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

The Year of the Puppy, by Alexandra Horowitz
Penguin Random House

Lucky puppy, lucky puppy, such a lucky puppy to be adopted by Alexandra Horowitz. What Mr. 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 fur-ball 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:

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.

Horowitz returns to scrutinize the puppies weekly as they swiftly change 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:

[T]he whole lot exits, then enters, then exits [the doggy 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. ... [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 light bulb burning bright. 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.

Complicating that education was the fact that Horowitz and her family adopted Quid during the pandemic, when the emotional demands we humans placed on dogs, as companions and hands-on comforters, intensified. 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 dogness of the dog lies a sublime mystery. Many of us call it love.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.