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?