‘Being a Dog: Following the Dog Into a World of Smell’ by Alexandra Horowitz: What Does a Dog’s Nose Really Know?

“Being a Dog: Following the Dog Into a World of Smell” by bestselling author Alexandra Horowitz is a fascinating look into the world of smell. Horowitz, who runs the Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College, is a dog expert. She is also now an expert at smelling.

Most dog lovers know that their dogs’ noses are much better at their job than what we humans use to smell the world around us. Did you know that dogs smell earthquakes before they happen? Dogs can smell rainstorms, find explosives, and search for missing people and land mines. Dogs can be trained to find bed bugs, termites, and truffles underground and they can even smell when cows are ready for breeding.

Simple line drawings add interest throughout the book
Simple line drawings add interest throughout the book

Dogs also are now being trained to smell cancer cells. When several pet dogs spontaneously detected cancer on their owners — melanoma, carcinoma and breast cancer — and warned them about it by nipping or poking at the offending spot — scientists decided to begin to research how this olfactory phenomenon might benefit humans. Horowitz (and the readers vicariously) visits the facility where such dogs, the ones who diagnose cancer, are trained. She writes that “Eventually, dogs like Ffoster and McBaine…become so proficient that when they miss a sample, the trainers know it’s not because of the dogs; it’s because of something else: a growling stomach, a budding cold.”

One interesting fact is that “Dogs can use their nostrils separately and differentially.” Humans can’t do that. Horowitz posits that humans don’t use their noses enough. She shares with readers her excursion into the world of smell. While we admire our canine companions’ ability to smell the world around us, we don’t try hard enough to smell it on our own. And we should. While we can’t mimic the ability of a dog’s nose, we do have the ability to smell more of the world around us than we notice.

Of course, dogs don’t track smells or identify cancer cells because they enjoy the work. They do it because they are motivated to get their reward — what they receive at the end of their job. Usually, it’s getting to play with a tennis ball or getting to play with a tug toy. Just like any other working dog, scent dogs must be highly motivated. “They are tenacious and motivated and can focus their attention on the task they need to do to get their ball.”

Horowitz backs up the information she shares with readers. There are over 25 pages of notes and sources to help the reader appreciate the depth and breadth of Horowitz’ research.

Please note: This review is based on the hardcover book provided by Scribner, the publisher, for review purposes.

Pamela Kramer

​Animal lover and rescuer. Lives with 4 cats, 4 dogs, 1 bird, 2 frogs and usually one foster animal (and very understanding husband). Reviews books (especially about animals) and educates children about compassion toward animals. Former household animals include rabbits, rats, and other assorted creatures. Also writes at pamelakramer.com

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