The Bookworm: Following Our Dogs’ Noses

“Being a Dog: Following the Dog Into a World of Smell” by Alexandra Horowitz

c.2016, Scribner            $27          336 pages

Your walk around the block took longer this morning. Something happened overnight and your dog’s nose was on overload. He made you stop here, linger there, pause here, what was he sniffing?

Certainly things unsavory, surely things you don’t want to know about and, as you’ll see in “Being a Dog” by Alexandra Horowitz, a whole lot more.

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Horowitz loves to stare into the faces of her dogs.

It’s a kind of bonding when their eyes meet hers, she says, but eyes are not the only way a dog “sees.” Much of what a dog knows filters through the little black button at the end of his snout.

It’s common knowledge that a dog’s nose catches scents better than does a measly human schnoz. Your dog can smell a storm coming from miles away. Properly trained, he could find bugs, drugs, explosives, dead bodies, missing people and diseases.

Your dog knows how you feel just by how you smell; he knows where you’ve been and what you ate while you were there. And for him, the walk you had this morning was different than the one you had yesterday – even if you followed the exact same route.  

So what are we missing?

Horowitz wondered, too, so she started sniffing high (where smells invisibly waft like clouds) and low (where scents tend to settle). She learned that all humans once knew how to use smell to find their way home, detect disease and identify friends; and that it’s still possible to utilize full snoot capacity.

Horowitz volunteered to identify smells to see how well she’d do. She talked with perfume and wine experts, visited training centers that teach puppies to find things that are hidden and possibly dangerous, and she learned how much we miss when we aren’t heeding the air we breathe.

And the part that really stinks? Horowitz says researchers believe our pet dogs are losing their excellent sniffability, just as we once did.

Ninety miles a minute. Isn’t that how fast your dog’s nose moves, inside or outside, when she smells something interesting?  There’s a reason why, “Being a Dog” explains.

For sure, the author goes farther than most would, to suss out what we’re missing by not being dogs: her experiments spark both imagination and nose-wrinkling disgust. Definitely she makes a reader envy the pooch’s proboscis that finds, indentifies and savors a richer world and scents that, sadly, we’ll never notice.

But can we teach ourselves to at least get up to snuff with our sniffler? Maybe. Reading about the lengths to which Horowitz goes to find out is funny and icky-truthful. That plus its wealth of information makes this book a delight for dog lovers and anyone who enjoys the smell of breakfast, crayons, rich earth, fresh-baked cookies, and yes, even dogs.

Behold your pup’s little black nose. Admire the leathery scales, the wet softness, the curve of it – and then read on for a full appreciation. “Being a Dog” is one great book to sniff out.


The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. Terri has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Her self-syndicated book reviews appear in more than 260 newspapers.

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