What's a Dog For?

The Surprising History, Science, Philosophy, and Politics of Man's Best Friend

John Homans - Author

Hardcover | $25.95 | add to cart | view cart
ISBN 9781594205156 | 272 pages | 08 Nov 2012 | The Penguin Press | 6.37 x 9.56in | 18 - AND UP
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John Homans adopted his dog, Stella, from a shelter for all the usual reasons: fond memories of dogs from his past, a companion for his son, an excuse for long walks around the neighborhood. Soon enough, she is happily ensconced in the daily workings of his family. And not only that: Stella is treated like a family member—in ways that dogs of his youth were not. Spending humanlike sums on vet bills, questioning her diet and exercise regimens, contemplating her happiness—how had this all come to pass, when the dogs from Homans’s childhood seemed quite content living mostly out in the yard?

In What’s a Dog For?, Homans explores the dog’s complex and prominent place in our world and how it came to be. Evolving from wild animals to working animals to nearly human members of our social fabric, dogs are now the subject of serious scientific studies concerning pet ownership, evolutionary theory, and even cognitive science. From new insights into what makes dogs so appealing to humans to the health benefits associated with owning a dog, Homans investigates why the human-canine relationship has evolved so rapidly—how dogs moved into our families, our homes, and sometimes even our beds in the span of a generation, becoming a $53 billion industry in the United States in the process.

As dogs take their place as coddled family members and their numbers balloon to more than seventy-seven million in the United States alone, it’s no surprise that canine culture at large is also undergoing a massive transformation. They are now subject to many of the same questions of rights and ethics as people, and the politics of dogs are more tumultuous and public than ever— with fierce moral battles raging over kill shelters, puppy mills, and breed standards. Incorporating interviews and research from scientists, activists, breeders, and trainers, What’s a Dog For? investigates how dogs have reached this exalted status and why they hold such fascination for us. With one paw in the animal world and one paw in the human world, it turns out they have much to teach us about love, death, and morality—and ultimately, in their closeness and difference, about what it means to be human.


Stella’s world is in turmoil—not that you’d know it by looking at her. She’s on her spot on the rug, looking at me, waiting for the next thing, as usual. A couple milk bones that I gave her earlier are arrayed in front of her. She took them somewhat reluctantly, knowing I had steak in the refrigerator—sometimes she refuses such offerings altogether, turning her head away in what I imagine is disdain.

All seems placid, a dog on a rug, but beneath this tranquil scene, large forces are at work, and Stella, I’ve been learning, is at the center of them. The very definition of who she is, what goes on in her head, how she should be treated, and what rights she might deserve have been shifting rapidly. Today the dog world is in the throes of political and ideological convulsions of a kind not seen since Victorian times, when the dog as we know it was invented. Put simply, the dog is now in the process of being reimagined.

I wasn’t aware of any of this when she arrived in our home. Stella was, to begin with, just a dog—although in many quarters these days, “just a dog” are fighting words. She into my life for the usual reasons. My wife, Angela, and I had an acute sense of time passing. Our son, Charlie, was about to turn ten, hurtling toward teenage-hood and then God knew where. We’d had a dog when he was born, a West Highland terrier named Scout, a proud ridiculous creature who’d tried not to let on just how upset he was when this squalling interloper and rival for our affections arrive. But Scout was old—thirteen at that point—and was dead before Charlie’s first birthday. If Charlie was ever to have a childhood dog, it was now or never.

The dog we planned to get was, like most things we wanted for him, as much for us. We wanted another family member, someone to fill out the cast, a supporting actress. And while our son would one day inevitably spin out of our little nucleus, we could count on the dog to stay. After dropping Charlie off at college, our dog would, in all likelihood, come back in the station wagon with us—a reassuring thought. It was all pretty simple.

A purebred dog was never really part of our concept—it seemed an anachronism, a bit stuffy. There were plenty of dogs that needed homes, and we’d osmotically learned that pet store animals might be products of puppy mills—not institutions that we wanted to support.

Stella was going to be a New York City dog, and in this she would be joining a large and growing population. Our downtown street is a nonstop dog parade, part of the urban scenery along with New York University students and hipsters and men at the garage on the corner and the guy in the grungy gray coat and taped-up sneakers who shouts “Zirzu!” at the traffic passing on Bowery with an emphatic, not-unhappy certainty.

In the dog parade were dogs from all walks of life: a pair of glossy brown-and-gray Great Danes as big as ponies; a gorgeous orange chow, as cheerful a dog as you could find despite the fact that she had three legs, always accompanied by a little Maltese wingman; and a thirteen year-old German shepherd mix who made her circuit with impossibly dignified slowness, still sniffing at all her favorite spots. On the next street over, in front of the most glamorous building in the neighborhood, we sometimes ran into a pair of yellow Labs that spend weekends at their owners’ spread in Montana, then returned to the city for their work week—a dog’s life. Some dogs were walked with orange smocks that read “Adopt Me.” There were plenty of pits, some from a little dog rescue place on Fourth Street, others from Alphabet City to the east, where the pit could serve as the neighborhood emblem, much as the bulldog does for England. And there were a good number of dogs that looked a lot like Stella, Lab mixes, many whippier than Labs, with white blazes on their chests and white toes.

It was not my imagination that the parade was getting ever more crowded. Something has been happening with dogs in the last couple of decades. New York, along with just about every other city in the Western world, is overrun with them. There were some 77 million dogs in the United States in 2010, compared with about 53 million in 1996. Pet food and products were a $38 billion industry in 2010. At the Greenmarket one afternoon, I bought some lamb chops from a woman who told me wonderful stories about the intelligence of her border collies, their foresight and uncanny responsiveness. There were qualities I wanted to believe my own dog possessed, if only I’d take the time to develop them—but I couldn’t see how Stella would use such qualities in her mostly urban world, even if she had them, which I sometimes questioned.

But the numbers tell only part of the evolving story. Dogs have been moving into households in ever more intimate arrangements. Close to a hundred percent of dog owners talk to their dogs (and the few who say they don’t must be lying). Eighty-one percent view their dogs as family members, according to one study. And many of these family members, I began to notice, were sleeping right in the bed, a privilege Stella didn’t get and, at any rate, didn’t seem to want—she prefers a floor based lifestyle. But she gets plenty of human privileges, starting with her diet, which features leftovers—sometimes, I’m sorry to say, straight from the table. A shockingly high number of people say that in life-threatening situations they would save their pets before they would save a fellow human. I hope I know what I’d do if facing that choice, but I’m glad I’m not likely to be put to the test.

Because immediately, Stella was a family member. We couldn’t deny it. All of us spent a lot of time walking her, talking to her, analyzing and reanalyzing her quirks, her combustible mix of fear and excitement in the dog run, her dislike of the car, her abject terror of thunder, her varied and exuberant vocabulary. We worried about how she would spend the weekend if we weren’t with her. We imaged what her concerns might be and tried to accommodate them.

"Smart, insightful, and engrossing—a wonderful field guide to the heart and soul of dogs and our intimate and enduring connection to them."
—Susan Orlean, New York Times bestselling author of Rin Tin Tin and The Orchid Thief

"[An] engaging, informative book that is both a survey of the latest research on canine cognition and a memoir of [Homans's] years with his Lab mix, Stella... perfect and poignant."
The New York Times Book Review

"A remarkable chronicle of the domestic dog’s journey across thousands of years and straight into our hearts, written with equal parts tenderness and scientific rigor... Beautifully written and absolutely engrossing."
Brain Pickings

"[An] artful exploration of human-canine relations... Homans travels around the country, exploring various dog cultures and speaking to scientists, aid workers, lawyers, and breeders to discover how dogs have achieved this 'honorary personhood.'"
The New Yorker

 “A remarkable chronicle of the domestic dog's journey across thousands of years and straight into our hearts, written with equal parts tenderness and scientific rigor… Beautifully written and absolutely engrossing, What's a Dog For? goes on to examine such fascinating fringes of canine culture as how dogs served as Darwin's muse, why they were instrumental in the birth of empathy, and what they might reveal about the future of evolution.”
The Atlantic
"Through careful observation and analysis, New York executive editor Homans opens the door into the world of dogs, from the scientific to the humorous... illuminating nuggets of information on the ever-changing and complex world of people and their pets."

"If you've ever pondered the lump or fluff on your rug and wondered what he's thinking—and why you care—this wonderful look at dogs' increasingly central place in our lives will strike a chord."

"Writing in an engaging, straightforward manner, Homans combines great personal charm with an intense interest in his subject matter."
Publishers Weekly

"A fascinating tour through ever-changing perceptions of dogs as pets."
New York Post

"Retraces [the] journey from Darwin's study of canine emotions to puppy mills to a canine-science conclave in Vienna... covers doggie consciousness and evolution... Homans hits his stride on topics like the read-state (pro)/blue state (con) divide over euthanasia and the aristocratic origins of canine pedigree. Sprinkled throughout are charming anecdotes that will delight dog lover and even likely appeal to die-hard cat people."
Mother Jones

"John Homans has written an intensely readable, thoughtful look at man's best friend and its place in our world. Factually fascinating and emotionally satisfying, What's a Dog For? is a great gift for dog lovers and those who wonder what they're about."
—Julie Klam, New York Times bestselling author of You Had Me at Woof and Friendkeeping

"John Homans's What's a Dog For? is a romp across time and space and evolution that ends right up right in our own living rooms—a book as winning and companionable as the canines snoozing on our sofas. It's a fresh and amicable look at dog science, history, and training, both an indispensable guide for dog lovers and a terrific read for anyone looking for an enlightening glance at the world we live in."
—Melissa Fay Greene, award-winning author of Praying for Sheetrock and No Biking in the House Without a Helmet

"A few years ago, John Homans and his family walked into a Long Island animal shelter petless and emerged, fortunately for readers, with a lovable, slightly skittish mongrel named Stella. Her almost instant transformation from stranger to a family member with 'honorary human' status inspired Homans to plum the mysterious, age-old bond between humans and canines—a quest that takes him from Darwin to Updike and from New York City dog runs to a Vienna conference on 'canine science.' The result is a beautifully written natural history of the complex and evolving relationship between dogs and their owners and a sort of thinking man's Marley & Me. It will enlighten pet owners not just about their beloved animals but also themselves."
—Warren St. John, author of Outcasts United: An American Town, a Refugee Team, and One Woman's Quest to Make a Difference

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