Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “What's a Dog For?: The Surprising History, Science, Philosophy, and Politics of Man's Best Friend” as Want to Read:
What's a Dog For?: The Surprising History, Science, Philosophy, and Politics of Man's Best Friend
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

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

3.55  ·  Rating details ·  536 ratings  ·  94 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)
More Details... Edit Details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.

Reader Q&A

To ask other readers questions about What's a Dog For?, please sign up.

Be the first to ask a question about What's a Dog For?

Community Reviews

Showing 1-30
Average rating 3.55  · 
Rating details
 ·  536 ratings  ·  94 reviews

More filters
Sort order
Start your review of What's a Dog For?: The Surprising History, Science, Philosophy, and Politics of Man's Best Friend
Lis Carey
Dec 01, 2012 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 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
The is some interesting research here. Overall, a decent listen but not one of my favorite books about dogs.
Aug 21, 2013 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
Sep 01, 2013 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 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
Jan de Leeuw
Jan 17, 2013 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
Oct 17, 2013 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
Holly Taylor
Nov 16, 2016 rated it liked it
Interesting but quality of writing not great.
Apr 16, 2019 rated it liked it
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
Jen Medos
Apr 15, 2016 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 rated it liked it
Recommended to Sheila by: Petra-masx
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 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 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 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?”
Mar 02, 2015 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.
Jun 04, 2015 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.
Amy Turner
Oct 25, 2014 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.
Jun 14, 2017 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
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
Jan 08, 2019 rated it it was amazing
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 unortho ...more
Dec 03, 2018 rated it liked it
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 ...more
Steve Granger
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 wo ...more
Mar 22, 2017 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
Jan 21, 2018 rated it it was amazing
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.
Gareth Schweitzer
Mar 23, 2017 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...
Sep 11, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Interesting if somewhat dull history of man's best friend.
Camila Lagos
Jul 28, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This book is a must for those who love dogs.
Janet McQuaid
Oct 19, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Loved It Both Reads

Very interesting and well written. A few parts hard to read (overpopulation, dog's short life). Still, I loved it. Have read it twice.
Joseph Adelizzi, Jr.
Nov 22, 2012 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
« previous 1 3 4 next »
There are no discussion topics on this book yet. Be the first to start one »

Readers also enjoyed

  • Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know
  • Leave the World Behind
  • Townie
  • Hollywood Park: A Memoir
  • Nexus Uprising (Mass Effect: Andromeda, #1)
  • Work Rules!: Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead
  • What Got You Here Won't Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful
  • Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else
  • Movies (And Other Things)
  • A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II
  • The Education of an Idealist: A Memoir
  • Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life
  • Kicking and Dreaming: A Story of Heart, Soul, and Rock and Roll
  • The Book of My Lives
  • Who I Am
  • Dear Life
  • Light and Shade: Conversations with Jimmy Page
  • Nothing Gold Can Stay: Stories
See similar books…

News & Interviews

You’d think that with, well, everything this year has had in store for us, readers would flock to sweet stories with happy endings. But as...
183 likes · 67 comments