01/03/2013 10:56 am ET Updated Mar 05, 2013

What's A Dog For? The Surprising History, Science, Philosophy and Politics of Man's Best Friend


I told my dog I had been asked to review What's A Dog For? The Surprising History, Science, Philosophy and Politics of Man's Best Friend, the first book by New York magazine executive director John Homans. I do tell my dog everything, but he was unimpressed, maybe pessimistic. He looked at me for a moment while sitting on my foot, clearly wondering why it was after lunch and we had not gone to the park yet. If my dog could laugh, he probably would have. How does my dog know it is time to go? Homans examines the relationship between dogs and humans, starting with questions that I hadn't thought of in the past.

I'm not the only person in the world who speaks to their dog. Homans has written a thought-provoking book on the nuances between people and their best friends. He explores the ever-changing and intricate relationship between the species. Evolving from wild animals to working partners to actual members of families, our canine companions are now the focus of studies centered on pet ownership, evolutionary theory and cognitive science. Homans begins his study with his own dog, Stella, by asking basic philosophical questions like "Who, or what is she?" and "What goes on in her head?" Homans is even able to come to the question "And what's going on in my head that I can't help but treat her as something she clearly isn't?" How does my dog know it is time to go to the park, or that we eat every day at 4:00 p.m.? These questions center on a $53 billion industry in the United States alone.

Homans is funny, empathic and emotionally engaged with the topic. He illuminates the history between dogs and humans by examining narrative accounts, interviews and theories devoted to which animal found the other first and how domestication of dogs occur, and in Homans research we discover the foundation of the relationship is mutual. People latched onto wolves, the more beastly brothers of our dogs, early. Both species are social, nurturing, cooperative and even deadly at times. Both humans and wolves had, let's call it "down time," when not hunting and scrounging for food. Thus developed the principles of domestication and co-existence with dogs. Homans decides dogs and humans are a natural fit in what they want and need.

Like humans, dogs adapt to their environment rather successfully. The principals of Charles Darwin's research, the theorist of natural selection mentioned often in What's A Dog For?, suggest that it's not the strongest that survive, or the smartest creature that thrives, but rather the ones that change, adapt, learn and train to their surroundings. As opposed to the litany of dog training books on the market, Homans draws on the behavioral and cognitive sciences, including the work of Noam Chomsky on how a brain functions, Homans extrapolates on standard techniques of development often applied to human babies and monkeys, and looks at how they can be useful to both wolves and dogs. The brain of a wolf has a smaller window of time to develop, and they have to be incisive because of their dangerous environment. Rather than months of learning, a wolf cub has a period of about five weeks. A disciplined dog takes 16 weeks to develop. Dogs have been with humans for millennia, understanding our social rules with little training. Dog brains have adapted to work with humans early on. To examine this point Homans looks at the concepts of B.F. Skinner, the father of radical behaviorism. If we can influence the environment, we can influence the dog.

Homans takes us to the Victorian fantasy of designated roles within human society and places this on our relationships with dogs: ratters, herding breads, guard dogs, and, toy dogs. The breeding of dogs as we recognize them now began in the 19th Century class-system as a reflection of a class-oriented society. This is not only our own place in life, but also how we see ourselves. This identification continues today. Homans does not mention this in his book, but there was one thing I would like to get out of Michael Vick, the football star who gruesomely abused, tortured, and executed under-performing dogs in fighting activities, did he identify with the pit bulls he trained to fight, and when they failed: Did he identify, as a professional athlete in a violent sport, with the dogs that he killed? Do we pick and choose dogs in our lives not only as a companion, but also as breed, a pedigree that we identify with?

Homans continues his analysis of dog politics by looking at the modern-day relationships of The American Kennel Club shows, and groups such as PETA (People For The Ethical treatment of Animals). In 2009 the AKC allowed mixed breeds (mutts) into agility contests, while Homans openly refers to PETA as nothing more than a press release machine. A few years ago PETA showed up at the Westminster Kennel Club wearing KKK hoods emphasizing the insistence on pure breed dogs, a stupid stunt that does not fall deaf on Homans. Dogs are friends and allies, but comparing a dog group to the Klan is foolhardy, and just childish. In the political reality of dogs Homans examines the fierce moral battles over kill shelters and puppy mills, but he saves his best analysis for last when using a John Updike quote, as dogs, at times, serve to remind us how mortal we all are, eventually they will die, and so will we. A rather honest side to the "best-friend business," as Homans puts it.

In his final moments of the book, Homans remembers his wife's gone West Highland Terrier. Homans bring the reader to the room where they needed to put the 14-year-old dog to rest after fighting tumors. Homans talks to the dog, much in the way I imagine we all talk with our dogs, about a what a happy afterlife he will have, wondering if after all the science and sociology of dogs he has uncovered is really understood in the moment. Homans provides real pathos in the story, and drop his research to side when writing of the death of a family member. It's heavy stuff, but is told with a dignity and grace. He knows that some day he will have to do the same to Stella, as I know there will come a day when my dog no longer sits on my foot, unimpressed with me.

This might be Homans first book, but I hope it is not his last. His research is meticulous; his language casual and smooth when discussing sophisticated science, and Homans has an understanding of his audience. Homans proves that he can provide real pathos for our dogs without making the reader feel manipulated. I'll be looking forward to his next book, probably while sitting at the dog park while my dog looks at me, unimpressed.