Alexandra Horowitz, THE YEAR OF THE PUPPY: How Dogs Become Themselves

Alexandra Horowitz, THE YEAR OF THE PUPPY: How Dogs Become Themselves

Guest host Julianna Goldman interviews dog researcher and New York Times bestselling author Alexandra Horowitz about The Year of the Puppy: How Dogs Become Themselves, a keenly observed and highly illuminating scientific memoir about her puppy Quid’s first year of life. Alexandra talks about a dog’s extraordinary birthing and olfactory abilities, the most influential moments in a puppy’s life, and her relationship with Quid (it wasn’t love at first sight!). Finally, she describes her path to becoming a dog scientist and her fascinating work at the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard, which she founded.


Julianna Goldman: Alexandra Horowitz, author of The Year of the Puppy: How Dogs Become Themselves, thank you.

Alexandra Horowitz: It’s great to be here.

Julianna: Tell us about this book and why you wrote it.

Alexandra: This book is a little bit of a scientific memoir of the first year of our puppy’s life. I am not only a dog researcher, dog scientist, but I’ve lived with dogs all my life. I’d never known a dog from the beginning of her life, from the very first days of her life. Anyone who gets a dog later in their life, if it’s months or years later, I think we all wonder, what was it like? What is responsible for the personality that we see now or the problems that we see now? I wish I could go back there and see their puppy-ness. Here, I did. I started from the beginning.

Julianna: You detail the birth. It was beautiful. I felt like I was along for the ride in seeing how long the actual birth process takes, how calm the female dog is.

Alexandra: She just gets to work. I do feel like the female dogs I observed giving birth — I watched a couple of litters — looked, initially, a little puzzled about what was happening, and then they are down to business. They’re professionals right away. A human can help them. A person can be there assisting. Sometimes that is helpful. Really, they are responsible for not just birthing these pups — in this case, the case of the litter from which I adopted a puppy later, she delivered about a puppy every hour. She had eleven puppies. She births them. She pulls them over to her. She eats the placenta. She licks them so they start breathing. She gets them into a posture so that they can nurse, and then all the while, keeping track of the other ten who are there at her belly. It’s extraordinary. It is really moving to see. It’s a result of our current way of dealing with and living with dogs that we rarely see births of dogs unless we’re breeding dogs or accidentally wound up with a dog who got pregnant. A hundred years ago, that probably wouldn’t have been the case. Two hundred years ago, definitely not. People were there for the early days of their puppies’ lives. It was spectacular to see.

Julianna: What is more formative, that first period of a dog’s life when they’re with their litter or the period when they’re taken away?

Alexandra: My answer is going to be a little unsatisfying, which is, both are most formative. Both are formative in so far as that early time in their life when they’re with their mom and their litter, they go through these extraordinary changes from being a blind, deaf dog who can’t move at all, basically, or regulate their own body temperature or relieve themselves voluntarily to several weeks on, gamboling about, following each other around. There’s an early socialization period, which is really critical for them forming a robust equanimity when they face whatever they’re going to face in their life. Then when they do wind up coming into a human home where there might not be other dogs as models to show you what to do or how to be a dog and the human home is already completely set up and arranged and so ordinary for us people but extraordinary for the pup, that also can be a moment, depending on how they’re incorporated into the family, which really determines what their future is going to be like with that particular family or with people generally. They’re both influential.

Julianna: We think about one to seven in terms of the ratio of human years to dog years, but that’s not really accurate when we’re talking about those first couple of months, right?

Alexandra: Yeah. When I was writing my first book, Inside of a Dog, I went into a deep dive about where that one-to-seven ratio came from. As far as I could tell, it’s kind of a back extrapolation from the fact that our average lifetime is seventy-five or so years, and dogs was about ten years. As you suggest and future research has shown, they actually rapidly age. The first year of their life might be considered equivalent to about thirty years in a person’s life. Then they slow down.

Julianna: Thirty? Not zero-three?

Alexandra: Thirty. Right. Their bodies develop so rapidly. They’re ahead of their brains, really. They’re kind of like thirty-year-old adolescents, so as you can imagine, full of potential but also not completely in control of themselves. Then they really slow down in their development. The last years of their life, they’re aging kind of at the rate that we age.

Julianna: One of the fascinating questions that you tried to answer was whether or not once they left the litter and even months or weeks, even years later, do they recognize their siblings? That’s a question we had with our dog. We bought our dog when he was a puppy. We chose between him and his sister. We always said we should’ve also brought home his sister. What did you find out?

Alexandra: These pups were separated at about nine weeks from each other and from their mom. Then they were reunited later. I saw no signs of recognition of their siblings. Some people say to me, I feel so guilty that I took this puppy away from her mom, for instance, but Mom is done with the puppies at that point.

Julianna: That was so interesting, how the mom begins that process.

Alexandra: She is part of not just helping them survive in the first weeks, but then helps them become independent. If we remember also, female dogs could have a litter twice a year. They are fertile twice a year. Frankly, evolutionarily, they’re ready to almost go into another round, potentially. They have to get this litter out from under them. They’re taking a lot of resources from her. That’s part of their learning to be independent. That isn’t to say they wouldn’t, in some distant way, have a memory of each other. There has been research that shows that both the mom and the litters, if they’re given a blanket with the scent of the mom’s young or the litter’s siblings or mom, they will prefer that. They’ll prefer to lie on it than a blanket with a scent of a dog they don’t know. When they see each other in person, if they’ve only been together in person — in dog. If they’ve only been together for the first nine weeks of their life, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of recognition.

Julianna: You call this a scientific memoir. I want to talk about your own experience through writing this and the relationship that you forged with Quid, Quiddy. You go through all the names and nicknames. At one point in the book you write that dogs are the best teacher of all. What did you learn about yourself through this process?

Alexandra: I thought that since I adored dogs in general — I was living, at the time, with several dogs who I adored and admired — that it would be easy for me to add another dog to this fray. It really wasn’t. It took a long time for me to fall in love with her, partly because I was scrutinizing her so much. This dog scientist in me was observing her very carefully, maybe over-carefully, and looking at behaviors that I thought might be harbingers of future behaviors. My husband and son just loved her right away. They had more of that pure visceral experience. I stayed a little bit distant from it. I do think that is the case for many people. You shouldn’t expect that this dog will come into your life and then just instantly, they’re part of your family. Instantly, you’re responsible for them. They start looking to you for how the world’s going to run. That doesn’t mean that the bond is always instant. I did wind up writing about that. I hadn’t expected to feel that way, frankly. I’ve gotten some nice feedback that people felt reassured that even a dog scientist was not confident that I’d made the right choice.

Julianna: Do you think you purposefully tried not to get too close?

Alexandra: No, I would love to have been completely head over heels for her. I think that in retrospect, what I saw was that one of our — our two other dogs, Finnegan and Upton, were older. They were about twelve when we also adopted Quid. In some ways, having a puppy around rejuvenated them. In other ways, it felt like her vitality was matched by especially Finnegan’s diminishment of his life and suddenly quick decline toward the end of his life. I just adored Finnegan. Finnegan is in all my other books. He has been this longtime companion and was just the perfect, charming, sweet dog the way some people feel about their .

Julianna: I see you tearing up right now just talking about him.

Alexandra: We lost him this January. I wrote an obituary for him as well. Then Upton died a month later. Quid was two. After both of them passed, it was a lot easier to look at Quid and say, I really appreciate you for who you are. I think that simple sentiment, appreciating for who they are, is what sometimes stands in the way from people really getting along with a dog in their house. They’re behaving badly. They’re energetic when we want them to be quiet, and quiet when we want them to be energetic. We really have to see that this is the dog we have, their individual personalities, and try to find some middle ground with that.

Julianna: You alluded to some of Quid’s behaviors that you were concerned were indicative of future issues. That is definitely the dog owner, not the dog scientist, hat that you were wearing. Can you give an example of one of those behaviors that the dog scientist in you would’ve said, “No, that’s not necessarily a bad sign for the future”?

Alexandra: Sure, I have a perfect one, which is that she was really barky. She would bark at all the things, the new things, the sound she hears, the squirrels she wanted to chase. She just expressed herself by barking. She had a very shrill bark. I’ve lived with dogs who don’t bark at all. That’s pretty useful if I live in New York City, for instance, as I do. On the other hand, if you look at it as a scientist, which I can do at the same time — I kind of hold these two things in my head at once. Barking is just a communication. She was always telling us something. If I had just looked at it as a way that she was saying to us, “Listen, there’s something outside. Listen, I’m excited. Listen, I’m alone,” then you see, okay, that’s all that is. I’m certainly not going to scold you for trying to communicate. In fact, barks probably evolved in dogs as dogs’ attempts to communicate with humans. Wolfs don’t bark. Barks are right at the same frequency range as speech. I’d be ignoring the very thing that actually might her attempt to talk to me about.

Julianna: I also thought it was fascinating because, like many others, you adopted a dog during the pandemic. This is a pandemic puppy. You talk about how some of the things that you would normally do with a puppy, like taking them for a walk and hearing people coo over, “Oh, my god, that’s the cutest dog,” that makes up for some of these other behavioral issues. They go hand in hand. You weren’t able to have that.

Alexandra: It’s a great pleasure of having a dog in a city. There are so many other people and dogs. The dog is an extension of yourself.

Julianna: There’s community in it.

Alexandra: Somehow, I think that we often think of, me included, the compliment of our dog as a personal compliment.

Julianna: Of course, it is.

Alexandra: We had none of that. If we were anywhere near other people — this was peak pandemic — they moved away from us. We missed that. More important, we missed continued socialization. A lot of people with pandemic puppies missed continued socialization where she could just get used to encountering new things, new people, new dogs, new cats, new sounds, fire trucks, bicycles, whatever. We wound up having to very assiduously go out and find places where she could be socialized and have encounters with lots of things. That helped a huge amount. It wasn’t just a matter of course. We had to do it really intentionally.

Julianna: Is that one of the things that surprised you while you were working on this?

Alexandra: I certainly didn’t anticipate it. I had started the project, as it were, of thinking about getting a puppy for our family and also imagining that I would write about the science of early dog development, pre-pandemic. It was just that when the pandemic swooped in, we acknowledged it and everything shut down, I was watching one litter. I realized, oh, I bet it’s this litter that we’re going to adopt a dog from because nobody’s going to let me into their house to watch the pups grow up. We were just like everybody. We had no idea what was coming and certainly didn’t think ahead about, well, it’s going to be difficult to socialize her. What’s going to happen when we eventually have to leave her at home and go to work or go to school? Those are the things that everybody was encountering at once. At least, our eyes then quickly were opened to this because you could see in her behavior how she was accustomed to just us, got used to just being around the family. She was going to need exposure to those other things.

Julianna: I love it. Dog cognition scientists, they’re just like us.

Alexandra: Exactly. They really are. They’ve just spent more time watching slow-motion video tapes of dogs behaving, maybe, than you have.

Julianna: You say at one point, “If I can say there’s any difficulty involved in being a dog cognition researcher, and really, there is not, it’s simply that we can be too close to our subjects to see them well. Once we start thinking we know what we will see, we stop seeing, and the science stops. We need to be agnostic, not ready to feel certain that we know what a dog means by a gesture or what they might do next.”

Alexandra: I love that you highlight that. Just like everybody who lives with dogs, even as a scientist, you have expectations or assumptions about what the dog is doing or what they’re about to do or who they are. The best posture you can take, really in both positions, is to be a little agnostic and let them show you for themselves.

Julianna: After going through this and writing about it and studying yourself through raising a puppy, having other dogs, what is your advice now, your cheat sheet for people as they bring a puppy into their home?

Alexandra: First, you don’t have to get a puppy. It’s also really nice to get an older dog. I would say come in expecting that they won’t be who you think they’ll be. Come in with fewer expectations. Come in realizing that there is no set of tricks of things that you can teach them that’s going to make them miraculously understand what it’s like to live in a human household and that’s going to make them bond with you immediately. They’re going through an early part of their life, puppyhood, adolescence, being a teenager. Once you realize that those phases are happening, it’s a lot easier to just shepherd them through it as opposed to being concerned that they’re not perfect yet. They’re not doing all the behaviors we want. Be patient, essentially.

Julianna: Can you tell us about the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard? What exactly is it?

Alexandra: What is it? I started doing research into dog behavior with an interest in trying to find out what they know or understand when I was a graduate student. When I came to Barnard after grad school, I was still doing small experiments with dogs. These are behavioral experiments where, basically, you show them things and ask which one they choose, for instance, or point at one or the other and see if they follow your point. Simple experiments, sort of like games for the dogs. I’d also gotten really interested in the fact that we as dog owners seem to know all about what dogs know and understand as though there doesn’t need to be a science. I was testing our assumptions too. Then there were students who wanted to work with me. There was no such thing as a Dog Cognition Lab when I started. I think I started the first one in North America.

Julianna: When did you start it?

Alexandra: 2008.

Julianna: If it had been there when I was a student at Barnard, I definitely would’ve wanted to participate.

Alexandra: It is a little bit on the q.t. because it’s not like we’re keeping dogs there. It’s basically just a room where dogs and their people can come and participate in one of these little studies with us. Then they leave at the end of the day. In fact, dogs are not allowed on Barnard’s campus. Our dogs have an exception. They’re research dogs. At the end, they get a little Certificate of Dog-ness for completion of the studies. It’s brilliantly fun. It’s really great that there’s so many local dog owners who are interested in working with us.

Julianna: How did you tap into this passion of yours? How did you get into it initially?

Alexandra: It was pretty accidental. I didn’t go to grad school thinking I was going to study dog behavior or mind at all. Although, I lived with dogs. I thought the only way to think about dogs professionally was to be a veterinarian, basically. I wasn’t that hot on being a veterinarian. I was interested in cognitive science. I was interested in knowing about other’s minds. That included non-human animal minds. Then it wound up that dogs were just a great subject to study because I was studying play behavior. Guess what? They’re playing all the time. I got a huge amount of data and was able to show a little bit of how they were sensitive to each other’s attentional states in play, which is a kind of sophisticated cognitive ability. Then dogs stuck once you realize you can study the species and they’re widely available. Also, I knew that the science was affecting and improving my relationship with my own dogs. I just stuck with it. I didn’t have any foreknowledge that this was going to happen.

Julianna: It’s so fun to talk to somebody who’s passionate about the line of work that they’re in. Even just having this conversation, I can see your face beaming and smiling as you talk about it. It’s contagious. Thank you.

Alexandra: That’s great. Other scientists, come in this field. I do hear from a lot of young students who are interested in the science. I’m like, this is great. You have your passion. You have a scientific method. The two of them can meet with this study subject.

Julianna: What do you think is the most misunderstood trait of dogs?

Alexandra: I do think we still treat them a little bit as furry humans. As you know, I’m very keen on the olfactory prowess of dogs and talking about how, actually, it’s not just that they have a good nose, that they can smell some things that we can’t, but it’s a profoundly different way of seeing the world. They’re seeing the world through smell. That redefines everything about their experience. They recognize us by smell. They recognize each other by smell. They’re seeing what happened on the street before they even got to the street because it’s written in smells. I think that’s misunderstood. We assume that because they’re sitting alongside us on the sofa, they kind of are in on it with us. They know exactly what’s happening.

Julianna: I don’t think I’m going to get this totally right. There was a statistic in your previous book that talked about — was it if you poured a cup of salt into a pool, they could smell? Was it a cup?

Alexandra: It was two teaspoons of sugar.

Julianna: Two teaspoons of sugar in an Olympic-size swimming pool.

Alexandra: Right. They would be able to detect the sugar in that pool. Their olfactory acuity is very, very strong for so many substances. We have perfectly good noses. If we stuck our nose in things and really sniffed, we would smell a lot more things than we do, but they’re smelling this constantly. They have a way of circular breathing so that they’re never getting the smells out of their nose, as we often want to do on a New York City street in the summer. That’s the way they see the world. I think that’s not completely understood. In fact, even as a scientist, I’m still trying to make sense of what that means for them in terms of their understanding of time and each other.

Julianna: It’s just such a completely different sensory experience, going through life in a different kind of way.

Alexandra: Absolutely. There has been this interesting side effect of the pandemic, of COVID in particular. It took a lot of people’s smell temporarily. People got very aware of the fact that, it’s not just, we’re smelling our food or you smell the odor of the gas having been left on. It’s that we recognize each other a little bit by smell. Rooms have a smell. You have expectations for what it smells like in the spring. This kind of information is what dogs deal in. I love trying to get a glimpse of that.

Julianna: Do you know if dogs ever lost that sense when they got COVID?

Alexandra: Very few dogs did, as far as I know, get COVID. I haven’t heard of dogs being anosmic, losing their sense of smell. Then again, we’re not usually testing them for that. It would be interesting to meet a dog without a sense of smell. I’d be curious about how that affects their behavior. Their vision is fine. Their hearing is fine. It’s not like they’re without bearings. I haven’t ever met an anosmic dog. That’s a new line of research you’re opening up for me.

Julianna: Is that going to be your next book?

Alexandra: I would love to know about it, for sure.

Julianna: What is next, then?

Alexandra: Actually, I’m writing about animals more broadly, animals kind of on the margin of our societies that we sometimes don’t look at as closely as we could but are really important to our society, even pest animals, for instance. The state of the modern animal in society. Bringing the same gaze that I brought to dogs to other animals.

Julianna: Are you doing that research at Barnard?

Alexandra: Yep.

Julianna: Amazing. For people who want to learn more or if they have specific questions, do people reach out to you?

Alexandra: Sure. I have a website, That has a lot of information about me. I am ubiquitous on the web, I’m afraid. Barnard has, under the psychology department, there’s information about some of my research. There’s a Dog Cognition Lab, at Barnard, website. Absolutely, if you’re in the vicinity and you want to participate in studies with your dog, sign up for our mailing list. We’ll notify you when we have a study.

Julianna: Awesome. Alexandra Horowitz, thank you so much for the time. Highly, highly recommend The Year of the Puppy and also other works by Alexandra. Thank you.

Alexandra: Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure talking to you, Julianna.

Alexandra Horowitz, THE YEAR OF THE PUPPY: How Dogs Become Themselves

THE YEAR OF THE PUPPY: How Dogs Become Themselves by Alexandra Horowitz

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