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What's a Dog For?: The Surprising History, Science, Philosophy, and Politics of Man's Best Friend Hardcover – 8 Nov 2012

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 258 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press; 1 edition (8 Nov. 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594205159
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594205156
  • Product Dimensions: 16.2 x 2.4 x 24.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 520,760 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I enjoyed this - some elements were more light-hearted than others, but on the whole very readable either for your average just-interested dog-lover, or for someone who is interested in dog behaviour.
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By Michael Jones on 19 Sept. 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
oh yeah
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 80 reviews
56 of 60 people found the following review helpful
Honorary persons 13 Nov. 2012
By TChris - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
"Canine science is intended to shed light not only on what makes dogs dogs but on what makes people people," says John Homans. What's a Dog For? reviews a wealth of canine science. Some of it pertains to wolves, the dog's genetic ancestor, but wolves don't necessarily tell us much about dogs, at least from a behavioral perspective. Some of it examines a dog's cognitive skills, including the ability to interpret human gestures. Some of it addresses the reasons people seek canine companionship. Dogs are a hedge against loneliness. Dogs are part of our families, but they also fill the gaps when our families disintegrate. When we gaze into a dog's eyes, our levels of oxytocin -- a hormone that promotes bonding and attachment --spike. Perhaps a dog's purpose is to sustain the mental health of dog lovers. While the health benefits of dog ownership are disputed, one study result stands out in my mind as being undeniably correct: dogs are better stress relievers than spouses.

We bestow honorary personhood upon dogs (at least the dogs we love), but are they entitled to it? The central question, according to Homans, is whether dogs, during the course of their long association with humans, have taken on human qualities. It's clear that dogs have developed communicative and cooperative abilities that surpass those of their ancestral wolves, but those abilities appear to be an outgrowth of tameness and are not necessarily unique to dogs (tame Siberian foxes, for instance, exhibit some of the same traits). But that may mean that dogs (and some other tame animals) are much like humans in this sense: they have evolved a capacity for cooperation that supplants the instinctive trait of competition. In other words, dogs are like humans because they are willing to look to others for help when they need it (and dogs need lots of help, given their inability to open the refrigerator by themselves). Like many other propositions advanced by canine scientists, this one is far from undisputed. In fact, canine science is a field that is riddled with disagreement. Homans offers a balanced view, taking care to interview scientists who have sharply differing opinions about canine evolution, canine intelligence, canine communication, and a host of other canine topics.

Of course, science only takes us so far. Scientists caution against anthropomorphism while dog lovers (including Charles Darwin) readily attribute human traits to their canine companions. Homans' survey of the research is filtered through his relationship with his dog Stella. He believes Stella experiences guilt and jealousy and that she has a sense of fairness (although her sense of fairness is skewed in her favor: "two treats for me, one for you"). Yet he understands that his yearning for a connection with Stella inclines him toward a bias. Of course Stella experiences human emotions. Of course she's smiling at her family members. Well, maybe she is and maybe she isn't. Separating anthropomorphism from rigorous analysis isn't easy.

Stella is part Labrador, so we learn a good bit about the history of Labs. This leads to a discussion of breeding for pedigree (which served the whims of the aristocracy rather than the needs of dogs) and dog shows (which an early breeder demeaned as "the greatest humbug in the world"). Homans also discusses the genetic basis for cross-breeding (to produce, for instance, hypoallergenic dogs) and the risk that such techniques will lead to puppy mills. He takes a look at stray dogs and the ethical controversy that surrounds the practice of euthanizing them, as well as the growing market for rescue dogs. All of this is interesting if familiar, but only tangentially relevant to the question posed by the book's title.

Of greater value, although not explored at length, is a section discussing cultural attitudes toward dogs. Although many dog owners treat their dogs as family members, many others (predominantly in the south) view dogs as property and consider themselves free to fill canvas bags with rocks and unwanted puppies and drop them off a bridge as a means of population control. "To many a southerner," Homans writes, "the notion that a dog is entitled to humanlike treatment is simply loopy." I don't want to disparage southerners, but I'd like to throw them off a bridge if they think they have the right to murder dogs. In any event, Homans makes the telling point that if dogs earn honorary personhood at the moment of adoption, the same rights of personhood should obtain at the moment of birth -- hence the need (even in the South) to regulate puppy mills and build no-kill shelters. Stella, in fact, traveled to a Long Island shelter from Tennessee -- a fortunate journey for both Stella and Homans.

The book concludes with a discussion of the growing consensus that animals deserve to be treated with empathy and compassion. This sets the stage for the ultimate question: To what extent should dogs have rights that override the owner's property rights? It is a broad question more easily asked than answered, and Homans' analysis -- focused largely on the euthanasia versus no-kill debate -- is a bit superficial.

Homans' prose is lively and evocative, making What's a Dog For? a pleasure to read. In the end, all of the historical and scientific information that Homans assembles is interesting and intellectually stimulating, but science and history do little to answer the philosophical question posed by the book's title. Homans addresses it in a final chapter that is both sweet and sad. To me, and to most dog owners, the answer is obvious. What's a dog for? I love my dog. That's what a dog's for.
22 of 26 people found the following review helpful
a fantastic and engaging read. 29 Dec. 2012
By Vanessa R. Woods - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
My favorite line out of Homans' remarkable book is 'the dog is now in the process of being reimagined'. This couldn't be more true. In an age where everything worthwhile seems to have already been done or discovered, it is incredible that one of the most exciting subjects of study sleeps placidly at our feet, or as Stella, the heroine of Homans' book does, turns her nose up at milk biscuits, knowing there is steak in the refrigerator. There has been a revolution in how we think about dog intelligence, and what goes on in the canine mind, that has really only taken flight in the last decade. Hohman admirably weaves the threads of scientific discovery together in a fast paced, page turner, that is no surprise, given his experience as Executive Editor of NY Magazine and writer for other respected national publications.

Stella is a compelling character, because she is every dog. Homans doesn't claim there is anything extraordinary about her compared to other dogs, but just that being a dog makes her extraordinary. Stella is the dog we've all had, where looking into their eyes, you can't help but wonder what is going on behind them. To find out the answer, Homans traveled all over the world, interviewing leading scientists on dog cognition. Homans' grasp on the science is admirable especially since he is not an academic - the raw material has taken years for me to become familiar with, and Homans manages to explain complex ideas clearly without losing any of the subtleties.

Full disclosure - one of the scientists Homans interviewed was my husband - Brian Hare - which leads me to my second favorite line 'Hare.... is somewhere between school boy and rock star'. Said line has lead to much hilarity in our household. Having just had a new baby, many requests are prefaced as such 'Hey rockstar, change this diaper...'

A fantastic read for the holidays - and one that will bring a new understanding that will make your relationship with your best friend even better.
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
Balanced Scientific, Cultural, and Moralistic Evaluation 22 Nov. 2012
By D_shrink - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
The book was a nicely balanced discussion on the purpose of a dog with science, culture, and morals all taking their respective places.

We learn early on that the author might be "slightly" biased in that the dog on the cover is his dog Stella, a rescue mixed breed transferred from Tennessee to NYC, and to which he ascribes mostly lab characteristics. But who can blame any owner for feeling his/her own dog is special, yet he doesn't let this get in the way of the points he makes on science and the genetics.

The book is filled with a myriad of facts and statistics all nicely placed within the narrative, so as to render them part and parcel of each topic of discussion. I would like to give a few examples of the many offered as:

1. In 2010 the U.S. dog population totaled approximately 77 million, and increase of 24 million from just 1996.
2. This increase in population accounted for annual spending of about 38 Billion for pet food/supplies/care.
3. Almost all dog owners talk to their dogs [the ones who don't admit this are probably prevaricating] and almost 80% of the owners consider their dog a true member of the family.
4. Domestic dogs only vary from their genetic antecedents, the gray wolf, by only .2% of their DNA.
5. Dogs and wolves primarily differ in behavioral characteristics in that the wolf is far more independent of man than a dog. When trying to solve a problem a domesticated dog will normally look to his/her human companion for guidance while a wolf even one somewhat domesticated would not, as wolves will not make eye contact long enough, as that would be considered a challenge or threat to a wild animal.
6. Only 3 genes account for over 95% of the different types of fur on dogs.
7. All small breeds share a single very early gene mutation accounting for their size.
8. Floppy ears are the result of one gene mutation also.
9. Although the dog has about 450 hereditary diseases, approximately 50% are analogous to a similar disease in humans.
10. As most dog owners already know, although most dogs will accept food from strangers, they will normally only follow commands from their regular handlers.

The author goes on to discuss various training methods as with Karen Pryor who popularized using a "clicker", Cesar Millan who emphasizes dominance or the pack leader position, and Wm. Koehler, the most popular trainer of the mid 2th century emphasizing correction and behavior modification. Others were also discussed, but these were the three discussed most.

The author also gave a lively discussion of the problems of genetic inbreeding due to a lack of diversity in many of the purebred species. The author mentioned and I watched a 2008 BBC documentary entitled PEDIGREE DOGS EXPOSED [highly recommended also], available on the internet, which shows many of these problems in graphic detail.

The pros and cons of rescue animals and No-Kill shelters are also discussed. We learn here, that No-kill doesn't necessarily strictly mean that but may mean they kill a lot less percentage wise than the people who ran the programs previously to them. It may also mean that they pass off unadoptable dogs, think primarily pit bulls retired from the fighting pits, to other agencies who then kill them. Which then leads back to more discussion on rescuing dogs of all types and is it possible or even desireable, which leads to the morality issue and cultural preferences.

We find that the author feels that one of the best reasons for owning a dog is the greeting you get from your companion/friend each day when you get home. We are also informed that the dog of today is becoming more humanized and less dog-like than ever before, which almost all dogs owners can attest to.

This was simply a great addition to the library of any dog owner or person interested in studying dogs. Highly recommended.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Ultimately satisfying but occasionally dry look at dog evolution 17 Dec. 2012
By A. Reid - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
There are features about this book I like very much. Among them, I really enjoyed how Homans ties his research and "meta" discussions about dogs, their brains and their history into stories about his own experiences with dogs. This personalizes the story in a way that keeps it from being too dry. On the other hand, I felt like it really got interesting pretty far in, well after the speculative "how smart are they?" musings into the historical developments of dogs. I kind of wish that we had started with this, which was more linear and engaging for me than the material that preceded it. His look into canine historical development and into the modern treatment of animals (from animal control tactics to end of life care) was completely satisfying for me. The material that preceded it, kind of so so.

That said, credit to Homans for not pretending more certainty than he has. Some of the tidbits he shared about canine intelligence and the evolution of theories relating to canine intelligence were highly intriguing, and I'd rather be left unsatisfied than led to believe science has reached a consensus it has not.

3 stars for the first half; 5 for the last.
47 of 66 people found the following review helpful
Uh, Did i pick up "Marley and Me" by accident? It's all about the author and his dog 20 Dec. 2012
By nycgirl - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Ever hear your friends with babies talk on and on about their precious angels? while they drone on, you feign interest but kinda don't care b/c it's not your baby?

Same thing with this book. I was expecting a meaty, fascinating non-fiction insight into the world of a dog. Instead, I got a lot of "all about me, me, me, and my dog Stella" stories that i really don't care to read about. The opening chapters are about acquiring Stella, the author's experience growing up with dogs, his interactions with Stella, how Stella looks at him, etc, all of Stella's trials and tribulations, Stella this, Stella that.

Come ON! when are we going to get to the real non-fiction "meat" of the book? I skip ahead several more chapters, and yes, the author did some research in talking to canine experts about the psychology of dogs, inside a dog's head, various factoids about dog history, but all these nuggets are interspersed with asides about Stella.

The basic chapter structure goes like this:
1) Describe observation of Stella's behavior.
2) Segueway into interesting tidbit of dog info.
3) Go back to Stella: *So that's why she acts that way!*
4) Interview a few experts, add in some quotes
5) Insert anecdote about Stella.

Sorry... i'm sure Stella is lovely, but I want to read about DOGS. Not YOUR dog.

I kept checking the front of the book, thinking, "Did i pick up 'Marley and Me' by accident?"

Editors don't necessarily make the best writers. I adore, worship, and respect New York Mag, and upon hearing that NY Mag Editor John Homans wrote this, thought it'd be good. I wanted a serious book hoping to learn more about dogs. Instead, i couldn't even process that information because he had to insert Stella in throughout the whole book.
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