WHEN IT comes to canines, Dr. Alexandra Horowitz does more than just whisper. The Barnard College professor, who has a doctorate in cognitive science from the University of California, San Diego, is a renowned animal behaviorist and New York Times best-selling author with a Fido-centric focus.
Born in Philadelphia but raised elsewhere, Horowitz returned to complete her undergraduate studies at Penn. She'll visit the Academy of Natural Sciences on Sunday to present "From a Dog's Point of Nose," a talk highlighting her lab's latest findings in the fascinating but underexplored field of dog behavior. The talk, which is free with museum admission, will touch on myriad topics - ideas that often strike Horowitz as she's walking her two mixed-breed pooches, Finnegan and Upton. We chatted with her by phone recently.
Q: Dogs are such a huge presence in our lives. How did you land on canines as the specific focus of your behavioral research?
A: I was interested in the question of nonhuman minds. How do you find out what an animal is thinking about? Other people look at primates to try and answer those questions. But when I was a grad student, the behavior that I was interested in, which shows a lot about the minds of animals, was play.
I was looking for a species that did a lot of play. It took me a long time to realize that the dog I was taking out three times a day to go to the dog park was the species. They play into adulthood way more than any species, because they don't have those survival pressures.
Dogs are such interesting cognitive subjects. They're available daily, they're right underfoot and yet they have a lot of surprising things to tell us.
Q: What was your most surprising finding, starting out?
A: What has surprised all scientists is how good they are at social cognitive abilities, which means understanding others, using others to solve problems and really communicating with others. They wind up being really good at understanding, for instance, that information is held in where a person looks or where we're pointing. They're using social others to solve problems.
Q: Why has it taken this long for dogs to be analyzed in this manner?
A: Since they're so familiar to people, people didn't think there was much to learn about. When you have a dog, you feel like you know, more or less, all sorts of stuff about them.
But I also think it was because people got interested in nonhumans for comparative reasons - as in, how do nonhumans do compared to humans on various tasks? Dogs are far removed from us phylogenetically, so they'd be the last place you'd look.
Q: Could this type of research be conducted with cats?
A: Cats are not fully domesticated. They could kind of feralize and just live without humans at all. Dogs have been domesticated the longest, and we're selecting them to be a certain kind of companion. With a cat, it's different things. With a horse, it's different things still. But canids are social animals who live in family packs, making them more conducive to being a member of a family.
Q: Do you develop research topics and hypotheses by just watching dogs do everyday things?
A: I get ideas from my dogs. I have a real, real interest in olfaction - what the world is like if you're an olfactory creature. I'm just trying to extend off what I see them do and create an experiment around it. I also get ideas from how people talk about dogs. We do have a vocabulary for talking about them: "My dog is proud"; "My dog is guilty." We can set up science and test if we were right in our intuitions about this.
Q: Why is smell such a vital part of the canine experience?
A: It's interesting how much smelling can change their entire way of being. They're olfactory creatures, not visual. It's certainly way more nuanced and complex than our olfactory world. What we smell in the world has no resemblance to what they smell. When we're seeing thousands of colors and all this detail and light, that's probably analogous to what they can smell.
Q: That "guilty" look when your dog's caught misbehaving: Are dogs really feeling guilt when they display these traits, or are we too fast to equate human emotions with dogs' expressions?
A: In general, we tend to overattribute [human emotions] to dogs. We think we know more than we have any reason to believe that we know. I'm not saying we don't have some of these emotions with dogs. But if you really look carefully, there's really no good evidence that they're having the same experiences we are.
We misread dogs. Simple things, like a smile on a dog's face . . . we assume that the dog is having the experience we would have if we had a smile on our face. That's just wrong, it's a misread.
Q: You must get approached by curious dog owners all the time.
A: I love talking about dogs. The fact that people are interested in finding out more strikes me as great. Realizing you have this sentient, interesting creature mind in your home. People think about it and want to know more.
In the park, even people I don't know or might not know me come up and say, "My dog's been doing this thing . . . ." It's not like I always have the answer. The dogs know way more than I do.
Q: How can we improve our relationships with dogs?
A: Pay more attention to what they want or need. People just leave their dogs alone for most of the day and then expect the dog to behave perfectly in that time, and also when they come home. It's just a lot to ask of another creature, to realize the dog has their own life. But you're at the center of it, and you're in charge of setting up the world for them. That's really important.
"From a Dog's Point of Nose: Animal Behaviorist Dr. Alexandra Horowitz," Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University, 1900 Benjamin Franklin Parkway., 3 p.m. Sunday, free with museum admission ($15.95 ages 13 and up, $13.95 ages 3-12, free under age 3), 215-299-1000, ansp.org.
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