Q&A with Alexandra Horowitz

Bark editor-in-chief Claudia Kawczynska in conversation with one of dogdom’s groundbreaking authors and researchers
By Claudia Kawczynska, October 2019
Alexandra Horowitz - Our Dogs Ourselves

Bark: One of the themes in your new book, Our Dogs, Ourselves, is what you call the contradictory ways we live with dogs. What do you attribute that to?

Alexandra Horowitz: I do see a lot of contradiction in how we live with dogs. While some things have changed in the last decade or so, most of this contradiction has been with us from the get-go, only varying a little in content. Ten thousand years ago, we weren’t buying clothing (property) for our dogs (who are also property), as we are now. But those ancient humans were likely [both] keeping dogs close as pets and, at times, consuming them. We have this kind of contradiction in our dealings with lots of non-human animals, I think. With dogs, the instances are more complex because our dealings with them are manifold, and they are so interwoven in our lives.

BK: In early September, the New York Times published your op-ed piece on early spay/neuter. Did you anticipate the response it received? And if the current policy were to be reversed, how would you see this playing out?

AH: I make no argument that spay/neuter policies should be eliminated. By contrast, I am only suggesting that since we (and by “we,” I mean “people who care about dogs”) all chant the same mantra to spay and neuter, it’s worth looking at the consequences of that—to the species and to individual dogs. But guess what, some people don’t want to discuss it, and assume I am advocating something horrific. I can’t imagine why that would be anyone’s conclusion if they read the research, or if they even know a little bit about my own keen interest in dogs. Still, there you go.

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There are many notable elements of the topic. For one, some countries have laws against spay/neuter and don’t have overpopulations of stray dogs. For another, research from Benjamin Hart and others is showing that de-sexing dogs can cause significant negative health results, from cancer to obesity. For a third, there are alternative methods to control reproduction (like injectable birth control or vasectomy/tubal ligation) that wouldn’t have all of the health consequences, but for some reason, many groups are opposed to them. Finally, de-sexing is asking individual dogs—puppies—to solve a problem that we, humans, have created: we are allowed to release, overbreed, throw out dogs. If we don’t solve that, no amount of de-sexing will solve our problems.

BK: Another NYT story published the same day as your op-ed piece covered the great advances in adoption rates that most shelters are experiencing; the NYT’s own stats and findings attribute some of that to the increase in mandatory spay/neuter policies.

AH: They didn’t actually have any new stats about how spay/neuter policies contributed to that. But yes, those policies are implicated in the reduction of euthanized animals, correctly, I think. So are myriad other significant elements, like modern ideas of responsibility to dogs, better containment (dogs not running loose, microchipping) and others. And by the way, the policies have not solved the euthanization crisis. So, it is not the hoped-for single solution. And it might not be the best way forward, but it is worth discussing.

BK: In the book, you take another bombshell position about the world of breeding, and I’m curious: of those two hot-button topics, why did you decide to focus on spay/neuter for the Times? Do you have second thoughts about that choice?

AH: The Times chose it, but I stand by both positions. I am offering research and ways of thinking about topics that I think are worth discussing, for the sake of dogs. I regret that not at all.

BK: What is the best argument against Breed Specific Legislation (BSL)?

AH: Research shows that BSL does not work to reduce dog bites. Plus, it’s based on flawed thinking, specifically, that breed determines behavior. That would be convenient, but it’s inconveniently untrue.

BK: Have your views have changed since writing Inside of a Dog? If so, what to you attribute that to?

AH: The more I look at dogs, the more I live with them, the more they show me. When I wrote Inside of a Dog, I was interested in gathering all the research that had come out and sharing it with people who might not know the science, in order to get a picture of this fabulous creature we live with. Then I started seeing how they smelled the world, and wound up diving into that, with the aim of drawing an even fuller picture. In both cases, the dogs were my guides.

The humans who accompany dogs have never been my focus, but I’ve always had us in my mind—for instance, I’ve studied whether our anthropomorphisms are true. As we’ve gone along, I’ve seen how important it is to think about the human side of the bond if we want to not only understand but also, to improve the lives of dogs.

BK: In an ideal world, how would you see our relationship with dogs evolving? What are the main lessons you’d like readers to take away from your work?

AH: I’m most impressed by people who live thoughtfully with dogs, and who try to keep the well-being of dogs at the front of their mind. That never leads people wrong. In the book, I dwell on aspects of our dealing with dogs that shows us to have deep wells of goodness. And sometimes, I show that we may have made some profound mistakes in judgment—not always intentionally. I hope people are willing to take what I write about and think about it. While sitting near a dog, ideally.

Claudia Kawczynska is The Bark's co-founder and Editor-in-Chief.

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