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Culture: DogPatch
Q&A With Alexandra Horowitz, Author of Being a Dog
Alexandra Horowitz along with dogs Finnegan and Upton.

Any time Alexandra Horowitz releases a new book is cause for celebration here at Bark. We’ve been fans since her 2009 hit, Inside of a Dog, and have continued to follow her work as she uncovers new insights into our co-pilots’ internal lives and external behaviors.

In addition to teaching psychology, canine cognition and creative non-fiction at Barnard College, Columbia University, she also leads the college’s Dog Cognition Lab.

Her new book, Being a Dog, delves deeply into the primacy of dogs’ sense of smell, and we talk with her about what she found.

Bark: Has anyone studied why some dogs are better at smelling than others —is it genetic or is it drive?

Alexandra Horowitz: Everything I’ve seen points to drive being the major indicator of whether a dog will be good as a detection dog: drive to find the odor, to keep working when frustrated, to get to the reward (like a game with a tug toy) at the episode’s end.

This is not to say that breed is irrelevant: some breeds are naturally more driven to pursue an odor relentlessly, or are driven to do whatever it takes to get a game of toss with a tennis ball. And some dogs—like Bloodhounds and Beagles—have more olfactory cells in their noses and more equipment around their faces (long ears, drooly jowls) to help bring odors up the nose. They may smell odors at lower levels.

Curiously, though, the notion that certain breeds are inevitably better at detection work than others hasn’t been borne out. It’s tradition more than science.

B: I was once told by a woman who handles tracking Coon Hounds that dogs can show a preference for how they scent; talking about the same breed, she said some sniff the ground, while others prefer sniffing the air. Have you observed individual differences in the same breed in your research?

AH: Absolutely. Different dogs have different sniffing tactics; “on the air” or “on the ground” are the two ways dogs try to pursue a scent. Often, though, these are distinguished by task, not by dog—that is, if a dog is tracking a distant (old) scent, on the ground makes more sense; the odor is probably no longer in the air. But a dog trying to locate someone/something who has recently passed by will be air-scenting.

B: Can adult dogs can identify their littermates or their mother by smell?

AH: In theory, this would be trivially easy for dogs. All dogs have their own “signature scents” (as do we, to dogs), so there would be no trouble distinguishing dogs of one’s litter from other dogs. Now, the question of whether an adult dog who has been separated for years from her littermates/family can recognize them is a different question: it’s more about memory than about perceptual ability. Memory is fallible in humans, and it is fallible in dogs. We forget. So it’s quite possible that, even having known one’s family by scent, it would be later forgotten. (But there is also good reason to believe that a trace would remain—that distant memory one cannot quite place.)

B: While you note in your new book that puppies at the Working Dog Center at the University of Pennsylvania aren’t formally trained until a certain age, they do receive some kind of training, right?

AH: Yes, they are being “trained” to some degree: I think Dr. Otto and the Penn Working Dog Center trainers would agree when I say they are being trained to be good general-purpose working dogs. As I describe in my book, I saw dogs being put through their paces in lots of different (what were to them) games: find the missing person, find the hidden scent. They are being exposed to unusual sounds and environments and getting acclimated to them. They are learning the skills of detecting something, working with someone, and loving it. And they do.

B: Do working dogs get nose fatigue— do they reach a point at which they can no longer reliably follow a scent? If so, what do the pros do to work around that?

AH: The phenomenon of the nose no longer noticing an odor—adaptation —happens to us within minutes. Walk into a coffee shop, take in its familiar odors and a few minutes later, you might smell … almost nothing. The receptor cells in the nose that noticed the odor simply stopped responding after continued exposure.

The cells in the dog’s nose work similarly, but any dog employed as a detection dog is doing something different. Because they continue to sniff different areas of the odor “scene,” their noses won’t turn off to the smell. Tracking dogs are also known to simply lift their noses from the ground once in a while and sniff the air, as though to clear their noses.

On the other hand, working dogs certainly get fatigued from too much stimulation and too much exertion. Handlers know their dogs and will read their dogs’ responses to know when they need a break.

B: In the book K9 Scent Training by Resi Gerritsen and Ruud Haak (leading specialists in identification, tracking and detection-dogs), I read that female dogs are better at smelling than males. Did this also come up in your research? Any idea if the same can be said for our species?

AH: Gerritsen and Haak are great resources on detection-dog training and skills. I suspect their assessment comes directly from their own and other trainers’ experience with dogs. I don’t doubt it, though I don’t believe that the question has been formally tested. Interestingly, women are often said to be “better smellers” than men, and research does bear this out (on average, of course).

B: I’m quite curious about the canine visual sense vis-à-vis their olfactory sense, especially for dogs of the sporting breed. When our Wirehaired Pointer is out in the field, she seems to rely primarily on her sense of smell; sometimes a rabbit’s been sitting just a few feet from her, but she doesn’t see it, or even seem to smell it. Is it “I can’t smell it so I don’t see it”?

AH: As with us, dogs’ senses work together. Only for dogs, olfaction takes priority. From that point of view, you can imagine how vision might aid smelling: if a dog detects an odor on the breeze, she can then look up and try to locate, with her eyes, the source of that odor (and then head toward it for closer sniffing!). When I watched the dogs at the Penn Working Dog Center do a “person search” for people hidden in large PVC barrels in a large field, the dogs used vision to guide them while smelling: first, they followed their eyes to head toward the barrels, then followed their noses to identify which one held a person.

A dog who is sniffing in the grass to a hidden ball (or rabbit) that is perfectly “visible” to someone else nearby is simply using olfaction first. By sniffing in the whole area around the hidden object, she creates an on-the-fl y map of where the object is; the closer she gets, the stronger the odor is. Sometimes, dogs rely on that much longer than we would expect before bringing fuller attention to what they see to aid their search.

B: I’m trying to train one of my dogs, Charlie, to find the poop of his housemate Kit while we’re out in the park; he’s actually pretty good at it. I started doing this after I noticed that he likes to pee on her fresh poop, and only on hers. How would you recommend I boost his proficiency level? And why the peeing on it?

AH: “Find poop!” Great game. And lots of dogs would be pretty good at it. Since Charlie started doing this behavior on his own, clearly little shaping was needed. The only task is pairing it with a request (like “find poop”) and making him aware that what he’s doing—which to him is “following that interesting smell”—is something that’s also valuable to you, so he’ll do it whenever you ask. If he’s not doing it reliably, then he doesn’t see its value to you. Better rewards! More reliable rewards! (But you and every good behavior reader know that.) And, taking a cue from working-dog handlers, you could pair an “alert” behavior—sitting, barking and so forth—so that he tells you when he’s found it.

What I learned from Sam Wasser, who trains dogs to find wildlife scat, is that what’s often difficult in training in the field (and you’re always “in the field”!) is to know yourself if the dog has alerted on the right scat. Once they are confident of their dogs’ alert, and don’t accept partial alerts, handlers can reward only for the correct scat.

As for his peeing on the poo, that’s a question I don’t think science has directly tackled. But we know that marking isn’t territorial in dogs; it seems to be information-leaving. It could be that a nice pile of stinky poo is a good place to leave your own mark.

B: Besides enrolling our dogs in nosework classes, what do you recommend that we do to tap into their world of smell and enrich their lives?

AH: Let them smell. If you live with a dog, start thinking about what the world is like from an olfactory point of view. Let them smell you (you are your scent, to your dog), let them smell each other (that’s how they find out who it is), and let them smell the world. Take walks for smelling (not just for peeing, or for exercise). The pleasure that comes from watching a dog snuffling down a path, nose to the ground and nose in the air, guided by nothing more than the filaments of odors that come his way, is to me unmatched.

Culture: Reviews
Book Review: What Is a Dog?
What Is a Dog? By Raymond and Lorna Coppinger (University of Chicago Press)

To Raymond and Lorna Coppinger and their chief hagiographer at the New York Times, James Gorman, who wrote a fawning profile of the pair recently, the vast majority of the world’s 1-billion dogs all look alike because they have evolved to fill the ecological niche of village dump-diver or biological garbage disposal. Like all of Raymond Coppinger’s books, many of them co-authored, What Is a Dog? is a reductionist work of illogic that relies on simplistic scientific arguments and pre sent ism, manifest here in the assumption that the present circumstances of street dogs or village dogs have always been thus. The argument is grounded in Ray Coppinger’s belief that dogs cannot possibly have evolved from gray wolves because they look nothing like large northern wolves who feed on caribou, moose and other large animals. Were he to compare those 30-pound street dogs to the small desert wolf, he might find something different.

At the base of this book lies the Coppingers’ notion—wrong in all regards—that dogs are a species unto themselves and began to appear some 7,000 years ago, a time coincident with the first dog burials. The first dog burials in the archaeological record date to 12,000 or more years ago. The Coppingers also misrepresent or ignore evidence that dogs evolved from a gray wolf, most likely a now extinct subspecies, and continued to crossbreed for thousands of years with wolves who arose about the same time dogs did. Genes flowed from wolves to dogs and dogs to wolves. In some parts of the world, the crossbreeding continues. In the Caucasus, for example, wolves and livestock-guarding dogs are still interbreeding.

The Coppingers take what can only be described as an ahistorical view of the dog-human relationship. They seem to believe it has always resembled the current model of the dog occupying the niche of garbage disposal and occasional early warning system for incoming human or nonhuman predators. Some attention is paid to the system of transhumance—the seasonal movement of sheep between mountain and lowland pastures—but nearly nothing is said about other historic and traditional uses of dogs in particular cultures. Having spent most of their book arguing that 85 percent of the world’s 1-billion dogs are street/village dogs—the rest being human-created purebreds or their crosses—that all look the same and occupy the same niche, the Coppingers leave themselves little room for a serious discussion of just who dogs are.

Culture: DogPatch
Book Review: Heal - The Vital Role of Dogs in the Search for Cancer Cures
 Heal Book Cover by Arlene Weintraub ECW Press

After losing her sister to gastric cancer, Arlene Weintraub—science writer, investigative reporter and lifelong dog lover—embarked on a two-year personal and professional journey, delving deeply into the world of comparative oncology. During that time, she visited eight universities and interviewed scientists, medical doctors, veterinarians, researchers, professors and dog owners.

Comparative oncology is a research initiative that recruits dogs with cancer to generate new and improved treatments for humans and their canine best friends. As Weintraub notes, “Genetically speaking, our canine companions are more closely related to us than we realize.” Comparable to those who take part in human clinical trials, the dogs in these studies have few options; standard treatments are too costly and/or do not work, which ultimately leads their owners to seek out experimental drug trials. Also like humans, the lucky ones have years added to their lives, while others do not fare as well.

Weintraub begins her research with 206 dogs who participated in a 2001 medical trial in search of an approved product to treat cancer in canines. As a result of these trials, Palladia, a groundbreaking first-ever drug, was accepted by the FDA for use in the treatment of canine mast cell tumors. Based upon these successful studies, the drug Sutent was later developed to shrink a broad spectrum of mast cell tumors in humans, with the potential for long-term survival. In subsequent chapters, Weintraub describes other success stories. The efficacy of the trials, the cutting-edge treatments and the people involved are well documented.

Her interviews are up close and personal. We come to understand the struggle involved in getting a drug tested and approved, as well as the personal agony of people who are facing the loss of their much-loved companion animals. Behind the data is a bigger question: how far will we, as pet owners, go to have more time with our dogs and cats? And at what cost emotionally?

At every turn, Weintraub shows us the correlation between human and animal healing, and weaves in the story of her own healing from the loss of her sister. The dogs she encounters during her research become her comfort, restoring her faith in science as they pave the way to unlocking cancer’s mysteries and, ultimately, making it a less frightening diagnosis.

Culture: Reviews
Book Review: The Underdogs and The Dog Merchants
New Points of View of Shelter Dogs
Book Cover for Review of The Underdogs (Greene) and The Dog Merchants (Kavin)

Two new books, both well-investigated works, merit your attention. The Underdogs by Melissa Fay Greene is a fascinating, absorbing and inspirational read about the power of love to help those in need, while The Dog Merchants by Kim Kavin introduces an out-of-thebox idea involving a rating system that just might change how we get our dogs. Both are out just in time to make it to the top of your summer must-read list.

Greene’s book is an examination of the power of the bond between dogs and children with disabilities, but its purview extends much further. The two-time National Book Award nominee interweaves personal stories of children, their families and a few unforgettable dogs with current research and scientific findings on the cognitive and emotional lives of dogs and the human/ canine bond. The main story revolves around a remarkable woman, Karen Shirk, and the service dog academy, 4 Paws for Ability, that she founded in 1998. It was the first organization to train skilled service dogs with public access for young children.

We learn how Shirk’s own experience —developing myasthenia gravis as a young adult and being saved by a dog —motivated and inspired her to become a leading advocate for service dogs for young children with disabilities. 4 Paws trains dogs for highly specialized work, including seizure alert, mobility assistance and autism assistance; the goal is to never exclude a child “because a disability did not fit in a box.”

Greene profiles some of the families who have been benefited profoundly by graduates of this program; their compelling and uplifting stories pull on your heartstrings. Just how this connection between a dog and a child is established, and what motivates dogs to bond so deeply to their young charges speaks volumes for the intensity of crossspecies attachment.

Some of these dogs are truly are underdogs, adopted from shelters and trained in a nearby prison-based program. In a chapter called “Prison Dogs,” we have a good example of how adroitly Greene blends congruent storylines— those of the families and their children with, in this case, stories of the importance of the dogs to the inmates, along with overviews of research into “why humans feel happier in the presence of dogs.” Greene is a gifted and caring storyteller, and she gives her subjects the intelligence and warmth they deserve. This all makes for absorbing, pleasurable and inspirational reading.

In Kavin’s Dog Merchants, subtitled Inside the Big Business of Breeders, Pet Stores and Rescuers, she investigates the various channels through which dogs are purchased—keeping in mind that there are differences of scale between those who broker commercial puppy sales and those who provide shelter/rescue adoptions. Both, however, involve financial transactions. Her basic premise is that we as buyers need to be aware of our marketplace choices. Through crowdsourcing our views, she says, we might be able to make a difference. “We need to be conscious consumers when it comes to our dogs. None of us likes to think of our beloved dog as a product, but legally and financially, that is what dogs are.”

In the first half of the book, she takes us behind the scenes of the commercial dog world, from dog auctions to dog shows like Westminster (of which she is no great fan), breeders and the largescale brokers who provide overpriced puppies to pet stores. The second half focuses on rescuers and shelters, and what makes some of them more successful than others. The book also has a very useful chapter with questions that ought to be asked of breeders or shelters before getting a dog.

Kavin has developed a companion website, dogmerchants.com, that has listings for thousands of breeders and rescuers/shelters, and is now taking reviews and your suggestions. Might this change the way dogs are marketed? Will negative reviews actually expose those breeders or other “dog merchants” and have an impact on the way they do business? Will it hold them to account? Will it promote those who receive positive reviews? Kavin is definitely putting a lot of effort into weeding out the bad and “making the world a better place for dogs.” We can only hope that this works. While we might have questions about how the comments on the site are being vetted, we do applaud her for both it and her book.

See our Q&A with Kavin and read an excerpt from Dog Merchants, plus read an excerpt from The Underdogs.

Culture: Reviews
Book Review: What Is a Dog?
(University of Chicago Press)
What is A Dog? Book Review Raymond Coppinger (Author), Lorna Coppinger (Author)

To Raymond and Lorna Coppinger and their chief hagiographer at the New York Times, James Gorman, who wrote a fawning profile of the pair recently, the vast majority of the world’s 1-billion dogs all look alike because they have evolved to fill the ecological niche of village dump-diver or biological garbage disposal. Like all of Raymond Coppinger’s books, many of them co-authored, What Is a Dog? is a reductionist work of illogic that relies on simplistic scientific arguments and pre sent ism, manifest here in the assumption that the present circumstances of street dogs or village dogs have always been thus. The argument is grounded in Ray Coppinger’s belief that dogs cannot possibly have evolved from gray wolves because they look nothing like large northern wolves who feed on caribou, moose and other large animals. Were he to compare those 30-pound street dogs to the small desert wolf, he might find something different.

At the base of this book lies the Coppingers’ notion—wrong in all regards—that dogs are a species unto themselves and began to appear some 7,000 years ago, a time coincident with the first dog burials. The first dog burials in the archaeological record date to 12,000 or more years ago. The Coppingers also misrepresent or ignore evidence that dogs evolved from a gray wolf, most likely a now extinct subspecies, and continued to crossbreed for thousands of years with wolves who arose about the same time dogs did. Genes flowed from wolves to dogs and dogs to wolves. In some parts of the world, the crossbreeding continues. In the Caucasus, for example, wolves and livestock-guarding dogs are still interbreeding.

The Coppingers take what can only be described as an ahistorical view of the dog-human relationship. They seem to believe it has always resembled the current model of the dog occupying the niche of garbage disposal and occasional early warning system for incoming human or nonhuman predators. Some attention is paid to the system of transhumance—the seasonal movement of sheep between mountain and lowland pastures—but nearly nothing is said about other historic and traditional uses of dogs in particular cultures. Having spent most of their book arguing that 85 percent of the world’s 1-billion dogs are street/village dogs—the rest being human-created purebreds or their crosses—that all look the same and occupy the same niche, the Coppingers leave themselves little room for a serious discussion of just who dogs are.

Culture: Reviews
Book Review: Zen and the Art of Dog Walking

A quie t and moving ref lect ion on t he transformative relationship we have with our dogs. A walk around a country lake/ holds our attention/an abandoned pup is found by a young son/a family grows/ adventures begin/walking/reflections. Bo and his man/so much to discover. A delightful “cathartic” experience with photos that draw the reader in, inspiring our thoughts too. This is a special book that dog lovers will appreciate.

Culture: Reviews
Two Dogs and a Parrot

This small volume of “lessons” and ref lections is written by a Benedictine nun who loves and appreciates animals. In it, she illuminates the signif icance that dogs and other pets have had in her life. Each chapter begins with a story of what an animal did to inspire qualities such as acceptance, purpose, enjoyment, empathy and diversity (plus many others). Each vignette is followed by a consideration of the importance those qualities should have in our lives. Not surprisingly, the book is constructed much like a sermon, but one that’s offered with a very tender, and at times humorous, tone.

In her introduction, she relates how “spiritually profound” she finds the question of “what it means to be entrusted with nature, to live with a pet.” She also notes that there are two creation stories in Genesis. The more widely known suggests that humans were assigned “dominion” over other living creatures and nature. The other, she points out, tells us that animals were brought to Adam to be named; her take on this may differ from what many others have interpreted as having “power over them.”

The second creation story is actually older than the first, and Chittister construes it more generously—she feels that to name “is an act of relationship, not dominance.” She also makes the important point that if we look at a creation story as a relationship tale, it “inserts us into the animal world and animals into ours—with everything that implies about interdependence.” The book goes on to illustrate this perfectly. You don’t need to be spiritually inclined to find significance in it and to take inspiration from it.

Culture: Reviews
Book Review: Killing Trail

Foiling drug trafficking in Colorado’s high country keeps Deputy Mattie Lou Cobb and Robo, her K9 partner, on the run. But when Robo alerts to another, more ominous, scent—the remains of a teenage girl— the stakes get higher. The tightly plotted puzzle, which also involves a local vet, his daughter and a town’s dark secrets, scrolls out from there. Mizushima not only has a deft touch with dialogue, she’s also done her homework on the training and handling of law-enforcement dogs. This debut novel, with its bright, dedicated human and canine protagonists, is a promising first entry in what we hope becomes a series.

Culture: Reviews
Book Review: Sire and Damn

We always welcome a new work from Susan Conant, one of the founding “dams” (along with Carol Lea Benjamin) of the dog mystery subgenre. A lover of all dogs, but with a special fondness for Malamutes, Conant has written another intriguing tale full of dogs, wit and keen insights into the foibles and follies of human behavior. Holly Winter’s good friend is getting married, and amid the hubbub and multitudes of visiting relatives, the bride’s dog is stolen. Not only that, a burglar is killed and a service dog might be next on the hit list. But as always, Holly and her fearless Rowdy not only solve the crime, they also prevent another from happening.

Culture: Reviews
Book Review: Considerations for the City Dog

One would expect that a Boston-based, certified dog trainer’s first book would be about training a dog for city life, but McGrath’s is not a training guide. Instead, she explores bigger and broader subjects: how to be a responsible urban dog person and how to ensure that our relationships with our dogs are successful and fulfilling. She takes on subjects like breaches in dog-owner etiquette and other societal challenges that normally don’t come up in basic training class. We owe it to our dogs to read this resource-rich, highly informative handbook. As McCue-McGrath reminds us, we need to “know where they are coming from and what they need, and how to make their lives better,” which includes living in harmony with others in our communities.

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