By Lisa Kava
Meet Alexandra Horowitz, long-time Upper West Sider, professor and senior research fellow at Barnard College, director of the Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab, and bestselling author. Assisted by nine lab researchers, Horowitz conducts two studies each spring, in which dog/human teams participate. Her goal is to better understand the mind of the dog.
Upper West Side resident Albert Tsuei and his dog Merlot, a ten-year-old Shetland Sheepdog have participated in a number of Horowitz’ studies. Tsuei said the experiments include carefully constructed exercises designed to help determine what the dog might be thinking.
“Dogs are so familiar to us and yet there’s so much more to understanding how they think about the world,” Tsuei said. “I’ve always enjoyed learning about how Merlot reasons about his environment.” Asked what his biggest takeaway has been from participating, he responded, “It’s nice to confirm that dogs possess sophisticated social, reasoning, and logic skills that allow them to better interact with us. It’s also interesting to understand what dogs don’t do well, and that one shouldn’t automatically ascribe human emotions, such as guilt, to them.”
West Side Rag had the opportunity to visit with Horowitz in her office at Barnard prior to the start of a meeting with her lab members. Horowitz who grew up with dogs in the foothills of Colorado says her interest in delving further into their minds stemmed from curiosity about her childhood dog, Astor, who would run freely outdoors, returning home in the evening. “I would worry about Astor and what he was up to. I wondered about his life without us.” Horowitz focused on non-human animal cognition while in graduate school. “I was interested in what it was like to be an animal without language, and questioned how we can start to acknowledge their abilities and their thinking.” Ideas for current studies originate from living with her own dogs, Finnegan and Upton.
The lab researchers are excited about their work. “This lab is an accessible way for the public to get involved in animal cognition and any of our studies can be replicated by owners who want to better understand their pets” said Courtney, the lab manager and a graduate of Columbia. Working in the lab has been “an amazing opportunity and being a psychology major this was a perfect fit,” said Molly, a Barnard undergraduate.
WSR asked Horowitz what she would like to convey to dog owners who haven’t read her books, which include the #1 New York Times bestseller Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know, and most recently, Our Dogs, Ourselves: The Story of a Singular Bond. “Most people consider dogs part of their family,” she said. “They want well for the dog, but because the dog is so familiar to us we sort of stop seeing the dog. There is this funny change that happens when we put aside all the things we think we know about dogs and stop and look at the dog as though it is an alien creature.”
Smelling is a great example. “Educated people who know a lot about everything in the world still don’t understand why a dog is sniffing another dog. We have to step back and ask what is happening for the dog rather than how do I feel about this.” Horowitz explained that sniffing is a major part of how dogs interact with one another. She emphasized the importance of “smell walks” where the dog leads the way and is allowed to stop and smell often. Dogs have 300 million olfactory receptors where humans have closer to six million. Horowitz believes that allowing dogs the freedom to smell on walks is crucial to their well-being.
Horowitz asserts that humans often make up explanations for dogs’ behavior based on human feelings, but it is “so much more interesting to see it on their terms. We should observe them as carefully as they observe us. They spend their day trying to figure us out. When you start to imagine there is a creature who I live with who doesn’t see the world like I do, a whole bunch of other things start to open up.”
Regarding the Upper West Side where she has lived for 20 years, “It is the most dog-friendly part of the city. How can you do better than to live between two great parks?” Horowitz exclaimed. Finnegan enjoys Central Park while Upton prefers Riverside. Finnegan regularly accompanies Horowitz and her son on daily walks to school. “Finn will stop at all the dog stores in the neighborhood on the way home, including the ones that have closed.” Horowitz described off-leash hours in the park as “a joyful time.” One of her favorite Upper West Side activities is walking everywhere. “There’s nothing like an evening stroll down the West Side, heading home or no place in particular.”
All dog owners should allow their dog to make certain choices, according to Horowitz, who strongly believes that giving dogs choices increases their welfare. She challenges the notion that the owner should determine the route for every walk. Noting that most of the time dogs have little choice (they do not get to choose what they eat or when they go out), owners should “allow the dog to make their own choice as opposed to your definition of the walk.” She recognizes that people want to feel in control, but points out “what we are in control of is to let the dog have a life in which the dog is partly choosing. This is something we want to give to anyone we love.” Horowitz suggests setting up scent games or treasure hunts for dogs when leaving the house. She wants dog owners to understand that “we are deciding for someone else, someone who has feelings and experiences and who is entirely reliant on our decisions. Think about the choices we make for our dogs.”
Horowitz and her lab researchers welcome volunteers for their studies (travel to Barnard College is required.) For further information about the lab and to participate in future studies go to: https://dogcognition.weebly.com. For further information on Horowitz and her books, go to www.alexandrahorowitz.net.
And please report back to us about your next “smell walk,” or where you end up when your dog chooses the path! This reporter’s dog ended up taking her on a walk to Lincoln Center.