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

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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 , 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, 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.

272 pages, Hardcover

First published November 1, 2012

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John Homans

20 books

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5 stars
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 97 reviews
Profile Image for Lis Carey.
2,135 reviews92 followers
December 5, 2012
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 fossil record. It's a fascinating story, and almost as fascinating is the story of how hard it has been to get any real research on dogs. Dogs, you see, were until the last couple of decades too mundane and familiar for research on them to be "respectable." Homans has studied the research, interviewed the researchers, and attended the academic conferences, and has a lot of good information to impart.

So what's my complaint? Homans clearly feels he's way too smart and sophisticated to be one of us crazy dog lovers, even though yes, he has a dog whom he loves dearly. Dogs, we are told, are kitsch. Not just the subject of a lot of kitschy art, but kitsch themselves, because their emotions are simple and basic, compared to ours. Dogs' status in our lives is as "honorary humans." That's the only explanation for why we don't treat them like chickens. The possibility that we could connect with dogs as individuals and incorporate them into our lives because, especially for early humanity, they were useful partners and continue to have useful, practical roles to play in the modern world, as well as having been heavily selected over those thousands of years (at least ten thousand, possibly much longer) to fit in with and respond to humans--that we might mesh well socially with them while still recognizing them as dogs and not humans, seems to be unimaginable for Mr. Homans.

In addition, Mr. Homans seems to have swallowed whole a lot of PETA propaganda and not really looked at objective information. A few of the Vick dogs are permanently in sanctuary--but the overwhelming majority of them have been successfully placed in pet homes where they are happy and loved. Several are therapy dogs. One of them now has a career in law enforcement. There's nothing overly sentimental or silly about insisting that all dogs be individually evaluated, rather than declared excess solely on the basis of breed and possible bad prior experiences. There are also successful, effective, open admission No Kill shelters in every part of the country, for a total of well over fifty and still counting. Some dogs coming into shelter will always need to be euthanized for health or behavior reasons, but communities that commit themselves to it can save all the dogs who are at all suitable as pets. Dogs don't have to be killed merely because "there are too many dogs." And the transport rescues he agonizes over, and from on of whom his own dog, the Lab mix Stella, comes, are a part of the challenging puzzle of getting dogs from where they are to where the right homes for them are. Finally, Nathan Winograd, whom Mr. Homans clearly regards as a starry-eyed yet inflammatory fool, has actually turned a high-kill shelter into a no-kill shelter. He's really done the job, rather than just pontificating about how it's impossible.

Do I regret reading this book? No. It has some great information and is well-written. It is not, however, one of the great dog books of our time.

I bought this book.
Profile Image for Ruthie.
647 reviews4 followers
March 10, 2013
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' (possessions, at best) on pet ownership are a bit disheartening and help explain why so many rescue dogs are from the central and southern states. The chapter about the Westminster Dog Show and the evolution of purebreds was quite disturbing, and I loved the recounting of how Jemima Harrison's 2008 documentary Pedigree Dogs Exposed has forced (kicking and screaming) the Kennel Club and the AKC to deal with the horrific suffering that inbreeding for purebreds causes. Homans loves Stella, she is a part of the family, he just wants to know how that came to be. Why is dog ownership so different now compared to other times in history or other parts of the country/the world?

Having grown up with dogs, I frequently find myself longing for another one - a big, wolf-like real dog. It is an ongoing argument I have been having with myself for years. Since I also plan to live in the city, Chapter 9 - The Wolves that Came in from the Cold, has finally settled that argument for me.
If you love dogs you will want to read this book.
Profile Image for Stephen Wallace.
473 reviews66 followers
July 21, 2021
I want to echo a previous reviewer, "The is some interesting research here. Overall, a decent listen but not one of my favorite books about dogs."
Profile Image for LibraryCin.
2,206 reviews45 followers
April 1, 2021
In this book, the author looks at various aspects of the history of dogs and dog-human relationships. Some of the topics include evolution, dog behaviour (also compared to other animals), breeds, rescues, etc.

I quite liked this. Despite being an audio book, I was kept interested (though apparently, I don’t have much to mention in my review!).
Profile Image for Nancy.
768 reviews2 followers
August 24, 2013
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 much sitting--including writing book reviews. It took me only two days to finish the audiobook, and because I liked it so much, I am writing a brief review. I will retain the print version of What’s a Dog For? for reference. It is well-organized and contains useful information worth having available through an index.

John Homans writes well, and he has managed to skillfully weave the personal story of his rescued lab mix, Stella, into the larger “history, philosophy, and politics” of the dog world, past and present. He clearly loves his dog and all dogs in general, but he was able to present a reasonably balanced view of our relationship with this wonderful enigmatic creature that so many of us live with intimately. He covered theories on the evolution of dogs, dogs throughout history, the origin or pedigree dogs (as well as their serious genetic deficiencies brought about through by man’s attempt to engineer them), and the issues of dogs in our present society. I was surprised and pleased with how much information was condensed into this relatively short volume.

For me this book flowed smoothly from one topic to the next. In addition, the use of grown-up sentence structure and vocabulary enhanced my enjoyment of it. The narrator made it easy to listen to and absorb, although I will want to go back and review several sections in print. I’m surprised this book doesn’t have a higher overall rating. I suppose a reader , looking either for a personal memoir of a dog or a rigorous scientific treatise on dogs, might be disappointed. For me, however, What’s a Dog For? combines the two genre and does it well. I certainly recommend it to anyone with a dog or who might be thinking about brining one into their life.
Profile Image for Elaine.
312 reviews58 followers
September 1, 2013
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 like Descartes claimed that dogs can't feel pain so that vivisection was okay. In the chapter on discipline, he explains Behaviorism and especially Skinner, as if it is a valid approach to behavior. However.there is plenty of evidence that it does not work, except in limited instances. Dogs, like people, have minds of their own, and don't necessarily respond to stimulus the way the trainer expects. In my blog "dogsandwolves-smartoldlady" I recount a stunning reaction from Skeezix, my Canine Einstein and how he foiled his trainer, much to the trainer's chagrin.

Homans does discuss the evolution of dogs, but it's not a deep discussion. However, Homans did present one study I hadn't come across before. It's about a mutation on the dog's DNA strand that made them tame. He deserved an extra star for that.l

You will learn more on my blog http://dogsandwolves-smartoldlady.blo... than in this book. I have not only followed the intensive research into dogs of the past decade, but also present my own studies into dog to dog communication, which is based upon "giving eye," the intense look dogs give prey to herd them
Profile Image for Victoria.
2,512 reviews53 followers
December 4, 2012
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 both interesting and exciting. It’s a fascinating book and Homans really does a wonderful job of answering the various aspects of his sub-title - and putting it all into a historical perspective as well, he tracks how those answers have changed.

Last year, I read Wayne Pacelle’s, The Bond: Our Kinship with Animals, Our Call to Defend Them, with a great amount of disappointment. Homans’ book literally fulfills everything that I had hoped Pacelle’s book had been. I love this book! He incorporates a lot of information here, but presents it in such a well-written, and often humorous way that the pages literally fly by! And though Homans inserts himself into the narrative of this journey for answers quite well. It is a remarkably strong and polished debut. I can’t wait to see what topic he tackles next!
Profile Image for Abby.
1,396 reviews178 followers
August 12, 2014
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 very few lab features, aside from a short coat). Much of the book also seemed to be a less effective, less focused version of the recent title by David Grimm, Citizen Canine, which I am currently reading and enjoying.
174 reviews6 followers
April 16, 2019
Homans thinks the difference between how people used to think about dogs and how he thinks about his dog is very interesting. I suppose it is, but I enjoyed reading about that a lot more when it was Jon Katz writing it.

I'm glad I read this book, because Homans's description of research into how dogs think covers a lot of the interesting work that has been done in this century.

When I read "John Homans has been the executive editor of New York magazine since 1994, and previously worked at Esquire, Details, Harpers, and The New York Observer" on the back flap, I realized that that's what's so annoying about his voice. The Esquire-ese doesn't show up on every page, but, just often enough, there will be a sentence like, "Hare, now a thirty-six-year-old assistant professor, is somewhere between schoolboy and rock star, slim in black dress pants, with a luxuriant shock of unruly brown hair."
Profile Image for Jen Medos.
66 reviews6 followers
June 30, 2016
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 because they say it is all old news. I suppose I didn't learn anything mind blowing but I enjoyed revisiting topics from slightly different viewpoints and it did inspire me to read more from it source material. Even if you don't agree with everything in them, I believe if you want to be competent and knowledgeable in any real discussion on dog behaviour and welfare, you should be familiar with texts such as Singer's "Animal Liberation", works of Pavlov, Darwin and Goodall etc. I found though that this book brought up other authors and scientists that I wasn't familiar with and pointed to the leaders in different fields of dog research. I am excited to know more.
The end was a bit of a let down though... the author gives you all this information but doesn't give a true opinion at the end of the day. He asks the question, "What's a dog for?", and although researches different possible answers, gives no final opinion. Choose your own ending? Maybe there is no answer? Or the whole book is supposed to be his answer? Not sure.

Overall I would recommend this book to others for a quick taste of dog issues/history/science but it does seem to try to take on too much without getting to the real meat of the problems.
Profile Image for Sheila .
1,911 reviews
July 8, 2014
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 areas of overpopulation to areas where there are less dogs available for adoption. The current issue of the overpopulation and over availability of the not always desirable pit-bull terrier is also covered.

The most interesting part to me was the founding and history of the field bred working dog, specifically the Labrador Retriever in the United Kingdom, by the Duke of Buccleuch on his privately owned 90,000 acre estate in Scotland. The kennel at this estate has been in continuous operation since the 1890's.

Interesting stuff for anyone with an interest in the history of the domestic dog.

334 reviews
February 18, 2013
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. He also follows the history of breeding and how dogs are constantly changing and how breeding has taken away the real purpose of breeds of dogs. His dog is a Labrador, so he follows the history of the Labrador, which comes from the Newfoundland, or the St. John's breed. (I just skimmed some of this, so I'm fuzzy on the details.) He follows the history of animal rescue leagues and humane societies and how no-kill shelters came about.
Profile Image for Kelly Wagner.
398 reviews6 followers
February 25, 2013
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 for wolves that were less afraid of being near humans; dogs' actual usefulness as hunting aides, rodent catchers, and herding animals came much later.)
Profile Image for Raymond Bial.
Author 111 books22 followers
December 31, 2013
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?”
Profile Image for Pamela.
714 reviews5 followers
March 3, 2015
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.
62 reviews
June 12, 2015
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.
534 reviews2 followers
May 26, 2015
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.
18 reviews4 followers
June 14, 2017
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 suspect he was trying to lay out the arguments on both sides without bias. I laud the thought, but in practice it made his writing somewhat disjointed. There were also quite a few chapters that ended abruptly, as thought he had more to say but had reached some predetermined length and decided to stop right there.

All of that being said, it was a very well-researched and interesting book. Homans writes a chapter on every major subject that comes up in our relationship with dogs. He discusses the origins of the species, the research on dog behavior and cognition, the history of the dog's association with humans, the unique social skills of dogs, the history of the Labrador and of breeding in general, changing cultural attitudes towards dogs, and the many controversies over animal shelters. And he presents the information he uncovered in a very personal way. He muses on everything and tries to relate it to his own dog. He contemplates the personalities of the different dog experts that he interviews. He includes a lot of flavor, interesting comments that people make and unusual stories that he comes across. This is a very leisurely read because it is, in some ways, very leisurely written. It's written more like a series of long blog posts than a highly structured information delivery system. There's lots of philosophical mulling and speculation.

I don't mean to imply that the book isn't informative, of course. Homans' research was very thorough. He talks to a lot of researchers that show up even in the popular literature but he also describes the work of a bunch of scientists that haven't written popular books. There is a fair amount of detail included about the specific methodologies of their research and the major disagreements they have with each other, as well as a general outline of the course of canine behavioral research.

I feel like I have a good basic overview of the science and history of dogs from reading a few other books on the subject. I think this book would have been very accessible even if it had been the first one I read. I also found lots of new information I hadn't previously encountered, including an excellent annotated bibliography. Despite the organizational issues (particularly with the early chapters), I think it's a great book that meshes lots of accurate information with thought-provoking philosophical discussions.
Profile Image for Sparrow.
1,835 reviews31 followers
February 1, 2017
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, the comparisons with chimps' intelligence, and the adaptation of the dog from the farm to the city. I'm slightly perplexed that Los Angeles wasn't mentioned at all in terms of high-kill shelters; it made Homans' references seem very self-centric. I was bored stiff when he recounted the history of labs; again, it made the book seem very self-centric again (I understand that the underlying theme was how Stella was his inspiration for writing the book, but I think at times, it was a bit too strong). I appreciated that Homans tried to look at equal sides of each theory, from the start of the dogs, to their intelligence and emotions, and their status in our lives. It was an informative, interesting, and occasionally dense and dry read. But definitely worth it.
1 review
January 9, 2019
As soon as I picked up this book, I could tell it was a little different from your run of the mill nonfiction novel. Once you open the novel, the author instantly makes you fall head over heels for his quirky rescue pup Stella, whose anecdote is woven ever so cunningly throughout each and every paragraph, which humanizes all the statistics about Canis Familiarus. Homans goes on to explain the entire history and public image of the dog, and their public image. He uses propaganda and other unorthodox materials to show the true relationship between dogs and humans. The reason I rated this book so highly is because it made me feel young again. I was instantly the child fawning over the puppy in the window, so sad that the doggy couldn't be mine. I was suddenly meeting my dogs all over again, but in a new lens. The book makes everything they do so important, all while teaching the reader the intelligence of a dog. Although this book was absolutely incredible for me, I would not recommend it if you enjoy a monotone, textbook style nonfiction read. Overall, an absolutely incredible read with an even more incredible backstory.
Profile Image for K..
268 reviews1 follower
December 3, 2018
It was a lot of fun reading this book at right around our Tennessee's 10th birthday. We got him as a rescue at Northshore bet. Christmas & New Year's back in '08, when he was a mere eight weeks or so old, and he's been one of the best things that've happened to our family over the past decade. The author also got his dog, a Lab named Stella, as a rescue at Northshore, and his dog was also brought up from Tennessee. (And if I calculated Stella's years correctly, Homans must've visited Northshore within around six months of when we got Tennessee, and Homans happens to live in Manhattan as well.) As detailed in Homans' enlightening book, the "underground railroad"-type system that brings up dogs from the South to no-kill shelters like Northshore is a lot more common than I would've thought. "What's a Dog For?" is intelligently written, with a whole lot of intriguing facts about dogs served up in this wide-ranging survey (as its subtitle would suggest) of all things dog. I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to better understand their beloved canine pet.
Profile Image for Steve Granger.
211 reviews6 followers
July 27, 2018
I was pleasantly surprised by the critical stance taken throughout this book. Questioning the way we treat dogs (not just unethical stuff, but also the anthropomorphism and extraction from what would be considered natural environments), the issues around the beliefs and ideas of breeds, and much more. The author also executed the underlying narrative of his own dog, Stella, very well throughout, something that many authors struggle with in books like this. I definitely learned quite a bit and would say this one would be for dog owners and people interested in animal behaviour.
Profile Image for Joe Meyers.
218 reviews8 followers
March 23, 2021
Homans does a beautiful job of exploring the relationship between people and their dogs.
The author starts with the adoption of his dog Stella from a Long Island shelter.
He looks at his own relationship with the dog and wonders how much of the bond is due to his projection and how much is Stella’s real feelings for him.
Homans expands the scope of the book to explore canine history and science. He takes what could have been dry material and turns it into very enjoyable reading.
Sadly, the writer - who was also a very highly regarded editor - died last year. He left us a wonderful book.
Profile Image for Mary.
815 reviews44 followers
August 10, 2017
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 controversy book in the stack
Profile Image for Amber.
1,923 reviews
January 22, 2018
This book was absolutely fantastic. The author writes well and covered a variety of aspects related to our relationship with our four legged friends. Topics such as their historical and cultural relationships with humans, scientific research and theory of mind, the Victorian age and the creation of the purebreed, and ultimately the various reasons dogs are so popular worldwide. definitely recommend to anyone interested in dogs.
Profile Image for Gareth Schweitzer.
141 reviews18 followers
March 23, 2017
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...
Profile Image for Rose.
437 reviews1 follower
September 12, 2017
Interesting if somewhat dull history of man's best friend.
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