Alexandra Horowitz’s new book is entitled, “Being a Dog: Following the Dog into a World of Smell.”  I picked up the book at our local Village Books after listening to the author at a reading. Some of you may remember Horowitz from her first book, “Inside of a Dog.”  Horowitz begins this book by saying, “to know a dog is to be interested in what it’s like to be a dog.” I would agree with her there.  I am always interested in how my dog may be experiencing his world. This is the dog’s umwelt; readers may be familiar with this term, a favorite for Horowitz. This book is about a specific part of their umwelt: the dog’s ability to smell.

There is the expected section about how our understanding of a dog’s sense of smell is limited by the devices we use to test it.  Horowitz dispels the myth that dogs mark territory (page 16) — they are, in fact, what’s called “runway markers.” They don’t routinely mark every corner of their home or property,  but they do mark light posts and other markers along their routes and walks. The highlight of the book may be chapter three, where the author goes into a deep description of how the nose works — both ours and the dog’s.

By chapter four Horowitz begins to learn about the world of scent that she (and we) may be missing out on. In an effort to find out what it’s like to be a dog, she goes on a personal journey of her own to learn how to develop her sense of smell. In this chapter, she describes her participation in a “smell walk” through New York.  The walk is hosted by Kate McLean, a multi-sensory artist. We are told McLean does this in many cities around the world.  I, for one, am very interested in signing up for this the next time I find myself in a world city. In this section, the author also covers what I think might be a hidden gem of a point:  Over the years, we have worked to deodorize our cities and now our dogs live in a smell-devoid world and are often pulled away from smells, thus depriving them even further of the mental enrichment their lives should entail.

Horowitz also tells us that we socially define smell as good or bad, and that children feel neutral about smell until we teach them how to feel about different smells. This is an obvious fundamental difference in how dogs approach smell as information, neither good nor bad —  just a smell truth. This is why they can seem to linger as long on a rose bush as they do a pile of excrement.

The author then takes us on a journey where she participates in a scientific study on identifying smells. She must smell hundreds of vials of unidentified material and put each one in a category. We learn about nose fatigue and smell hallucinations. We learn that humans are not very good at smelling, not because we can’t but because we often don’t. These ride-alongs with Horowitz, as she learns how much we are all missing by not practicing our smell ability, can seem tedious at times — especially considering that the book is billed as a book about dogs.

Another high point in the book is the chapter about the old DuPont factory where they are training the next generation of professional search dogs, and using this training experience to study how the dogs learn to smell. It is the most dog centric part of the book, and I loved it. The author also takes her own dog to nose work class, and the class description is priceless. The book wraps up with the author recognizing that her world will never be the same after this research trip through the nose.

All in all, this book is an interesting read but it is more of an armchair science book about how we have lost our own ability to smell, then it is a book about how dogs themselves smell the world. At times the book is less concerned with a dog’s ability to smell, and more concerned with the author’s personal journey as she learns about her own sense of smell, albeit using dogs as a guide. This is fine and it is a great read on its own. However, I was hoping for a book with dogs more front and center.

The take away: Stop and smell the roses! Your dog is right; the world smells really fascinating if you take the time and remember to smell.

To get involved in scent work with your dogs, check out these local trainers.

Jaeger Scent Training

Nose Work Magic

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