of your work. Do you think we can build stronger connections with some dogs more than others? If so, what do you think influences that connection? Is there such a thing as a "dog soulmate”?

The connection is a real physiological response and is kind of foundational. We know that there’s a physiological effect of having that bond, just like, as social creatures, humans need to be around other social creatures. So, I think it’s really important and interesting to dissect it somewhat.

Now, can all people bond with all dogs equally? Not necessarily. … I’d like to think that any dog I met and who I got to spend enough time with, I could bond with equally well. I don’t think the dogs I’ve lived with are the perfect dogs for me. I didn’t try to find the perfect dog for me. When I met my next dogs, I did try to look for things which I was predisposed to like, like looking me in the eyes. I thought it was important that we make that eye contact that we make with each other and not just be distracted and looking at other things, because I like that acknowledgement. “Here’s another sentient creature, she might be important in my universe.” … [Dogs] were all selected by humans, and they all have a tendency to be interested in us. And so that’s a pretty good premise without being obsequious, for a relationship, as long as both of you are kind of actively changing with the other one.

I always cringe when I see someone dressing a dog or walking one in a stroller. I feel like it's so emblematic of this tendency to "over-humanize" them, often without regard for or in ignorance of their nature. I think your work, notably your book Inside of a Dog, has sought to challenge this tendency many of us have to disregard the "canine" in dogs. What do you think made Inside of a Dog such a huge success? Why are humans so fascinated with dogs, and what do you think influences the pattern of "over-humanizing" pets?  

I think it’s a natural tendency to do that. We try to make sense of things we don’t understand by assuming its motives are like our own. With a dog, you potentially have a totally unknown creature, descended from predators, who’s now in your home, and the way we’ve dealt with it is: We’re just going to pretend they’re a little baby. On some level, we’re going to be correct about some of our attributions, and misguided about others, which don’t really matter. And some we might be materially wrong. I think that’s a natural tendency, and I can’t possibly vanquish it from us.

What I did want to do was highlight it and say actually we could look again at these attributions we’ve made and this tendency we have, and look at it from the dog’s point of view, and we might get a different answer to how we should behave. And that’s how I feel about people who dress their dogs inordinately. It’s sometimes they actually haven’t thought about what the experience is for the dog from the dog’s point of view. They’re certainly trying to indulge the dog. The dog must be cold because it’s cold out. But of course, the dog may or may not be cold. Even if they are cold, they may or may not want a jacket pressing against them closely. I think it’s useful to try and take a different point of view. But it only comes from a position of love from the owner’s point of view. We immediately assume they’re like little babies, and then we want to indulge them. How do we indulge our babies? Apparently by feeding them the best food, giving them the spoils of the material world. Of course, it’s obvious, although it somehow isn’t obvious, that that isn’t automatically what dogs want.

Now to your question about the book, it’s completely accidental. And probably anybody who’s had a book that’s sold really well would say, “I had nothing to do with this, really.” You do feel like you write the book you want to write, and then you send it off to college, and it goes out the door and does its own thing. It has its own life. I sort of promote the book, I still talk about the book. It is the content of my research and my thinking, to some extent, so I still embody it, I still inhabit those ideas, but the book is on its own trajectory. That’s the vicissitude of the publishing world—does it get picked up by the right reviewer at the right time, and does it have the right art on the cover, is it in the airport? It’s in the airport bookstore for crying out loud. … People pick it up for totally different reasons than the merits of the book.

Who knows why it’s a bestseller? It’s great and wonderful and so charming to me that it is, and that all these people know Pumpernickel. People come up to me and talk about Pumpernickel, and it’s just fabulous, because she was just this creature who I lived with. I was living by myself for many years in graduate school and before with this dog. And then suddenly she dies, and the world knows about her. It’s bizarre, but also sort of pleasing. … She’s constantly coming back to me as a reminder of how important she was in my life and also in my thinking and science.

What an incredible way to preserve her memory.

It was kind of for her that I wrote the book. It was peppered with little episodes with her, but that’s actually how I dealt with her. I just wrote memories of her every morning, and it allowed me to release the fact that this animal that I’d known the habits of and lived with for seventeen years was now not in my days. I just wrote down those memories, and then those memories wound up being reified in this book. Sometimes when someone loses an animal, you might try and do this religious practice of writing down memories, as those memories are going to be lost if they’re not rehearsed. This is a way of preserving something about that creature or person that you loved.

In a broad sense, what kind of role do dogs fill in our lives? In what way do we find a fulfilling relationship with them?

They are dependent upon us at this point as a species. And so at some level, they’re here because we have a responsibility to them. We made them. As it turns out, we partly made them so that they would satisfy some desire we have to connect with an animal, partly on our own terms, which is what a dog allows us to do. It allows us to have a relationship with a mute, a nonverbal animal, who is importantly different from us, but without there being any threat of violence or concern about the ordinary stuff of the life of a wild animal. That is an important connection. There’s something great about the “otherness” of a wild animal. That’s also why I reject all this humanizing as the obvious way to go. It’s so interesting the ways they’re not human. Their just being a four-legged creature whose nose is to the ground means their universe is so different. We get some access to that through the dog. Wild animals aren’t going to let us pursue them or observe them or interact with them. We get a lot from just touching an animal. From childhood, we want to touch animals. As we like to touch each other, but have a social constraint from doing that all the time. It gives us this outlet for this connection with others, and in particular an animal other, without it being fraught too much.

Of course one thing I’ve always wondered is if dogs can replace human companionship in any way, and it’s something that I’ve routinely thought about with my love for my own dog. I think a lot of other people have this intense affection or love for their pet and are unable to discern whether or not it’s replacing other forms of relationships. What do you think about that?

I think certainly there are things about the relationship with a pet, especially a dog, which stand in for having a relationship with a person. Dogs are less complicated, on some level, because they’re better listeners, they don’t talk back to you, they don’t come with much of their own agenda unless you want to indulge their agenda. They can be just this social presence, like very satisfying, totally nonjudgmental, generous social presence, which is kind of impossible to find in a person. Everyone comes with their own agenda, of course. A dog doesn’t seem to do that. It is, in some ways—in some ways, I want to be very specific about that—an idealized relationship with another. I remember when I lost Pump, it was she who was missing. Not just a dog, not just having someone else around, it was this specific personality that I missed. But I also just missed the fact of having a dog—just the sort of sound of someone else in the apartment, and the demands of someone else, that you have to attend to them. The physical presence of someone else. Some of that is totally overlapping with what it’s like to live with another person.

I don’t want to make any kind of statement, and people talk in kind of ridiculous ways about how a dog is a substitute for a child—or is a good precursor to having a child or relationship. It doesn’t seem to me equivalent at all, but there certainly are these great overlaps if I try to deconstruct what I like about people—sure, it’s a lot about the fact that another person is verbal and has ideas and is going to be surprising in how they act and what they say in delightful ways, at best. That’s all great. But also, it’s just the mere fact of company in the room. Also, it’s that somebody you can touch or bounce off of in a space. It’s someone who can lead you somewhere, as opposed to you having to lead somewhere. I do think it overlaps with what it’s like to have a relationship of any sort, with a friend, a lover, a child. It’s just not equivalent.

I'm also always thinking about how we define a pet. Recently, I feel like there’s been a new wave of exoticizing certain animals and trying to “tame” them, and make them pets. How do you define a pet?

The law defines a pet as an object, an owned object. And that seems to me wrong. But in many ways it represents how we deal with animals, even ones we try to tame, as just something to be manipulated by us. A thing to be manipulated by us in some way, to bring into our home, to ask to do certain things. “Pet” is a hard word, actually I don’t think it’s a bad word, but it really does define that it’s not an animal, it’s not in relation to us.

It’s much more interesting to see how they [animals] live on their own kind. … Even in a zoo, where there are captive animals, we wouldn’t consider them pets, but we’re circumscribing what their life is going to be tremendously, even at the best zoos. It’s not really that animal anymore, it’s like a representation of that animal at that point. You’ve lost something there.

Just to watch an animal for a protracted period of time is a stunning engagement. … Just sit around and watch them—the way they are, without interfering as much as you can. It’s a slow process, but it’s really, really gratifying.

This reminds me of your latest book, which is about slowing down and observing what we see on the streets in New York. We see pigeons and squirrels all the time, but rarely stop to think about what they’re actually doing.

Right. It’s a matter of understanding the context. What is this in the pigeon’s whole life? What are they beginning to do? How are they interacting with those around them? Every street has this very rich context. In terms of architectural history, that’s one vector, or in terms of animate life living there around. You could look at it in terms of some specific thing, like the lettering on the signs or the way people move along the street. There are a lot of little universes that any street affords, and there’s definitely an overlap.

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