New This Month

Understanding Dog Behavior with Alexandra Horowitz

The Martha Stewart Show, December 2009

Have you ever wondered how your favorite four-legged friend sees the world? Scientist and author Alexandra Horowitz has some wonderful insights into the point of view of canines that may also help us understand what motivates dog behavior.

Though dogs seem familiar, in some ways their life and experience is mysterious to us. While we use vision as our primary sense, dogs use smell. In fact, their olfactory capacity is so acute that they in some ways "smell time." Odors are less strong over time, so the strength of a smell equals newness, while the weakness of a smell equals age to canines. The future can be smelled on the breeze from up ahead; the past can be smelled in the odors deteriorating around a dog.

Humans bond so strongly with dogs because they look us directly in the eye. No other animal will make and hold eye contact with humans the way that dogs will; for most species, eye contact is a threat, not an act of friendliness. But the influence of domestication itself on the human-canine bond cannot be ignored: By breeding animals that please us the most for hundreds of years, we've ended up with dogs that are very well suited to us. When we walk, they follow our lead. When we point to something, they retrieve it. No other animal species, except maybe the great apes, can do this.

While it is common to treat dogs like they are furry, small humans, by doing so we often miss what really motivates their behavior. For example, dog "kisses" -- when our pets give slobbery licks to our faces when we return home -- can be connected to wolf behavior. The pack will lick around the face of a wolf returning from a hunt, not to express love, but rather in the hopes that the licks will make the hunting wolf regurgitate some food. 

Dogs do dream, as indicated by the often-adorable eye movements, tail-thumps, and foot twitches done while sleeping. Dogs think -- just not in the same way or about the same things as humans do. Generally, they are figuring out how to get us to do something. Dogs also get bored, especially when left alone for hours.

Many people are under the impression that dogs urinate to mark their territory. Instead, urinating leaves behind information about the dog, such as how frequently he comes by, his interest in a mate, etc.

Another common misconception about dogs is that they are colorblind. They can see in colors, though they do not see reds particularly well. Canines see much more in their peripheral vision than we do, and they see motion much faster than we do. However, they might not see what is right in front of their nose -- depending on its length. Dogs with shorter noses are able to see what is directly in front of them, while dogs with longer noses see things better on the horizon. Their "flicker-fusion" rate (how much information the eye takes in each second) is much higher than humans -- hence all the great four-legged Frisbee-catchers.

Something many dog owners may find surprising? Dogs do not like wearing coats. Though most canines are cooperative when it comes to donning sweaters and raincoats, the feeling of something pressing down tightly on their back most likely resembles the ancient wolf feeling of a more dominant animal standing over them to inflict punishment. However, most dogs tolerate coats because the coat is a signal of going outside -- and often, because they simply have no choice.

For more information on dog behavior, visit, or check out "Inside of a Dog," by Alexandra Horowitz (Simon and Schuster).

Comments Add a comment