Alexandra Horowitz explores canine psychology : NPR

Year of the Puppy, by Alexandra Horowitz

Lucky puppy, lucky puppy, such a lucky puppy to be adopted by Alexandra Horowitz. What Mr. Rogers was to children, Alexandra Horowitz is to dogs: a wise and patient observer who seeks to to know a creature that is fundamentally different from us adult humans.

Horowitz is a canine psychologist – an authority on how dogs perceive the world. But, as she generously admits in her latest book, The year of the puppy, there are many things she does not know. So, out of professional curiosity and a perverse desire to add a little pee, poo, bite, bark, yodeling ball of fur to her family – which by then already consisted of a husband, a young son, two adult dogs and a cat – Horowitz decides to adopt a puppy. And, during the months that followed, she admitted to having regrets.

As the owner of a beloved but surprisingly large rescue dog with responsiveness issues, I wouldn’t trust Horowitz if she didn’t have regrets.

As anyone familiar with Horowitz’s previous books knows, The year of the puppy is not a training manual. Indeed, one of the best moments in this book occurs near the end, where Horowitz, mimicking the notorious certainty of the Cesar Millan school of trainers, offers a list titled “What you need to be prepared for your puppy “. Here is the list, in its entirety:

Expect your puppy to not be who you think and act the way you expect.

This profound statement, applicable to all sense creatures, testifies to Horowitz’s insistence on clearly seeing the “otherness” of dogs. But whether they were bought from a breeder or picked up from a shelter, most dogs go home with their humans when they are weeks, months, or even years old. Horowitz wanted to study how a puppy begins to make sense of the world just out of the womb, how it begins to become itself. To do this, she comes into contact with a woman who raises dogs in her home. There, a rescue dog of undetermined breed soon gives birth to a huge litter of 11 puppies.

Horowitz returns weekly to check on the pups as they quickly go from “hairy lima beans” to “sweet potatoes with ears, paws and tails” to “bulky bunnies.” At eight weeks, Horowitz and his family bring home one of the puppies – a female with black, gold and white fur, with tufts of erect hair on her nose – a “no-hawk”. They name the new pup “Quiddity”, which means “the essence of a thing”, and call him “Quid” for short. Then the fun begins.

Horowitz’s writing is both as dynamic and precise as Quid’s zest for catching tennis balls – again and again and again and again. His chapters, filled with in-depth observations on canine cognition and behavior, are mini-mood lifters. How not to smile reading this description of the litter at five weeks old:

[T]he leaves completely, then enters, then leaves [the doggy door]. They work like a sweet melee,… They seem bound by invisible threads, not yet in the world as much as them, together, are their own world. … [When one] falls asleep, suddenly almost all the puppies follow. As if sleeping sickness had swept the enclosure, in a minute almost everyone was head to toe in a circle on a cozy bed, asleep.

If the first third of The year of the puppy consists of Horowitz’s scrutiny of the litter, the rest of the book focuses squarely on Quid:

She is a light bulb that shines brightly. When it’s on, you can’t help but notice it: it chews, runs, pees, scratches, moans — does. … We didn’t just adopt a dog; we took his education in all that is human.

Complicating that upbringing, Horowitz and his family adopted Quid during the pandemic, when the emotional demands we humans placed on dogs as practical companions and comforters escalated. Predictably, Quid soon loses his identity as Horowitz’s research subject and completely transforms into Quid, the flawed but beloved family dog. Even Horowitz, the dog expert, acknowledges that she is trained by Quid as much as Quid is trained by her.

Gertrude Stein once said, “I am me because my little dog knows me.” As with most things Stein said, the meaning is fluid, but The year of the puppy expands on Stein’s remark: Between the humanity of the human and the dogness of the dog lies a sublime mystery. Many of us call it love.


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