Being a Dog: Following the Dog Into a World of Smell by Alexandra Horowitz

Read October 2016 to February 2017
Recommended for dog lovers and scent enthusiasts
 ★     ★    ★    1/2

Me, non-fiction and the Kindle–we’re a match made in heaven. For naps. So the fact that it took me so long to finish the book actually doesn’t reflect on how interesting it was, only the fact that my eyelids are quite heavy, and my bed quite comfortable.

Engagingly written, it still feels like a work that could benefit from a non-professional pass-through. At times, Horowitz seems more in love with her prose and concepts rather than actual, you know, facts. Rather that just say how a molecule fits like lock and keys a memory, she says “It is the brain that knows (or doesn’t), and that swoons with the rush of a memory of hot chocolate after a long winter’s day playing outside, or balks at a urine smell in the subway, source unseen.” While I’m often one to appreciate such vivid description in my fictional prose, I prefer my non-fiction to be more exact. Giving into this kind of artistic temptation often results in losing the information or sense of a sentence. Unfortunately, that is not an infrequent occurrence

More significantly to potential readers, there is a great deal of material here that has nothing at all to do with canines and everything to do with smells and humans in general and Dr. Horowitz in particular. The first few chapters are about the physiology and the psychology of smells. She then gets down to the experience, enrolling in a scent study and talking to researchers. She joins a group lead by a professional ‘multisensory artist’ leading a group in New York City trying to teach themselves the smell of the cityscape (clearly, this was not during any garbage collector strikes). This is used as a springboard to talk about smells in relation to our environments. According to my e-reader, ‘Chapter 7: Nose to Grindstone’ is at 40% (including references) is where it begins a more in depth discussion of dogs and smell, specifically at a training facility for working dogs.

It’s followed by a chapter on dogs’ scenting in medicine, examining some intriguing and interesting studies on cancer and diabetic crisis detection. Sadly, she then segues into history of medical smelling, going back to the Greeks and their foul ‘humors,’ and following it up with a visit to a person specializing in the “Five Element strain of Chinese medicine’ which uses smelling the patient as part of the diagnostic process. This represents the pattern of much of a book; alas, dogs generally serve as a springboard for more discussion of humans. Ethnocentrism at its best.

The most interesting is the last chapter where she takes one of her dogs to scent class, helping these poor city dogs discover their ability to use their nose. It was both interesting, and a little sad, I think; I recognized most of the behaviors the ‘successful’ dogs were learning from my pit mix’s Charlie’s own scent explorations. Patricia McConnell talks about the importance of scent in stimulating the canine mind in The Other End of the Leash: Why We Do What We Do Around Dogs–I’ve since come to vary our walk pattern so that my dog can encounter new smells.

Overall, a very interesting book about humans and our relationship with the sense of smell, with some discussion about smell and dogs. Read for the information on people, not for the information on dogs.


Here’s the sciency details of some of the stuff I found interesting:

It begins talking about the sense of smell, really the psychology of smell, one of the reportedly least favorite senses of most humans. “The invisibility of odors accounts for some of this reaction. We rarely search them out; we more often experience them happening to us, catching us unawares. “ That’s a fascinating point, although somewhat arguable. Because scent is so personal, it is actually possible for us to mitigate it, somewhat, compared to hearing. We can close our eyes to things we don’t want to see (literally), but I tell you, there are times when I’ve heard sounds that were almost a physical assault. At any rate, fascinating psychological premise. As opposed to hearing, vision and feeling, “when we smell something, we are really ingesting it, after a fashion: the molecule is being absorbed by the mucus layer of the nose.” She goes on to talk somewhat about how our concept of smells is connected with judgement, that “sights are information; smells are judged. Smelly never means anything but ‘stinking.'”

I enjoyed the section on how human nose works and its comparison with dogs. Deep inside the nose, “about the point where the outer nose flattens into the forehead… is a postage stamp-sized plot of epithelial tissue.” This is the olfactory epithelium where scent touches down and is sent to the brain. Dogs, on the other hand,have hundreds of millions more receptors and more kinds of receptors. Even more importantly, they have a recess in the back of their nasal passages where the air can recirculate, allowing them to parse more of each sniff. Also interestingly, olfactory neurons apparently replace themselves every thirty days or so. Perhaps this helps explain why smells are so good at triggering memory, while our eyesight dims and our hearing fades. It’s also suggested that it works so well because it is literally two synapses to get from the scented molecule to the cortex. “Olfaction is the quickest route into the amygdala, considered the emotional center of the brain. ‘The memories you get from olfaction are always emotional memories.'” Lest we think we aren’t normally smelling, data supports the thought that we are processing odors all the time and that we change our sniffing style to reflect processing on whether faint odors are good or bad.

Most interesting line: “While smells now appear to me more public–they are out there to be detected by a nose–I am evermore appreciative of the privacy of smells.”


Thank you to Scribner and NetGalley for the ARC.

About thebookgator

avid reader and Goodreads reviewer looking for a home.
This entry was posted in Book reviews, Non-fiction and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Being a Dog: Following the Dog Into a World of Smell by Alexandra Horowitz

  1. Bookstooge says:

    I stopped at “…urine…” That was enough for me…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.