Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know: What Dogs Think and Know


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Review by Tiffani Howell

Inside of a Dog is a book written by an ethologist and dog cognition researcher, but her book is highly readable. Although it delves into the latest science behind our understanding of the dog’s umwelt, she really takes care to explain what umwelt actually means*, and writes in a way that is easily digested by any interested lay reader.

This book will give you a brief run-down of science’s rapidly evolving insights into dog behaviour, interspersed with short anecdotes about her lifewith Pumpernickel, her dog. Some of these are humorous, and others are poignant, but all give the reader a sense of the importance she placed on her relationship with Pump. Horowitz also gives small snippets of advice along the way, to help the reader understand what their dog really wants. All of these things together create a book that is fun to read and gives the reader a clear idea of how differently humans and dogs perceive their world.

The biggest criticism that I have of this book is that it may not go quite far enough in any of these senses. It was great to learn about what dogs are doing in laboratories throughout the world, but she was not as in-depth in her evidence-based explanations of dog behaviour as Adam Miklosi is in his book, Dog Behaviour, Evolution, and Cognition. If you want a more textbook-style approach to recent dog research, you would be better off with Miklosi’s book. Furthermore, the anecdotes about her relationship with Pump also leave me wanting to know more. If you want a book about a particular relationship between dog and human, get Marley and Me by John Grogan. Finally, the suggestions about how to create a harmonious home for your dog, and letting him live his life to the fullest, are hardly comprehensive, either. A training book like Jean Donaldson’s The Culture Clash gives far more training advice while still considering the dog’s point of view.

So, there are books that do each of these aspects better than Inside of a Dog, but where Horowitz excels is in synthesizing all this material in a new way. For instance, she spends a large chapter discussing how a dog will use his nose in ways that humans can scarcely conceptualize, such as detecting cancers in humans. Later in the book, she describes different types of walks, such as walks where Pump would choose the direction, or walks where Pump was allowed to wander all over the sidewalk on her leash instead of heeling next to Horowitz. Another walk was a ‘smell walk’, in which Pump was allowed to sniff anything she wanted to, for as long as she wanted to. Her advice was to try this with your own dog. So, she used the three common themes of her book (science, Pumpernickel anecdotes, and training advice) to tell an interesting story about what she did with her dog and why you should do it with your dog.

Incidentally, I decided that I would try this with my dog, but we had considerably less success than Horowitz and Pump appear to have had: when Silver stopped for a long time to sniff something without me eventually pulling her away, she invariably proceeded to eat old chicken bones, cat poo, used napkins, or whatever other disgusting items were waiting just underneath the ground cover. Oh well. Not every piece of advice is suitable for every person and their dog.

To conclude, Inside of a Dog is a fun book that gives a quick overview of the science behind our understanding of dog behaviour and training. It will give you pause to think about how dogs perceive the world differently than we do, and indeed it gives a great explanation of how a dog’s vision compares to human vision. It also highlights her relationship with her dog, and gives a few training tips which should be taken with a grain of salt. Although each of these three elements individually are not as comprehensive as other books dedicated solely to them, when put together in Horowitz’s book, they all work together to create an informative but easy read.

*umwelt (pronounced OOM-velt) is the way all the senses interact to create a person or animal’s perception of the world around him.


Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell and Know: What Dogs Think and Know

Alexandra Horowitz

Review by Alison Lever

Alexandra Horowitz teaches canine cognition at Columbia University, and has researched cognition in a range of animals, including bonobos, as well as dogs. ‘Inside of a Dog’ is a useful introduction to canine cognition and perception for people who find more academic books on the subject hard-going.  The subtitle is ‘what dogs see, smell and know’. Horowitz tries to portray the world from a dog’s point of view, drawing on current research, her own observations,  and her personal experiences with her own dog, Pumpernickel.

It’s certainly useful to take readers out of human heads, and try to portray the world from the perceptions of a dog. Dogs see, smell and hear differently from us, and they understand the world in a different way. It’s also clear how fond the author is of her dog, so for some people this book has feel-good appeal, as well as providing insights into what it’s like to be a dog.  However trying to use a unique relationship between one human and one dog as a vehicle for saying something about all human-dog relationships does have certain drawbacks. Some of the sense of who Pumpernickel is disappears. We learn little about what makes her special, except that she’s the author’s dog. Csanyi, who also wrote about canine cognition, did a much better job of sketching the personalities of his two dogs, who emerged as fully rounded characters (1).

Humans and dogs vary enormously in personality, for example, individuals may be prone to acting on impulse, or be cautious. They may be pushy and pay little attention to others, or be very sensitive to those around them. However you classify personality types, it’s clear that individual people and dogs differ.  These differences mean that if you want to communicate, you need to pitch your message to the dog or human you want to get through to.  Horowitz argues against punishment, because it might lead to fearfulness. Instead, she favours ignoring unwanted behaviour and rewarding desired behaviour (p69).  She also argues for understanding the dog’s point of view, for example, dogs jump up because we and our faces are too far away (p319). It’s certainly true that sensitive dogs need reassurance, and can become fearful if you use a harsh tone of voice.  It’s also true, however, that if you’re afraid to set boundaries with a pushy, thick-skinned dog, you risk encouraging brattish behaviour, a point that Patricia McConnell makes well in ‘The Other End of the Leash’..

The concept of punishment that Horowitz uses is in any case confusing, since, for a dog that wants attention, being ignored is a sort of punishment. Horowitz is using a behaviourist model, distinguishing positive punishment (adding something to stop a behaviour) from negative punishment (taking something away, your attention, to stop unwanted behaviour).  When she talks about ‘punishment’, her focus is on ‘positive punishment’. This isn’t clearly explained. 

Horowitz´s behaviourist approach to training also fits uneasily with her general approach to how dogs understand the world, which is cognitive. A cognitive approach looks at what’s inside a dog’s head, while behaviourists focus on observed behaviour. Who’s to say, for example, that a ‘chsst’ to stop an unwanted behaviour , feels more unpleasant to the dog than ‘I’m not going to talk to you because you’re being naughty’.  Indeed, it can be reassuring for both humans and dogs, as social animals to know what we’re not meant to do in any particular social group. Sometimes dogs and humans suffer when we’re ignored, but we don’t have the information that we need to know what it is we’re doing wrong. Interrupting unwanted behaviour , then telling the dog to do something easy, like a recall, followed by a reward, like a cuddle, can make it easier for a dog to understand what the rules are.

A cognitive approach to training takes into account the nature and motivations of the animal. Dogs, like us, are social animals, so we’re able to understand social rules, even if we don’t always want to abide by them. One way that young dogs and children learn about rules is from observing us. If we greet strangers politely, for example, we’re teaching our companions how it’s done. Dogs are also sensitive to how we feel about other people, so if we give a cheery good morning to a passer by, and feel friendlier ourselves as a result of this, our dogs are likely to feel friendlier towards the stranger than if we pass by with a scowl! Dogs are also able to observe and imitate one another, and humans. Claudia Fugazza has written a short book on a training method, ‘Do As I Do’, that relies on using  this ability (3).

Horowitz is certainly right to point out that training is about more than teaching dogs to obey commands, it’s about influencing how dogs behave, and to do this, as she says, it’s useful to see the world from the dog’s perspective. A connection she doesn’t make, however, is that teaching a dog to obey commands can help the dog make the right choices. Teaching a simple sit and stay, for example, and using it when visitors come, can help a dog learn to greet visitors politely. Training helps dogs learn to cope with the world, and coping with the world includes behaving in a mannerly way. For dogs from breeds that people often find scary, being mannerly is especially important, because if they seriously scare someone, their lives are at risk. Training also makes it more fun to be with our dogs, because we can trust them more. When we can trust dogs to behave well on the basics, our relationships with them can deepen to include mutual respect as well as affection.

Horowitz is an academic researcher, rather than someone with a lot of practical experience with dogs, and the strengths and weaknesses of this book reflect this.  ‘Inside of a Dog’ is well worth reading for the accounts of research, such as Horowitz’s own work on canine play.  In contrast, she’s out of her depth when she starts to generalize about training. You’d have to own a small, cute-looking dog to say ‘When ‘come here’ has been learnt, a good argument can be made that there is little else by way of commands that an ordinary dog needs to know’ as she does on p319.  She forgets that ‘ordinary dogs’ come in all shapes and sizes. Owners need greater control of larger dogs because they tend to be scarier for people who are small or frail, and big dogs are more likely to knock someone over. A toolbox of commands gives owners more control to stop problems before they escalate.

Perhaps Horowitz perceives training in terms of commands, and trying to impose military discipline, whereas her goal is a more nurturing, ‘parenting’ role. Yet parents have to teach their children good habits and ‘coping skills’, such as self-control and good manners. Parents can use more complex language structures than simple imperatives, such as a ‘wait’ before crossing a road. We have to keep our language simpler for dogs, who after all are learning the language of another species. Horowitz is certainly right to raise the question of why we train, but misguided to suggest that training isn’t important.

Because Horowitz doesn’t really ‘get’ training, professional trainers and owners of large, bouncy dogs may find parts of this book very irritating. People interested in an easy-to-read account of canine cognition will find a more coherent approach in Brian Hare’s ‘Genius of Dogs’ (4). Even so, it’s worth persevering with’ Inside of a Dog’, for the parts where the author is on firm ground, and conveys her enthusiasm  and sense of wonder about what it’s like to be a dog, and the complexity of how dogs relate to one another and to us .


Thank you to Tiffani Howell for comments on an earlier draft of this review


(1) Csanyi, Vilmos (2006)  If Dogs Could Talk: Exploring the Canine Mind. Sutton Publishing

(2) McConnell, Patricia (2002) The Other End of the Leash. Ballantine Books

3) Fugazza, Claudia (2014) Do As I Do: Using social learning to train dogs. Dogwise Publishing

(4) Hare, Brian and Vanessa Woods (2014) The Genius of Dogs. Oneworld Publications