New York Times science writer Natalie Angier ’78 doesn’t own a dog, and even as she kicked off a wide-ranging panel discussion this past fall featuring three leading researchers on dog behavior and cognition, Angier openly admitted that she’s not exactly a huge dog lover. Angier, the moderator of the event, “Dog Days: A Scientific Look at Man’s Best Friend,” wryly informed the audience at Barnard’s Diana Center on September 21, “I am now and have always been a cat person.” That said, she hastened to add that she has grown to appreciate other peoples’ dogs—and she was quick to give canines their due. “The domestic dog, Canis lupus familiaris, has been a spectacularly successful species,” she said.
There are an estimated half-billion dogs on the planet today, with roughly 77.5 million pet dogs in the United States alone. And, as Angier noted, the bond between dogs and the humans who care for them runs deep: More than three-quarters of dog owners surveyed said they consider their dogs to be like a child or other cherished family member; and roughly a third of married women claim their dogs are better listeners than their husbands, according to a USA Today poll. Seventy-one percent have given their dogs a holiday gift, and 31 percent have even hung up Christmas stockings for them, says a real-estate industry survey.
Obviously, dogs loom very large in many of our lives. Still, as the researchers on the panel, including Alexandra Horowitz, Barnard psychology professor, made clear, there is much about how dogs perceive and understand the world that their owners haven’t a clue about. “It’s not a simple furry human, which is exactly how we treat the dog,” said Horowitz, who teaches animal behavior and canine cognition at Barnard and is the author of the best-selling book Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know, published in 2009. Joining her on the “Dog Days” panel were Raymond Coppinger, professor emeritus of biology at Hampshire College and an expert in dog herding; and Clive Wynne, a University of Florida psychology professor whose recent research has focused on the socialization of wolves.
In her book, Horowitz noted that dogs share all but one-third of one percent of their DNA with wolves. Humans like to think that they deserve credit for turning wolves into cuddly lovable pets. But in fact, Coppinger contended that dogs actually domesticated themselves. His view is that once humans began living in permanent settlements they began generating food waste—and attracted scavenger species that hung around looking and begging for scraps. “Dogs are evolved village scavengers,” said Coppinger. “They became nice and friendly animals that humans learned how to use.”
Horowitz, for her part, noted that in Russia researchers have been testing another theory of dog domestication by inter-breeding especially tame foxes. “They started to get something that looked like a mongrel dog,” said Horowitz, describing the animal as having floppy ears and a furrier coat—and a much greater affinity for humans. She added, “It’s how domestication could have happened.” Professor Wynne, who has visited the fox experiment site in Russia, recalled that the foxes there are so friendly toward humans that they actually quake and shiver with excitement when they are taken out of their cages. “I would not have expected such pro-human behavior,” he said.
However they became domesticated, it’s definitely true that the modern dog continues to wow humans with all kinds amazing qualities, as Angier pointed out. One example: their acute sense of smell. Horowitz chalked that up to the fact that a dog has thousands more receptors in its nose than a human does, as well as an organ in the roof of its mouth that enables it to detect pheromones—chemicals that are secreted by other animals, including humans. “Dogs see the world by smelling it,” said Horowitz. “They’re using their nose all the time—it’s information for them.”
Because dogs have insinuated themselves into our homes, humans typically assume that they share our values—such as a desire for cleanliness. But Horowitz pointed out that dogs like the rich odors of dirt and “don’t want to be bathed in coconut lavender shampoo.” Wynne seconded that opinion: “Washing your dog in pungent shampoo is cruel and unusual punishment.”
As to whether dogs actually experience human emotions, Horowitz said the science just isn’t there yet to prove that’s true. From her experiences and research with her own dog, Pumpernickel, while she was out of her apartment, Horowitz suggested that dogs could experience fairly intense boredom. “They’re waiting all day for you to come back,” she said, adding that once she realized how much dogs depend on humans for entertainment, she has tried not to leave her dog alone for long stretches.
On the question of whether dogs respond to music, Hororowitz recalled that she once left Glenn Gould’s “Goldberg Variations” playing for a protracted period while she was out. The next time she played it, Pumpernickel made it plain that he did not want to hear it again.
Download a podcast of the event at alum.barnard.edu/magazine
-by Susan Hansen. illustration by Jessica Hische