What We Can Learn from Dogs, According to a Cognitive Scientist

June 29, 2018  • Alexandra Horowitz

Alexandra Horowitz is a scientist studying dog cognition and adjunct associate professor teaching psychology at Barnard College of Columbia University. She’s speaking a part of the Genius of Animals track at the Aspen Ideas Festival. Below she answered our questions on the relationship between dogs, humans, and the sense of smell.

Your book, Being a Dog, explores the powerful sense of smell that dogs possess. How does the human nose stack up against a canine’s?

Surprisingly, our noses are pretty good (in fact, they are responsible for most of what we think of as “taste” of food and drink). But sorry, human noses, we just aren’t intent on smells like the dog. Dogs have hundreds of millions more olfactory receptor cells — the cells at the back of the nose that catch an odor for us to perceive — than we do. They have a proportionally bigger olfactory bulb in the brain, which receives information from smells. And they even sniff  better than we do: exhaling out the side slits of their noses, so as to not disturb new odors coming up. They are designed for smelling, whereas we try to avoid smelling most things.

What does the incredible sniffing ability of the dog tell us about our own limitations as humans?

The human perspective on the world is but one way to see the world. Dogs, as well as any animal that perceives in infrared, echolocates, can detect ultraviolet light, and so forth, remind us that there is more to the world than meets our eyes.

How did you first find a way to get inside the minds of these animals? How much of your methodology evolved and was informed by your own first-hand observations?

I should say, I don’t think for a second that I know what it’s like to be a dog. I just aim toward that knowledge. After many years’ experience observing dogs, I began to start to imagine the world from their perspective — which is to say, olfactory. My research is now largely organized around determining what they know via smell.

Separate from that, out of sheer curiosity, I tried to improve my own sense of smell: to explore this sensory ability that we have, but downplay. It has definitely helped me to design studies that aren’t entirely human-centered.

We probably like to think that we understand a good deal about our own canine companions. What would you say are some of our biggest misconceptions? Is there anything that dog owners need to know?

As a person who lives with dogs myself, I’d say that we should be skeptical of any time we think we “know” just what the dog is doing, thinking, or feeling. We tend to assume that they have feelings that match what ours would be in their shoes. Sometimes we’re right; oftentimes we’re wrong. I try to imagine that the dog in my house is not a familiar, known animal, but an entirely new, alien arrival. What can I know about them simply from observing what they do? It’s educational to try to see dogs anew.

It seems as if dogs have recently attracted a kind of cultural spotlight online. What does this reveal to us?

We love dogs. They are super agreeable, so responsive to us, and cheering. Their popularity tells me that we should try to be more dog-like to each other ourselves.

What topics are currently being focused on at the Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard?

How the dog perceives the world through smell; the dynamics of dog-human play; and how letting dogs sniff the world might actually improve the dog-human bond.


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