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


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press HC, The; 1 edition (November 8, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594205159
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594205156
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 0.9 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (76 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #548,718 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Review

"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."
Kirkus

"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."
People

"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

About the Author


John Homans has been Executive Editor of New York magazine since 1994, and previously worked at Esquire, Details, Harpers, and the New York Observer. He lives with his wife, son, and dog, Stella in Manhattan. This is his first book.

Customer Reviews

Very informative and well written.
Ashley Genetjuice
On about every page the font size would shift in the middle of the page from extra small to large or back.
Amazon Customer
Highly recommended for any curious dog lover.
Just Me

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

56 of 60 people found the following review helpful By TChris TOP 100 REVIEWER on November 12, 2012
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.
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21 of 25 people found the following review helpful By Vanessa R. Woods on December 29, 2012
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.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By A. Reid VINE VOICE on December 17, 2012
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.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful By D_shrink VINE VOICE on November 22, 2012
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.
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