Chapter 1: Umwelt: from the dog's point of nose

This morning I was awakened by Pump coming over to the bed and sniffing emphatically at me, millimeters away, her whiskers grazing my lips, to see if I was awake or alive or me. She punctuates her rousing with an exclamatory sneeze directly in my face. I open my eyes and she is gazing at me, smiling, panting a hello.

Go look at a dog. Go on, look--maybe at one lying near you right now, curled around his folded legs on a dog bed, or sprawled on his side on the tile floor, paws flitting through the pasture of a dream. Take a good look--and now forget everything you know about this or any dog.

This is admittedly a ridiculous exhortation: I don't really expect that you could easily forget even the name or favored food or unique profile of your dog, let alone everything about him. I think of the exercise as analogous to asking a newcomer to meditation to enter into satori, the highest state, on the first go: aim for it, and see how far you get. Science, aiming for objectivity, requires that one becomes aware of prior prejudices and personal perspective. What we'll find, in looking at dogs through a scientific lens, is that some of what we think we know about dogs is entirely borne out; other things which appear patently true are, on closer examination, more doubtful than we thought. And by looking at our dogs from another perspective--from the perspective of the dog--we can see new things that don't naturally occur to those of us encumbered with human brains. So the best way to begin understanding dogs is by forgetting what we think we know.

The first things to forget are anthropomorphisms. We see, talk about, and imagine dogs' behavior from a human-biased perspective, imposing our own emotions and thoughts on these furred creatures. Of course, we'll say, dogs love and desire; of course they dream and think; they also know and understand us, feel bored, get jealous, and get depressed. What could be a more natural explanation of a dog staring dolefully at you as you leave the house for the day than that he is depressed that you're going?

The answer is: an explanation based in what dogs actually have the capacity to feel, know, and understand. We use these words, these anthropomorphisms, to help us make sense of dogs' behavior. Naturally, we are intrinsically prejudiced toward human experiences, which leads us to understand animals' experiences only to the extent that they match our own. We remember stories that confirm our descriptions of animals and conveniently forget those that do not. And we do not hesitate to assert "facts" about apes or dogs or elephants or any animal without proper evidence. For many of us, our interaction with non-pet animals begins and ends with our staring at them at zoos or watching shows on cable TV. The amount of useful information we can get from this kind of eavesdropping is limited: such a passive encounter reveals even less than we get from glancing in a neighbor's window as we walk by.  At least the neighbor is of our own species.

Anthropomorphisms are not inherently odious. They are born of attempts to understand the world, not to subvert it. Our human ancestors would have regularly anthropomorphized in an attempt to explain and predict the behavior of other animals, including those they might want to eat or which might want to eat them. Imagine encountering a strange, bright-eyed jaguar at dusk in the forest, and looking squarely in its eyes looking squarely into yours. At that moment, a little meditation on what you might be thinking "if you were the jaguar" would probably be due--and would lead to your high-tailing it away from the cat. Humans endured: the attribution was, if not true, at least true enough.

Typically, though, we are no longer in the position of needing to imagine the jaguar's desires in time to escape his clutches. Instead, we are bringing animals inside and asking them to become members of our families. For that purpose, anthropomorphisms fail to help us incorporate those animals into our homes, and have the smoothest, fullest relationships with them. This is not to say that we're always wrong with our attributions: it might be true that our dog is sad, jealous, inquisitive, depressed--or desiring a peanut butter sandwich for lunch. But we are almost certainly not justified in claiming, say, depression from the evidence before us: the mournful eyes, the loud sigh. Our projections onto animals are often impoverished--or entirely off the mark. We might judge an animal to be happy when we see an upturn of the corners of his mouth; such a "smile", however, can be misleading. On dolphins, the smile is a fixed physiological feature, immutable like the creepily painted face of a clown. Among chimpanzees, a grin is a sign of fear or submission, the farthest thing from happiness. Similarly, a human might raise her eyebrows in surprise, but the eyebrow-raising capuchin monkey is not surprised. He is evincing neither skepticism nor alarm; instead, he is signaling to nearby monkeys that he has friendly designs. By contrast, among baboons a raised brow can be a deliberate threat (lesson: be careful toward which monkey you raise your eyebrows). The onus is on us to find a way to confirm or refute these claims we make of animals....