‘What’s a Dog For?’ by John Homans: Why we are fascinated with our dogs

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Rating: 4 1/2 stars

“What’s a Dog For? The Surprising History, Science, Philosophy, and Politics of Man’s Best Friend” by John Homans takes the reader on a journey that goes back tens of thousands of years — to the beginning of man’s relationship with wolves, who would evolve (with and without human help) into our current melange of dogs.

Homans alternates between reminiscing about his childhood dogs, his current dog, Stella, a Labrador mix from a shelter, and theories about how and when dogs became domesticated. He describes a particular study with Siberian foxes. The experimenters selected for breeding the most human-friendly foxes. After several generations of selective breeding, the foxes actually changed physically. They became more dog-like, with floppy ears, wagging tails and star-shaped blazes on their foreheads.

In another study, scientists working with dogs have discovered that dogs understand human gestures better than our closest primate relatives do. When humans point to something, our dogs understand. Primates generally do not.

Dog owners know that pointing “trick.” For example, my own dog will visit a child sitting with other children in a circle when I point to that child. But apparently, scientists didn’t believe it until it had been proven. When scientists went to test the Siberian foxes, they were amazed to find out that those foxes also understood human pointing.

Homans also takes on the AKC and the subject of dog breeds. Documentaries have been filmed about the horrors that selective breeding have created in certain breeds. For example, many cavalier King Charles spaniels suffer from a disease called syringomelia. It’s caused by a brain too large to fit into the skull, and, according to Homans, “the Kennel Club admits that as many as 50 percent of King Charles spaniels have the underlying condition.”

Although they claim that only 5% of the dogs show clinical symptoms, “some veterinarians believe that a substantial portion of the dogs that appear to be asymptomatic are nevertheless in chronic pain — pain that, being dogs, they can’t make known.” It’s horrible to think that one’s beloved dog might be in constant pain.

Those are just a few of the areas competently and fascinatingly covered by Homans. He also dares to take on the controversy with Oreo’s Law — the ASPCA shelter dog Oreo who was euthanized even though there were rescues who wanted to pull him. Justified or not? Homans lays out the story for the reader to decide.

The book is eminently readable, and although chock-full of facts and data, it consistently grabs and keeps the reader’s attention. Dog lovers will want a copy of this on their bookshelves.

Please note: this review is based on the final hardcover book provided by the publisher, The Penguin Press, for review purposes.