In her new book, On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes, Alexandra Horowitz—author of the wildly popular Inside of a Dog—enlists the attention and insights of others to discover more about the neighborhood in which she lives. But when it comes to really getting the inside scoop, who better to turn to than dogs, those “creatures of the nose”?
Bark: What was the inspiration for your new work, On Looking?
Alexandra Horowitz: Dogs, naturally. The book relates a series of walks I took “around the block” in Manhattan with various people whose expertise allows them to see aspects of the ordinary landscape that I might have missed—a geologist, a naturalist, an artist, a sound engineer. I got the idea from taking so, so many walks with my dogs over the years and starting to see what it was that they saw (smelled). Their aesthetic, their way of experiencing the block, rubbed off on me, and eventually, I found a block without trees or fireplugs boring (even if I couldn’t smell their trunks or bases like the dogs did). I was interested in all the different things there are to see on an ordinary walk, so these walks helped me look at a familiar scene with new eyes.
B: In one of the chapters, you “look” as you see your dog does, more by smell than by vision. How were you able to get into a dog’s “nosescape”?
AH: We naturally view dogs’ behaviors as being about what they see: if a dog faces us, we assume that she is looking at us. But if you look closely at dogs’ noses, what they are mostly doing is smelling. Watch a dog sit face into the windwith a boring landscape but her nose is twitching wildly and you’ll see what I mean. All I did on the walk with my dog, Finnegan, was let him lead—and I followed where his nose took us.
B: What did that tell you about a dog’s experience of the walk?
AH: The dog’s perception of a “walk” is radically different than ours! For a dog, the street is not the same each time you step out of the house—it has “evidence” (odors) of all the people, dogs, other animals, passing cars and trash and rainstorms that have happened since you last left the house. And, of course, the elements of the scene that are interesting to a creature of the nose are going to be quite different than those we visual creatures like to look at.
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B: Did you observe other differences in the ways a dog perceives the landscape/environment? For example, in the time it took to do the walk?
AH: We humans tend to walk straight from A to B, not loitering much. For a dog, I think, the ideal walk is non-linear—it is pursuing that scent underfoot into the breeze and around the corner. It’s not an even pace: dogs will walk with us, at our plodding rate, but most would rather rush ahead and then hang back. The interesting things don’t pop up at our pace.
B: Did your dog linger at landmarks, and if so, why do you think he did that?
AH: He did, but the landmarks for him were things like a stoop where (we discovered later) another local dog and his person live; the many, many balusters along a building at our corner, all of which held, presumably, odor-prints of past canid visitors; and an unusual commotion in one building entrance. He didn’t seem that interested in a local Fireman’s Memorial, which is sometimes visited by clutches of tourists, guidebooks in hand.
B: Do you think we can refine our sense of smell by watching our dogs? Perhaps using our sense of smell differently, or doing more sniffing?
AH: I love this question, as it assumes that we might want to smell more. I sense that most people don’t want to, given that, unlike to dogs, we tend to find so many smells unpleasant in various ways. But I have gotten more interested in smelling as information: I walked with a doctor who talked about how many diseases can be diagnosed by smell, though this practice is no longer common. But simply by bringing attention to smell—by bothering to inhale through your nose and think about it—when you’re walking, you can take advantage of the considerable olfactory ability that we already have. There is a surprising lot there. If you don’t want to do this, just watch your dog carefully, and enjoy knowing that she is seeing the world through her nose.