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A canine psychologist with a new puppy explores 'how dogs become themselves'

Alexandra Horowitz is a professor of psychology and founder of the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College. Horowitz's new book is called "The Year Of The Puppy." Our book critic Maureen Corrigan says it offers readers plenty to chew on.

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Other segments from the episode on October 24, 2022

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 24, 2022: Interview with Sean Sherman; Review of The Year of the Puppy

Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Alexandra Horowitz is a professor of psychology and founder of the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College. In 2009, she wrote "Inside Of A Dog," which became a bestseller. Horowitz's new book is called "The Year Of The Puppy." And our book critic Maureen Corrigan says it offers readers plenty to chew on.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Lucky puppy, lucky puppy, such a lucky puppy to be adopted by Alexandra Horowitz. What Mister Rogers was to children, Alexandra Horowitz is to dogs - a wise and patient observer who seeks to intimately know a creature who is fundamentally different from us adult humans. Horowitz is a canine psychologist, an authority on how dogs perceive the world. But as she generously admits in her latest book, "The Year Of The Puppy," there's plenty she doesn't know. So out of professional curiosity and a perverse desire to add a tiny peeing, pooping, biting, barking, yodeling furball to her family, which then already consisted of husband, young son, two mature dogs and one cat, Horowitz decides to adopt a puppy. And during the months that follow, she confesses to having regrets. Speaking as the owner of a beloved but unexpectedly big rescue mutt with reactivity issues, I wouldn't trust Horowitz if she didn't have regrets.

As anyone familiar with Horowitz's previous books knows, "The Year Of The Puppy" is not a training manual. Indeed, one of the best moments in this book occurs towards the end, where Horowitz, mimicking the notorious certitude of the Cesar Millan School of Trainers, offers a list called - what you need to be prepared for your puppy. Here's the list in its entirety. One, expect that your puppy will not be who you think, nor act as you hope. That profound statement, applicable to all sensate creatures, speaks to Horowitz's insistence on seeing the otherness of dogs clearly. But whether purchased from a breeder or rescued from a shelter, most dogs go home with their humans when they're weeks, months, even years old. Horowitz wanted to study how a puppy starts to make meaning of the world fresh out of the womb, how they start to become themselves. To do so, she connects with a woman who fosters dogs at her home. There, a rescue dog of indeterminate breed soon gives birth to a whopping 11-puppy litter.

Weekly, Horowitz returns to scrutinize the puppies, swiftly changing from furry lima beans to sweet potatoes with ears, feet and a tail, to chunky bunnies. At eight weeks, Horowitz and her family take home one of the puppies, a female with black, gold and white fur, with standing tufts of hair on her nose, a no-hawk. They name the new pup Quiddity, which means the essence of a thing, and call her Quid for short. Then the fun begins.

Horowitz's writing is as simultaneously buoyant and precise as Quid's zest for catching tennis balls over and over and over again. Her chapters, packed with close observations about canine cognition and behavior, are mini mood lifters. How can you not smile when reading this description of the litter at five weeks - (reading) the whole lot exits, then enters, then exits the doggie door. They are functioning as a gentle scrum. They seem bound together by invisible threads, not yet in the world as much as they, together, are their own world. And so when one tumbles into sleep, suddenly nearly all the pups follow, as though a sleeping sickness has swept the pen. Within a minute, nearly all are head to tail to tail in a circle on a soft bed, asleep.

If the first third of "The Year Of The Puppy" consists of Horowitz's scrutiny of the litter, the remainder of the book is focused squarely on Quid. She is a lightbulb burning bright, says Horowitz about Quid's first weeks at home. When she is on, you can't not notice her. She is chewing, running, peeing, scratching, whining, doing. We didn't just adopt a dog; we took on her education into everything human. Predictably, Quid soon sheds her identity as Horowitz's research subject and fully morphs into Quid, the flawed but beloved family dog. Even Horowitz, the dog expert, recognizes that she's as much trained by Quid as Quid is trained by her. Gertrude Stein once said, I am I because my little dog knows me. As with most things Stein said, the meaning is fluid. But "The Year Of The Puppy" elaborates upon Stein's remark - between the humanness of the human and the dog-ness of the dog lies a sublime mystery. Many of us call it love.

DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan is a professor of English at Georgetown University. She reviewed "The Year Of The Puppy" by Alexandra Horowitz. On tomorrow's show, we speak with sportswriter, broadcaster and commentator Jemele Hill. When she was co-host of ESPN's SportsCenter in 2017, she ignited a controversy by calling Donald Trump a white supremacist in a tweet. She's now a contributing writer for The Atlantic, and she has a new memoir called "Uphill." I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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