If you’re a dog person – well, ok, of course you are cuz who else would read this review? – you probably already know Alexandra Horowitz’s book Inside of a Dog. Her new book is a drill-down on maybe the key component of a dog: the magical wonders of its sniffer.
I wrestled with the title a bit, Being a Dog, thinking maybe the subtitle was more accurate, Following the Dog into a World of Smell, as Horowitz really does exactly that. She is not content to passively observe dogs sniffing things out: bad guys, drugs, cancer, truffles – but spends a lot of time looking at what smelling actually is and works very hard to develop her own sniffing skills. This includes hours/weeks of huffing vials full of molecules – scents are molecules – but also includes getting down on all fours to snort things like fire hydrants and pools of unknown liquids: first left nostril, then right nostril. Yes, they’re each different. By only halfway thru the book, I too was developing the habit of sniffing my environment. You can gather an incredible amount of information from the invisible scents that waft & settle around you, but it takes practice. So far, categories I’ve nailed down are “Air” and “Things made of bacon”, but based on Horowitz’s progress (which by the end of the book is pretty impressive) I have a distant hope for Wolverine-like keenness.
That’s the first thing you learn from this book, that you can (and should) develop your own under-used sniffing abilities. It’s like growing a third eye in the middle of your face that connects directly to your brain. (It’s true and in the book.) The other thing you learn is that you will never ever match a dog’s ability. Any dog. The notion that only trained dogs can sniff out bad guys, drugs, cancer and truffles is quite false. The training dogs receive is all about teaching them which of the trillions of molecules they are aware of will get them their tennis ball: bark when you find THIS molecule. That’s why the title is actually perfect: trillions of scent molecules but only one tennis ball. That’s what being a dog is like.