John Homans asks 'What's a Dog For?'

John Homans, executive editor of New York magazine John Homans, executive editor of New York magazine and author of "What's a Dog For?" in Gramercy Park with his dog, Stella, a Labrador mixed breed adopted from the North Shore Animal League. Photo Credit: Ari Mintz

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It's easy to make fun of the ditzy chick with a pooch in her purse, but even smarties like Jane Goodall and Charles Darwin were crazy for canines, as John Homans, executive editor of New York Magazine, reports in "What's a Dog For?: The Surprising History, Science, Philosophy, and Politics of Man's Best Friend" (Penguin Press, $25.95). After adopting a Lab mix named Stella from North Shore Animal League, Homans quickly became part of the nearly 100 percent of people who admit they talk to their dogs and started to wonder about the history and science behind the pet-obsessed culture into which he'd been thrust. Homans spoke with us by telephone about the book.

 

We see a lot of animal absurdity in the news, from puppy proms to the dog act that won "America's Got Talent." Yet your book is very serious. In fact, you say, "Stella's arrival on my rug was the arrival of great forces of history." How so?

The catalyst for the book was a magazine piece I wrote about some friends with a fantastic Australian shepherd. The dog was brilliant, 10 years old and sick, so they took it to an animal hospital and walked out with a dead dog and a $10,000 [veterinary] bill. I realized this was a very different world than I was used to. In New York City, all dogs have coats. That seemed preposterous to me. And people talk about their dogs as much as they talk about their children. I started looking into it, and once you strip off the layer of ridiculousness, there was something much more serious going on. This book is an argument for the importance of the dog.

 

In 2010, there were 77 million dogs in the United States, up from 53 million in 1996. What's going on?

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As people are living more independently and with less built-in community connections -- Grandma and cousins and nephews are no longer next door in this modern world -- dogs naturally fill this gap. In cities, especially, dogs are a connection to nature. This connection is a kind of biological hunger that humans have, along with the need for companionship. In our home, Stella fills both these roles.

 

Pet food and products were a $38-billion industry in 2010. Why do some people treat their dogs better than their fellow humans?

Ah, yes, the doggy birthday cakes. I know people for whom their dog is the only child they'll have, and they take care of them almost intensely as a child. And there are retired people who decide the companionship of dogs is superior to that of people in a lot of ways. There are studies that show that sometimes, chemically, a dog is more soothing than a spouse. The hypothesis is that there are less human spikes and complexities. There is something less complicated and more pure in a relationship with a dog than with a person.

 

Why are so many smart people obsessed with dogs, and what did they discover?

I knew dogs were central to Darwin's work, but when I learned Jane Goodall's thinking about apes was also catalyzed by dogs, I had a eureka moment. There is a real intellectual continuity in the fact that the dog is a gateway into observing nature. There's also the idea of shared intentionality: I can point at an object, and we both know what I'm talking about, and this is the beginning of communication. Scientists think this could be one pathway by which language developed. The first thing a baby does, long before it talks, is point and understand pointing.

 

When did our love affair with canines begin?

There's fossil evidence from 14,500 years ago in Germany that a dog was buried with a 50-year-old man and a 25-year-old woman. There may have been some other symbolic resonance, but it appears to us as part of the family, the first domesticated dog. Though that dog probably didn't get birthday cakes.

 

So, what are dogs for?

The title is a trick question. What is a person for? What is art for? Dogs are like looking in a mirror -- they tell us so much about our need for companionship. Friendliness, helpfulness and shared intentionality are central to human enterprise. We're social creatures. Our cognitive gifts aren't the only things that make us who we are -- we also need to be in loving relationships. This isn't only about getting a belly scratch.

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