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

3.51  ·  Rating Details ·  446 Ratings  ·  86 Reviews
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 h ...more
Hardcover, 272 pages
Published November 8th 2012 by Penguin Press (first published November 1st 2012)
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Lis Carey
Dec 01, 2012 Lis Carey rated it liked it
There's a lot of interesting material here, and yet in the end I am deeply frustrated with this book.

Homans gathers together in highly readable form much of the most recent research on dogs, their ancestors, and their relationship with us. Teasing out the history of dogs, just barely genetically different from wolves, has been a tricky business, not least because early dogs and proto-dog wolves would not have been physically different from their wolf relatives in any way that shows up in the fos
Mar 10, 2013 Ruthie rated it really liked it
The author, executive editor of New York magazine adopts Stella, a lab mix from a shelter and starts to wonder....An overview of the history, science and anecdotal research about dogs and their relationship to humans. I have read many of the theories covered in this book, but it is interesting to see them pitted against each other and to see how differing the scientific theories can be. The chapters contrasting the views of east/west coast (pampered family members) vs flyover states' (possession ...more
Sep 01, 2013 Elaine rated it really liked it
This is purported to be about the author's "rescue" dog, Stella, but there's very little about how she was rescued, how her early experiences scarred her, if they did. She;s a retriever mix, and we're told she loves to run and fetch. Duh That's what retrievers do She's a good-natured dog who wags her whole body when she's excited. So? most dogs do.

Rather than tell us about Stella, Homans devotes each chapter to some facet of the intensive studies of dogs going on now, and also how philosophers l
Nov 20, 2012 Victoria rated it it was amazing
This is simply a wonderful book! Homans explores the history of the canine-human relationship, using his own lab-mix, Stella, as the four-footed guide to various investigations into more specific areas. Homans succeeds in not only informing his audience, but also in inspiring thought-provoking questions about a reader’s own personal ties with dogs. While some of the research Homans presents will be familiar to dog-lovers, he also includes a lot of modern studies done across the world which is bo ...more
Oct 17, 2013 Abby rated it it was ok
Reading this book just made me feel like John Homans was late to the party. So much of the information he shares has already been long discussed, debated, and examined in the realm of canine science and culture. There wasn't much new information to be gleaned from this book, and there are many other dog books that I'd point readers to first. The digression on labrador retrievers was also unnecessary and unhelpful (particularly when you consider that his dog can't really be called a lab; she has ...more
Jan de Leeuw
Jan 17, 2013 Jan de Leeuw rated it really liked it
This is well-written and thoughtful. There is much info about the history of dogs, the brain of dogs, the working dog, the Victorian era in which dogs were moulded into breeds, the purebred genetics problem, the dog overpopulation problem, shelters, puppy mills, the south-north flow of dog adoption, the no-kill movement, the end-of-life problem, and the gradual ascent of the dogs to their current fellowship status in human families. All of this is interesting, none of this is heavy of deep. Alwa ...more
Aug 21, 2013 Nancy rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I just loved this book! I’ve read quite a number of dog books: books about individual dogs, novels about them, and canine informational texts. This is probably my favorite from the lot. I was given the print hardcover version as a gift and really wanted to read it but hadn’t gotten far when the audiobook became available. We live with three large dogs and a military working dog foster puppy, all of whom need daily training, care, and handling. I honestly have no time for anything that requires m ...more
Jen Medos
Apr 15, 2016 Jen Medos rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: dogs
This book was worth the read but there were some chapters that simply did not interest me, mostly the ones about the specifics of which Earl and Duke first started breeding dogs for hunting etc. The book gives a brief overview and some opinions on a wide variety of dog topics: dog origins, genetics, relationship with and responsibilities of humans, canine cognition and emotional capacities, purebred breeding and shelter dogs, history and animal rights. Some people have written this book off beca ...more
May 07, 2014 Sheila rated it liked it
Recommended to Sheila by: Petra Eggs
Shelves: book-club, dog-books
An interesting exploration of the history of the domestic dog, and the treatment and value that people place on dogs. This book covers the gamut of experiences, from Pavlov to Charles Darwin, from Sigmund Freud to Jane Goodall, and how they felt about dogs and how dogs influenced their lives and research.

The history of the humane movement in the USA is also covered in detail, including the origin of the "no-kill" animal shelter, and the current ways that humane groups will transport animals from
Feb 18, 2013 Marty rated it it was ok
Some interesting insight, but not as readable and interesting as other dog books that I have read. The author covers the history of dog/human relationships. How did dogs evolve from wolves? (Was it the wolves that hung around the garbage at the edge of settlements, or was it something the early humans did on purpose?) He follows the history of the treatment of dogs - from hundreds of years ago when a dog was just a possession with no living feelings to the substitute children that they are now. ...more
Kelly Wagner
Feb 25, 2013 Kelly Wagner rated it really liked it
This was a fun read, although the chapters about how many dogs are still euthanized every year and the cultural mores behind that, were a bit depressing. The changes in thought over the centuries about how smart dogs are, whether dogs have emotions, and so on, are fascinating, as is the comparison of different views of how dogs evolved from wolves to human's companions. (The latest thinking is that they domesticated themselves by hanging around human garbage heaps, which automatically selected f ...more
Raymond Bial
Dec 31, 2013 Raymond Bial rated it it was ok
The author occasionally strings together curious bits of dog lore, but much of this disjointed book is familiar, dull, or incorrect. Key issues of animal abuse and neglect are skewed or overlooked. The tone is smug, flippant, and offensive to whole regions of the country, the people who devote themselves to helping animals, and even dogs. There is no theme, and little sense of direction in the book, leaving one to wonder, “What’s this book for?”
Jun 04, 2015 Jonathan rated it did not like it
I love books about dogs. This one, however, could not grab my attention. Well written but no pizzazz. I read 3 chapters, debated with myself whether to finish, and decided it wasn't worth my time given the number of books in my "to read" list.
Mar 02, 2015 Pamela rated it did not like it
I haven't actually finished this book because I am finding the author's writing style too dry and uninteresting. How can one make a book about the relationships between humans and dogs boring? I don't know, exactly, except this man has done so.
Amy Turner
Oct 25, 2014 Amy Turner rated it really liked it
I had already read about a lot of the studies (including Brian Hare's work at Duke) but enjoyed the author's observations about human/dog relationships.
Holly Taylor
Nov 16, 2016 Holly Taylor rated it liked it
Interesting but quality of writing not great.
Jun 14, 2017 Luxorien rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: dogs
I had a bit of trouble with the early chapters of this book. The author takes an incredibly broad view, mulling over everything from breed histories to ethology to pet euthanasia. I had a hard time following his argument in the beginning because he moved very quickly from one topic to another, interweaving his own observations about his dog at every turn. I was often unsure as to which side in the various controversies (over positive training, no-kill shelters, breeding, etc) he was endorsing. I ...more
Jan 31, 2017 Anna rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Another great volume on the relationship between dogs and man and evolutionary biology. I learned a lot from this book that I hadn't encountered before. For the first time, I feel like I got a decent understanding of those who consider dogs property. I liked learning about the history of no-kill and the development of animal care in the U.S. The history of the AKC was very eye-opening in terms of the development of the purebred dog. I appreciated the theories behind our relationships with dogs, ...more
Mar 22, 2017 Mary rated it it was amazing
Shelves: animals
This is it. This is the book I'm going to require my undergrads to read. Does it feature public controversies, you ask? How about AKC breeding standards? Euthanasia? Apartment-bound dogs? Shelters for profit? Breed bans? Leash laws? Dogs' genetic link to wolves? But despite all of the social, scientific, and cultural controversies brought up in this text, everything comes back to the personal connection he has with one derpy Lab-mix named Stella. Approachable and sensible. The best dog controver ...more
Gareth Schweitzer
Mar 23, 2017 Gareth Schweitzer rated it liked it
Some parts are more interesting than others - I definitely liked the history bits more than the history of dog psychology! Fine to dip in and out of...
Joseph Adelizzi, Jr.
Nov 22, 2012 Joseph Adelizzi, Jr. rated it really liked it
I received this book for free through Goodreads First Reads.

While some may disagree (based on other readers' reviews I've seen), I found the well-researched aspect of John Homans' “What's a Dog For?” to be one of the strong points of the book. Of course I studied ethology, psychology, and bio-psychology (or was it psycho-biology?) in college, so I have an obvious affinity for that kind of information. I also felt that Homans nicely balances all the presented research with his own interviews and
Joy H.
Added 1/5/13.
_What's a Dog For?_ (Published November 8th 2012)
I discovered this book while reading a NY Times Book Update.
On 1/5/13, I wrote the following at my GR group:
I was especially interested in the following book reviewed this week in the NY Times Books Update:

What's a Dog For?: The Surprising History, Science, Philosophy, and Politics of Man's Best Friend
by John Homans.

See the NY Times review at:

Below is from the GR
Nov 23, 2012 Leah rated it liked it
First and foremost, YAY for winning my first Goodreads Giveaway! Thanks for picking me guys. As a second-year veterinary student I am always interested when new animal-related books hit the market and this was no exception. Do not be deceived by the photo of what I am assuming is the author's beloved Stella on the cover practically begging you to pick the book up and take it home. This is no Marley & Me. Rather, this book asks the questions as to WHY such a cover evokes the emotional respons ...more
Annette Lyttle
Jan 15, 2013 Annette Lyttle rated it liked it
Homans has written an engaging and enlightening account of the human-canine relationship. The book is inspired by Homans’s adoption of Stella, a lab-mix shelter dog, but it’s not a book about a dog. Instead, Homans explores the history and science of the dog’s place in our world, as well as the politics that swirl around the rights of animals and the question of how to deal with pet overpopulation.

He lays out debates about how dogs evolved from wolves, whether dogs have minds and what might be
Nov 24, 2012 Tiffany rated it really liked it
I won an ARC copy in a Goodreads giveaway.

This was a very interesting read. As a dog owner myself, I appreciated Homans' perspective and bringing his own dog, Stella, into the story as a character in her own right. The section I found the most enjoyable was when Homans talked about the history of where dogs had come from, specifically Labradors. I found myself getting uncomfortable when Homans was talking about shelters, euthanasia, and the end of the dog's life. The last few pages made me cry
Jan 27, 2013 Luke rated it really liked it
As a lifetime lover of dogs, this was an essential read. Dogs have become true members of many families - and questions about these family members' places in our homes, hearts and lives are increasingly necessary ones.

John Homans delivers a well-researched discussion about the history, politics, and care for "man's best friend". Overall, it was a thoroughly good read, with the best takeaway being that I feel substantially more educated on the various animal adoption programs in the Northeastern
May 20, 2013 Melanie rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, non-fiction
I really liked this thoughtful, entertaining book. The chapter "The Rights of Dog" gave me a deeper understanding of animal sheltering history in the United States, the historical reasons behind why there is such a strong cultural awareness and fear of "kill shelters," and the complexities of the rescue and no-kill movements.

"The [no-kill] movement didn't solve the whole problem--which created a new kind of problem. In the aftermath of [no-kill pioneer] Avanzino's success, many SPCAs and private
Kari Lynn Mackey
Nov 21, 2012 Kari Lynn Mackey rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fic
Disclosure: I received a free copy of What's a Dog For? The Surprising History, Science, Philosophy, and Politics of Man's Best Friend by John Homans via GoodReads First Reads, courtesy of Penguin Press.

What's a Dog For? is a blend of a touching story about the author's love for his own rescued dog, a Lab mix named Stella, a history of dogs as pets, a lengthy speculation on intelligence and empathy in dogs and other companion animals, and a discussion of the ethics of animal rescue. As it might
Lyssa deHart
Mar 22, 2014 Lyssa deHart rated it really liked it
In parts in really enjoyed this book, then in other ways I did not. If I'm honest, I think the hardest part for me is how the author describes how some people see animals with so little care, other than through their utility. That is nothing to do with the author, and has way more to do with how we human, in general, see ourselves as so important and having the right to use whatever we want without respect to the "thing" itself. I really don't want to see animals as things, just to be used, with ...more
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