What's a Dog For? Cover

Author John Homans is a dog person. After adopting a shelter Lab mix, Homans anticipated that his relationship with the new pup, Stella, would be like the ones he had with the dogs of his childhood. But as Stella became a part of his family, Homans realized just how much the dog’s place in the world had shifted. Resolving to understand the changes in the world of man's best friend, Homans immersed himself in everything canine. He recounts what he learned in his new book What's a Dog For?: The Surprising History, Science, Philosophy, and Politics of Man’s Best Friend.

His research took him far and wide; in the book, Homans details a 14,000-year-old grave discovered in Bonn-Oberkassel, Germany, which included a human couple and their family dog, and describes his trip to the grand estate in Scotland that is Stella’s ancestral home. He spoke with scores of dog experts at a conference in Vienna, including some involved in serious research about the dog’s ability to tune in to our nonverbal cues, like pointing, in ways our closest primate relatives do not.

Q. How did the book come about?

A. John Homans: "A friend of mine had a 10-year-old dog with blood in its stool and had taken it to an animal hospital on a Friday and had come out with a dead dog on Tuesday and a bill for $10,000. I realized, along with all the dog bakeries and dog coats and dogs sleeping in everyone’s bed, that it just seemed like something was happening. That was in 2009, so writing the book has been a big chunk of my life — a good three years. The reading was incredibly interesting, and the trips were fun. Who would’ve thought I’d manage to get to Vienna for a book about dogs?"

Q. You met with a lot of scientists at a conference in Vienna who are doing all sorts of studies involving dogs. Did you learn anything during your book research that changed your opinion on something you felt sure you already knew about dogs?

A. "I had a lot of questions. One question I had was why was this creature, this animal, my friend? What could that possibly mean? I wanted to drill down into … the nature of that relationship and why dogs and people were compatible and whether it was somehow, as some scientists say, you’re kind of tricking yourself that it’s a person."

Q. And what did you come away with?

A. "I understood that, of course, it made sense that the dog can be a friend. Stella always was my friend, but at the end of the process, I understood a lot of what we had in common and what was different. I learned about why she comes from Tennessee and how that adoption system worked and how that system was different from the system of my childhood. A lot of the book is about the difference between my life growing up in the 1960s and the way dogs were treated then (like in my house, where the dog was loved but sort of died on the floor and lived outside a lot) versus what we have right now, where all the dogs are on a leash."

Q. You went back long before the 1960s. Does the history of dogs and people change over time?

A. "There’s both an evolution and a continuity from the earliest days of the dog, which is either 14,000 years ago or 30,000 years ago — there’s still some dispute of the exact time. The dog was a hunting companion probably but was also a part of the family (like that first couple that were buried with their dog), and that was always the same. But now people are obsessed with their dogs. My boss at New York magazine says, 'Your dog is not a human being,' and a lot of people who aren’t dog owners think the whole thing is silly."

Q. And others have been inspired by dogs?

A. "When I began to dig into it, I found that the dog was remarkably important to Darwin. When he observed the human qualities of the dog, he wondered, what are these humanlike qualities based on? Why is a dog like this and other animals are not like this? They really were a touchstone of his thinking. There is a lot of comedy in our relationship with the dog, but it gets at these sort of basic human questions. I learned the same about Jane Goodall. I knew Goodall’s work, but I had not known that her mindset about animals was built on observing her dog, Rusty, who she took care of as a teenager."

Q. You write that buying into the kitsch is part of the fun of having a dog.

A. "Absolutely. They are these big, primary-color, simple emotions, and that’s part of the reason why it can be easier to relate to a dog than to a human being. There are studies and observations that bear that out. Dogs are fantastic with autistic people who often find it easier to relate to dogs than to people, and a study by scientist Karen Allen found that a dog is better at reducing stress than even a spouse. The hypothesis is that it's because the dog doesn't judge. The dog's love is unconditional. The dog isn't sitting there thinking you're doing something wrong — unless you're not taking it out!"

Q. Who would have thought that pointing was such a special communication technique? You write that research found that dogs "get it" but chimpanzees don’t because they don’t trust us.

A. "And they don’t trust other chimpanzees. It’s not part of their repertoire. There is still a lot of controversy about pointing, having to do with how difficult it is to get wolves to participate in such a test [to compare them with dogs]. But I think a preponderance of the scientists I was in contact with believe that it’s a real distinction between wolves and dogs. Scientists like Brian Hare, Michael Tomasello and Juliane Kaminsky are interested, in the same way that Darwin and Jane Goodall were, in seeing how a special gift of the dog (the ability to respond to human pointing) gets back to the difference between humans and chimpanzees. Pointing is the first communicative act that babies learn. Before there is language, before there are words, there’s pointing. You’re looking at something with someone else — essentially it's tameness. Some of these scientists think tameness is the price of admission for developing language. It’s the ability to see another creature as being helpful, and it's something we share with dogs. And that goes back to why this relationship makes so much sense."

Q. But there is wildness in dogs, too.

A. "Yes, it’s the dog who, in lots of ways, connects people with nature. In mythology, the dog has always been sort of a go-between between the natural world and the human world. When I’m walking with Stella in the woods, she composes the landscape for me — it's like having another faculty in the outdoors. Certainly, this is why dogs are so useful to hunters and to the hunter-gatherers that are left. Dogs see things that we wouldn’t see, smell things that we wouldn’t smell and therefore allow a vicarious experience. I tend to think that there is satisfaction in seeing dogs working in the landscape; there is something primal about it."

Q. Do you think the wildness will ever be bred out of dogs?

A. "Alexandra Horowitz, who studies dogs, joked to me that the perfect dog for an apartment dweller might be one bred to sleep all day. For me, that is not what a dog is; though certainly a dog that sleeps all day might be happier with someone who works 18 hours a day. The future of dogs — who’s going to breed them and what they’re going to be bred for and what the rules are — are topics that are in very hot dispute and with no real answers. We see designer dogs and hypoallergenic dogs, and other steps could be taken. There are other people who feel as I do that you want a dog that is going to be able to take you into the out-of-doors. But in the end, there’s room for all sorts of dogs."

Q. Stella must have been annoyed that you were so busy working on the book.

A. "It’s true, but still I managed to walk her, and I focused on her because I was thinking about her all the time."

Q. Early in the book you write that Stella started out as just a dog to you. What is Stella to you now?

A.  "Those words 'just a dog' were my conscious thinking. I was trying to answer, given the occasional silliness of this relationship, why it was so important. And I answered it for myself. I brought my conscious thinking and my feelings into harmony by writing the book."

What’s a Dog For?: The Surprising History, Science, Philosophy, and Politics of Man’s Best Friend (The Penguin Press, November 12, 2012)