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Dog Spies

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Spying on Dogs: Intrigue, Drama and Science

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Taste-testing. © Julie Hecht

Dogs don’t write. At least not in a way easily understood by people, and certainly not with a pen or pencil. You could argue that dogs “write” with their urine. Some dogs seem quite familiar with Morse code — evident by a trail of little plops left behind — while others seem to show off their cursive, the urine gracefully spanning the entire width of the sidewalk.

But what is up with all that urine, and on top of that, what’s going on in those doggie noggins? How do they perceive the world from the vantage point of our ankles, knees or even waists? How are dogs similar to or different from other canids? And why are they so keen on devouring your newest, most expensive pair of shoes?

That’s where Dog Spies comes in.

Dog Spies is about the mutual spying between dogs and their human companions. Just as people hold up a magnifying glass to dogs, trying to figure out who they are and what makes them tick, dogs in turn, are spying back at us. Dog Spies will share the science behind this mutual spying.

The Science Behind Dogs? Yes. Research into canine behavior and cognition has grown exponentially in recent years. Research groups across the globe are examining dogs from all walks of life — companion dogs, working dogs, feral dogs, street dogs and even shelter dogs. The hope is to uncover what makes dogs dogs and explore why their relationship with humans is so unique. Because dogs don’t write, I’ll be speaking on their behalf.

A new friend. © Julie Hecht

Julie and the dogs
I’m Julie Hecht, the human part of Dog Spies. I’m a canine behavioral researcher, science writer and lecturer. I manage Alexandra Horowitz’s Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College in New York City. If you live with a dog in the NYC area, you can sign up to join one of our treat-based studies. Yes, all of our research is with the help of companion dogs and people like you.

I also write about dogs for The Bark Magazine and Do You Believe in Dog? (a joint pen-pal blog with fellow dog researcher Mia Cobb). When I’m not looking at a computer or a dog, I am frequently in front of an audience of dog lovers or students presenting research on all things dog.

I received my Masters from the University of Edinburgh in Applied Animal Behaviour and Animal Welfare and conducted research with the Family Dog Project in Budapest. This Fall, I’m entering PhD land to study animal behavior with Diana Reiss.

Come and talk dog!
Comments section
First: I look forward to your comments! Period. If you read something here on Dog Spies that churns something in your brain, that is very exciting.

Second: While typing or dictating, please remember that the writer of this blog (aka me) and the writers and readers of other comments, have feelings. Please don’t be mean or rude, to me or anyone else who appears on this blog. Just be kind. And rewind.

Twitter, Facebook and Email
Have a dog thought or comment? Want to ask a question or share a story or a dog behavior/cognition tidbit? I’m on Twitter at @dogspies or Facebook at Dog Spies. My professional page is

Dogs are our future
Dog Spies is about engaging in a dialogue about what we know and don’t know about dog behavior and cognition. After reading any Dog Spies post, your dog will still be your dog. She will still be named Sylvia and she will still lick your legs after you get out of the shower or do those exceptional flips when she hears the word frisbee or even “fris…” But it might be possible that you look at one another with just a wee bit more understanding.

Welcome to this inquiry into all things dogs. All I can promise is that there will be dogs, urine and crotch-sniffing.


Julie Hecht About the Author: Julie Hecht is a canine behavioral researcher, science writer, and PhD student at the Graduate Center, CUNY. She would really like to meet your dog. Follow on Twitter @DogSpies.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Bora Zivkovic 12:30 pm 03/21/2013

    Welcome to the family!

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  2. 2. evelynjlamb 12:31 pm 03/21/2013

    Hi Julie! Welcome to SciAm blogs. I’m not a dog person, but I’m looking forward to reading more of your posts!

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  3. 3. dogspies 2:25 pm 03/21/2013

    Thanks, Evelyn! And I’m in the category of “relationship with math is complicated,” so we make a nice pair.

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  4. 4. yaboynate 4:23 pm 03/21/2013

    What a great concept! I hope to soon solve the mystery of why my dog wakes me up at 4:30 AM every morning just so he can immediately go back to sleep once I get out of bed. And don’t get me started about is inability to make up his mind about doorways…

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  5. 5. dogspies 4:31 pm 03/21/2013

    Glad to have you (and your early rising pup) with us! And I’ll definitely discuss that issue/topic you bring up. Welcome!

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  6. 6. thefabulous0ne 4:43 pm 03/21/2013


    Do you study dogs with human-caused behavior problems? My friend rescued a dog that was used in dog fights. He has been rehabilitated to be a loving dog with humans, but he still sees other dogs as the enemy. Is it possible to rehab an ex-fighter?

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  7. 7. Rainy 4:57 pm 03/21/2013

    This should be fun! So many questions to ask about why they do the things they do! Like why my younger, smaller male dog spends half of his waking hours licking my older, larger female dog as if she were alpha, yet at feeding times, she gets out of the way if he growls… I look forward to your posts. Saludos to all!

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  8. 8. dogspies 5:16 pm 03/21/2013

    Hi thefabulousOne: Glad to hear the pup is now happy with people! The ASPCA recently opened a Rehab Center in NJ for traumatized dogs. Dog-dog aggression is definitely a topic I’ll be discussing on this blog. Welcome!

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  9. 9. dogspies 5:19 pm 03/21/2013

    Hi, Rainy: Nice! Lots of topics you bring up, which will be discussed in future posts. Welcome!

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  10. 10. mlc77 5:29 pm 03/21/2013

    Yay! So excited to celebrate this fabulous addition to the Sci-Am stable (or is it a kennel?!) – Congratulations Sci-Am, you found a keeper :) MC

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  11. 11. RSchmidt 7:23 pm 03/21/2013

    Very Interesting! There are a number of aspects of dog cognition that I am interested to learn more about. I can’t remember the source but I have heard that one behavior that differentiates dogs from wolves is that when presented with a problem in the presence of a human a dog will look to the human whereas a wolf will not. It is as if the dog knows that the human can help. What is really going on in the dog’s mind?

    I would also like to hear more about the alleged ability of some dogs to know when their human partners are returning home. They will apparently go to the door long before their partner is anywhere near the home. Is this a real phenomenon or is it just anecdotal?

    I would also be interested to know more about dog cognitive evolution. There is a hypothesis that dogs did not evolve directly from wolves but from an intermediary form that would have resembled a dingo. This intermediary would have differed from wolves in that it had reduced its flight distance likely as a result of living at the margins of human encampments eating our scraps and pests. In that ecosystem it would have been advantageous for an individual to understand human behavior. A wolf that keeps a safe distance from a human doesn’t need to care too much about a person’s intentions but once you close the distance the margin of error becomes very small. Perhaps genetic studies on dog brain development over the past 20k years could provide some clues.

    I am looking forward to your articles.

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  12. 12. DarwinRGarcia 4:53 am 03/22/2013

    I’m not sure if I’m a “dog person”…

    I’ve grown up with them my whole life… been without one since 5 years now… but need to hook up with one soon because I feel it’s important for my eight year old son…

    So, my first statement… I just don’t anthropomorphise them… treat them like one of my human family… I treat them as part of a pack… and I’m alpha Male… I’ll pet them and scratch them where they love it and give treats… but never let them get on my bed or beg for food at the dining table…

    Thus, I’m always at odds with my family and friends… oh, and I once raised a Pitbull Terrier as a pure vegetarian… as an experiment… she was the best ever… extremely gentle with family/pack… friendly with friends… aggressive with servants and outsiders… tried to talk by mimicking human sounds, but rather pitched…

    My mom’s dog, a Tibetan Mastif, hates me… will attack and bite me given the chance… [inappropriate comment redacted - JH]

    So, am I a “dog person”…

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  13. 13. Melanie Tannenbaum 5:09 pm 03/23/2013

    Hi, Julie! Excited to see what you write about, and excited to be on a network with you! :)

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  14. 14. thefabulous0ne 4:34 pm 03/28/2013

    thank you so much for the link! i’ll pass this on immediately to my friend!

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