A Conversation with Dog Cognition Researcher Alexandra Horowitz | Books & Authors | Hudson Valley | Chronogram Magazine
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A Conversation with Dog Cognition Researcher Alexandra Horowitz 

Horowitz's New Book The Year of the Puppy Straddles Science and Memoir

click to enlarge Alexandra Horowitz at home with some of her animal companions in Columbia County. Quid, the protagonist of The Year of the Puppy, is on the left. - WINONA BARTON-BALLENTINE
  • Winona Barton-Ballentine
  • Alexandra Horowitz at home with some of her animal companions in Columbia County. Quid, the protagonist of The Year of the Puppy, is on the left.

Few of us meet our dogs the day they're born. The dog who will, eventually, become an integral part of our family, our constant companion and best friend, is born without us into a family of their own. A puppy's critical early development into the dog we come to know is usually missed entirely.

Dog cognition researcher and author Alexandra Horowitz (Inside of a Dog; Our Dogs, Ourselves) aimed to change that with the adoption of her family's new pup, Quiddity (aka Quid). In her new scientific memoir, The Year of the Puppy (Viking), she charts the puppy's early development from birth to first birthday.

On December 16 from 5:30-7:30pm Alexandra Horowitz will join me for a conversation about puppies and dog development at the Fuller Building in Kingston. There will be an audience Q&A followed by a reception and book signing in partnership with Rough Draft Bar & Books. A portion of the proceeds from the event will be donated to the Ulster County SPCA.

—Brian K. Mahoney

Brian K. Mahoney: One of the things that I never thought about was that when we adopt puppies—even at eight or nine weeks old—they are fairly well along in their developmental process. I guess as a dog cognition researcher, you knew this. But what drew you to want to be there from day one with a new pup?

Alexandra Horowitz: Well, I knew this sort of intellectually, but I hadn't experienced it. And there was still some abstraction, because there isn't a huge amount of research with puppies, for the reason that they're just not easy subjects. There just hasn't been a huge amount of science done about what's happening in those early days. I felt like this was a chance to thread the science that there was together. There isn't a place which really tells the story scientifically of what's happening with them perceptually and cognitively.

And then personally, I also thought, "Oh great, we could add a puppy to our family. Great, we could meet a puppy for science." We had adopted our dogs when they were older, and you really wonder what they were like before and all the things that happened in their life. And you kind of want to be able to go back and make it good for them. And I thought, "Well, let's see what it's like to start the journey with them from the beginning."

So much happens in that eight-to-twelve-week time period before any of these dogs normally get adopted. What was something that you found out about these tiny critters that was unexpected?

Well, you sort of forget how completely incompetent they are at birth—they're little sludges. But their development is really rapid. Just week to week there were enormous changes. And that struck me. I hadn't kind of deconstructed it. And relatedly, I was really interested in the relationship between the litter and the mother, and the litter and the siblings with each other. And I hadn't kind of appreciated the mom has to be sort of all in, but she pretty rapidly starts moving away. And that was fascinating to see too, the way that she's giving them her all, completely everything, and then a few weeks in she starts weaning them. And then by the time they're going to be adopted out, she's like, "Step away. Step back." to the pups.

That was a real relief to read, as somebody who's adopted a 10-week old puppy. I remember thinking at the time, "Oh dear, I ripped this thing from its mother."

A lot of people wondered about that. And I just don't think that's a problem at all. The mom is already ready for them to go. And if you think about it in terms of just reproduction, dogs have this biannual heat. So in theory, a female dog could get pregnant again six months after her last litter. So if she spends two months getting them out of the house, then she only has a couple more months before she's on the next one.

You wouldn't want, evolutionarily, to have that other litter sticking around, at least not in a way where you need to take care of them. And then they learn so much from their siblings. At the point when she starts stepping away from them, the siblings are this amazing force of social learning. They're just always on top of each other and following each other. And then it really, really struck me, in a way I hadn't thought about before, how much we're ripping the dog from that world. They do come from this very protected, safe space of being in the puppy pile. And it's so interesting to me that we, almost universally as a culture, immediately give them their own space, which is away from the people in the house and how extra difficult that feels, when you see where they've come from and how they're just always touching each other and following each other and learning from each other.

click to enlarge guide_--_the_year_of_the_puppy.jpg

In Year of the Puppy, you take aim at some training manuals. You write: "All the perfect puppy books are selling really has nothing to do with perfection. It has to do with training a dog to be more what we, in today's culture, assume dogs should be like." And then you write, "I find that language of perfection, in regard to puppies, both hilarious and tragic." Hilarious and tragic how?

Well, it's funny because, A, they're not going to ever get there, so I find that comic. And B, they start out pretty much perfect. We're all attracted to the puppies right away, because of who they are, because kind of their ridiculousness and pleasure in life and overacting and delight to see us every single time they see us. That's perfection, actually. That's the thing we're attracted to. They're very cute, all that. So that we think, "Now I'm going to mold this into perfection," that's very funny. It's already done. And, also tragic, because it really leads people to, "I can treat this dog like a weird object that has to be molded into a different shape, in order to be a good dog."

Many people really enjoy training their dogs and the dogs enjoy it, too. There can be training that improves the relationship. And some training or teaching is really necessary, just for safety's sake and to make them cooperative companions. But this notion that there's some sort of set of things you need to do to the dog, in order to get them to this perfection, is really missing out on the opportunity to meet this creature, who is completely alien to your environment, really is their own personality, and comes in this really adorable package. So that's the tragedy, it seems to me. We spend all this time worrying about getting them to be perfect, when they're already perfect.

Not too long after adopting Quid, you strap a GoPro on her to observe the world to her perspective. What did you see?

I love always doing this, because the first thing I like people to do to just get into the umwelt of their dogs is to get down on their level, which already is just a huge difference. The ground is much more salient. Smells on the ground are much closer and part of your experience. And you see everything from a different angle. It's just important to recognize that.

The other thing that I saw was a little surprising. If we had her off leash, she immediately forgot about us. She was just off after the little furry thing or just running with exuberance in any direction. But in the GoPro, you can really see that we were almost always at the center of her days. She was always looking at us. She was still pretty young, but that she had centered us, as she would've centered her mom early in her life naturally, and that was a little reassuring.

In the book, you cite research that says dogs go through adolescence like humans, testing boundaries and ignoring learned behaviors like a teenager.

Dogs go through adolescence. They have puberty; hormones are surging. In dogs' case in particular, their body is way ahead of the development of their brain. They rebel, and it's a phase. And if only we appreciated that it's a phase, we wouldn't get so bent out of shape. I mean, maybe we do get bent out of shape when the teenager slams the door, instead of listening to us. But we also know intellectually like, "Okay, this isn't like our bond is severed forever. You are a teenager. And this is what teenagers do. I'm going to be there again later for you. I'll knock on your door." But with dogs, people don't seem to appreciate it.

It's important that we know this for a really tragic reason, which is, that when people start to get this pushback from their dogs—and this happens right as they've grown out of that really cute early puppyhood—is when we see a lot of dogs returned to shelters. Maybe somebody struggled with getting the dog to not do a behavior that they think is a misbehavior, and maybe they got through, and the dog was sort of improving. And then the dog seems to resort to that old self, and they just give up on the dog. Most shelter dogs that are returned are adolescents. And then they're harder to adopt again, because they've passed that really early cute phase. Our misunderstanding of teenagerhood and the unwillingness to kind of sit it out leads to the destruction of a lot of dogs.

In the last chapter, you list the requirements for being prepared for your puppy, which is only one requirement. You write: "Expect that your puppy will not be who you think, or act as you hope."

I really was responding to, again, these books that kind of have the checklist of things you need to have in order to be completely prepared for your puppy. And they all have to do with just material things. And, well, I'm not saying that they're entirely wrong. You do need food. You do need to think about where you're going to feed your dog and so forth. But it gives a really incomplete picture of what it's like to mentally and emotionally prepare for the introduction of a dog, who has no idea what's going to happen.

The real thing we all need is an open-mindedness and a willingness to not cling so tightly to our idea about what it should be like. I, as a person who gets asked a lot for advice on getting a dog, and then the dog is acquired, and people are delighted, and inevitably within that first week, I get another email from the people, who are really concerned that they have the wrong dog. And I have felt this way.

And it's all due to our expectations about how it's just going to be this simple addition. It's just a puppy. They're just going to come into our life and then act just like the professional dogs I see out there who are walking nicely by their owners, and the owners are completely unconcerned about the dog's behavior, and it's not like that at all. If we loosened up that vise-grip we have on our expectations about what it has to be like, I think we would do much better incorporating dogs into our home.

How's Quid doing?

She's doing great. She's almost, I guess two years, nine months now. She's sitting right here on the sofa. And she is impossibly woven into the family. You couldn't extract her now. She is who we expect and look forward to. And she does a lot of very sweet things and learned a real strong obsession with tennis balls, so we have a lot of tennis balls around the house. It was easier for me to see her, actually, after our other dogs, Finnegan and Upton, both passed. Upton passed a month after Finnegan did. Part of my kind of standoffishness with Quid, I think, was because it felt like she was so vital, and Finn, especially, was suffering with his age. And that seemed like a cosmic unfairness. When you just look at Quid on her own, she's her own kind of charming, quirky self. And it's easier to appreciate without them in our days, even though I would get them back in a minute, if I could.

Register for our Chronogram Conversation: The Year of the Puppy.
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