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

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inside-of-a-dog-picInside of a Dog:

What Dogs See, Smell, and Know

By Alexandra Horowitz
Scribner, 2010
384 pages, paperback, $15.35

Reviewed by NANCY

Have you ever looked at your dog and wondered what he’s thinking, feeling or even why he’s doing what he’s doing? Though they live with us, dogs actually live in a completely different world based on their perceptions. If you think you know your dog, prepare to be amazed at how off the mark you might be. Behavioural scientist Alexandra Horowitz did extensive research and discovered what’s really going on inside dogs.

“What do dogs know about time, about themselves, about right and wrong, about emergencies, emotions, and death?” she asks in her book, Inside of a Dog. Defining and finding ways to measure and observe these concepts in tests provides the answers.

People tend to make assumptions about dogs based on their own reality instead of recognizing that dogs have a different umwelt (their world as defined by their experience of it) than we do. Dogs take in information first with their nose, then their ears and finally their eyes. And the information they take in is so different from what we do, it’s hard to grasp at times. Reading how each of their senses works is fascinating and explains so much about what I’ve observed with my own dog.

Dogs don’t watch the clock, but they can tell time. They smell it by testing the air currents in a room. They correlate what should be happening, like your return home, to the smell of the air and the speed that it is moving. Horowitz’s explanation of how a dog’s nose works made me realize how sophisticated a system they have. In some breeds, their noses and ears even work together to provide optimum information.

But their noses aren’t just used to smell. They may not have the benefit of hands, but a dog will use its nose, mouth and paws to manipulate their environment.

A dog’s ears are so sensitive, I’m amazed my dog can sleep beside my bed. “The crystal resonator used in digital alarm clocks emits a never-ending alarm of high-frequency pulses audible to canine ears,” Horowitz informs us. And those energy-saving fluorescent light bulbs add to the auditory overload with a constant hum. It’s a wonder my dog listens to me at all, given the number of constant distractions from the natural and urban world we live in.

A real eye-opener for me was the fact that dogs don’t see the world as we do. For most dogs, what is right in front of them isn’t as obvious as what is whizzing by. In fact, thanks to the placement of eyes slightly to the side, dogs can see the future before we can. As I throw the ball, my dog sees it arriving up ahead, seconds before I see it get there.

People have been breeding dogs for a variety of purposes for centuries. As dogs evolved from wolves and took up residence with us, they lost many of their natural tendencies and became proficient in things not normal for any wild animal. The concept of doing something because another being said so, like the command to sit, is quite foreign to wild animals and so we see the dog is much smarter than we may realize.

Yes, dogs do think. But not in the way we do. And just how smart are they? During their evolution, dogs figured out that if you get yourself a human, you’ll be provided with all the essentials of life: food and a safe place to sleep. When tested, it appeared dogs failed at problem solving. They would give up on trying to do something they couldn’t do easily. But as Horowitz explains, the dogs didn’t actually give up, they just changed tactics. They looked to the people in the room to solve the problem for them. Dogs are smart enough to use the best tool for the job – their human.

Dogs watch us. They study their human so closely that at times they seem psychic. My dog looks into my eyes. He looks at my face. He sees where I am looking. Evidently, he is always assessing small changes I am not aware of. This book didn’t just reveal things about dogs, it gave me a new awareness of myself. It turns out I provide constant clues to what I am about to do through my body language and the sequence of my actions. I am far more predictable than I realized.

The ability to speak might make us think we are smarter, but dogs communicate so effectively that even without words they interact with other dogs easily. Horowitz explains how dogs use body language, bumping, barking, leaning, panting, vocalizing and woofing. Dogs try to communicate with us as well as their other four-legged friends. We just need to pay attention and learn to understand their language.

The strength – and downfall – of this book is the detailed recounting of tests and studies. The statements Horowitz makes and the conclusion drawn are logical and believable because she backs them up with facts. While intellectually, I can see why it’s important to include all the number-crunching, information and test results, I found it exhausting in its thoroughness. Stories about Horowitz’s dog, Pumpernickel, served two purposes: to show how science meets the subject and to provide a break from all the research. If you just want the bottom line about your dog’s inner world, this book will be a frustrating read.

Inside of a Dog was worth the read because it gave me lots of information to help understand my dog better. By getting a glimpse into his reality, I am making adjustments to our shared space and my own lifestyle. Though this is probably the slowest I’ve ever read a book, I’m really glad I took the time to do so. I appreciate my dog more and trust that I am a better human companion to him. I suspect he appreciates that I now understand more of what he’s been trying to tell me, too, and that his attempts to train me will be met with greater success.

nancy-gillNancy, Night Sky Woman, has been doing psychic card readings professionally for over 15 years. She is also an astrologer and has studied a variety of spiritualities and philosophies. She has been writing Taroscopes for over five years and teaches the tarot through lifelong learning. She reads out of the Bella Vista Restaurant and at the Winnipeg Makers & Market events. To book an appointment or for information about classes, you can reach Nancy at 204-775-8368 or by email at


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