If you’ve ever welcomed a puppy into your home, as many New Yorkers did during the pandemic, you know it can be a cute, challenging and sometimes chaotic experience. Dr. Alexandra Horowitz is the founder of the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College, and her new book, “The Year of the Puppy: How Dogs Become Themselves,” is about her first year raising and getting to know her dog, Quiddity. She spoke with WNYC’s Tracie Hunte about why we find puppies so irresistible, why they aren’t blank slates, and why having her own human baby only partially prepared her for having a four-footed newcomer.

[The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.]

TRACIE HUNTE: You have all these really sweet ways of describing puppies in the book. Could you tell me what a puppy is — and not necessarily the scientific or technical term?

DR. ALEXANDRA HOROWITZ: A puppy is like an early-dog device to bring us into a relationship with dogs. They're like bodies with little tiny appendages, little legs, little tails, closed eyes.They're helpless. They can do nothing. They're about as competent as sweet potatoes. And then they quickly grow into dogs, and in that time they have entrapped us. We have become theirs.

TH: Human babies are cute for evolutionary reasons: If they weren't cute, we would not take care of them. But I think puppy cuteness messes with our human brains a little bit more. And I wonder if puppies are that cute not necessarily for their mom, so their mom takes care of them, but for us as humans?

AH: I think completely, yes. They have kind of hitchhiked on that propensity we have to look at the human baby and feel like, oh, I can help them. Like, they need my help. I will overthrow my life to kind of shepherd this young thing to adulthood. And further, we've also designed them to be even more cute. Their eyes are bigger, their noses are shorter, and a lot of breeds, their faces are even flatter. And certainly puppies all look like pugs, basically.

TH: How did you meet Quid? And why were you drawn to her, out of a litter of 11 puppies?

AH: This litter, they were born in January 2020. I was interested in adopting a puppy from a litter, and not a purebred litter. That's actually a slightly difficult proposition, as it turned out, because I had to find shelters who'd picked up a pregnant mom and then had placed her in a foster home. And then the foster had to be willing to have me come over to hang out with them a couple times a week.

I was watching this one litter in upstate New York, and visiting them regularly. In the end, was I drawn to this puppy more than the others? No, I wasn't. Really, it was the foster who decided where she thought the puppies would be best placed. [Quiddity] was characterized by the foster as happy-go-lucky; I'm not sure that I would say that is accurate. I think the go part is correct, and maybe she is lucky. I could see their personalities start to distinguish: Fiddlehead was the one who was ready to go off and play with the bigger dogs, Chaya was shivering by herself, Blue Camus would take off by herself and go lie in a dog bed just on her own. There were ones who were more adventurers, and there were ones who would stick close to people.

That was an interesting struggle for me, too, because I'd hoped that it would be clear that there was a dog who was sort of our dog, and it wasn't. People pick a puppy because they look cute, they like them, but that's not enough to decide on. I spent many, many hours over nine weeks, and it still wasn't clear. You're just gonna have to take that leap, and then they'll grow their way into your family.

Dr. Alexandra Horowitz based her new book on lessons she learned raising her own dog, Quiddity, from a puppy.

TH: I was really interested in your book because I got my dog, Luna, when she was almost five years old. I think a lot about what her life was like as a puppy. What did I miss not having her that first year?

AH: You did miss a lot of her development and her experiences and her becoming herself. I think that's the experience so many people have, and I have had with all of my dogs: You get them at a certain point in their life and you look at who they are, essentially, and say, Well, wait, what happened that made you this dog? That's why I wanted to know [Quiddity] from her birth.

But even now, knowing her whole early life, I can't completely explain it. It isn't a straight line from early traumatic experience with the vacuum to now how she behaves with the vacuum. There's not like a really scary large man, and now she barks at men; she just sometimes barks at men. She sometimes shies away from the vacuum. And the kind of inscrutability of some of those personality features, I think, is what will never be explained by science.

TH: Whenever anybody talks to me about getting a dog, I automatically tell them do not get a puppy because I feel like that is just a very chaotic thing to bring into your life.

AH: I think that's good advice. I did get that advice from a friend of mine, who's a vet. I said, I'm gonna get a puppy when she's very young and I'm gonna watch her from birth. And she said, “Why would you want to do that? That's a terrible idea.” And I think what it is, is this collision between what we think a puppy should be like and what it's actually like.

TH: What do you mean?

AH: It's that the puppy just looks like this cute bundle of fur, right? They could present no difficulties in your life, right? Yeah. But it turns out they're still really needy, don't know anything about human society, have a lot of learning to do, and are going through these huge hormonal and growth changes.

They are adapted to living with us. It usually works out fine, but it's not struggle-free. That's not what most people mean when they say, "I wanna get a puppy." They're like, that's a cute thing and I just wanna have it around. And it's just not around; it's everywhere, all the time, all at once.

I wrote that having my son sort of prepared me for having a puppy. But even I, who has studied dogs for many years and has met thousands of dogs, still was not prepared fully for the kind of immersive experience of living with a puppy.

TH: I think a lot of people also think of puppies as blank slates.

AH: They're not blank slates. No more than a child is a blank slate. They're serious personalities. I mean, our little puppy had no early traumas for instance and she's not an easygoing perfect dog who is just so simpatico with our life. You know, she's herself.

Despite studying and living with dogs for many years, even Dr. Horowitz was unprepared for the full-on immersive experience of life with a puppy.

TH: How do puppies become themselves?

AH: There's no straightforward answer. It's this combination of partly their environment and partly their genetics that leads to some kind of spontaneous combustion into the dog. Each of those things is radically important: where she came from, who her mother was, her mother's genes. The fact that our puppy is an Australian cattle dog and terrier absolutely matters in terms of the thresholds of what she's gonna react to: the fact that she's very vocal, little moving things are very exciting to her. Those genetic influences have just reified into the behaviors that I see today and the personalities she has.

But also, what was her early exposure? She did grow up around a lot of other barking dogs, she was in a very noisy environment; what it means is that I don't have an anxious, aggressive dog towards those things. The reason everybody hates the big puppy breeders, for instance, is that there's no chance of that happening in that kind of context. A puppy would be raised isolated from interacting with people, interacting with other dogs, meeting other animals, hearing a wide variety of sounds or being exposed to different surfaces and stimuli. And as a result, they'll respond maybe badly to all of those stimuli.

TH: I think I was reading the book trying to reverse engineer Luna's puppyhood, in a way. Is there anything I can take to explain who she is now?

AH: I think we have the tendency as a culture who happily is now adopting a lot of dogs from shelters at older ages to think that there was an early trauma. I hear that from everybody. I don't think every dog has had an early trauma. At some level, I think her personality might just be her personality, and not specifically related to an early event.

TH: Can you tell me why she doesn't wanna cuddle with me?

AH: Well, I can't say that she won't ever want to cuddle with you. We tend to see our own behaviors as indicative of something essentialist about our personality — but sometimes they're just our behaviors. You can be an introverted person who has extroverted moments. And she might be a dog who isn't that into that kind of interaction. But over time, that's a behavior that she could enjoy and even seek out.

TH: Who are we to puppies? What do we represent to them?

AH: One thing that surprised me about watching the pups is how completely involved the mother is in the first weeks, and then how she just walks away from them.

TH: When do dog moms lose interest in their puppies? Around what week?

AH: It varies, but it could be as early as about four weeks, and it might be more like six or seven weeks. They stop being around to be nursed. They stop cleaning up after them. They actively scold them for being needy, essentially. They go from being completely all-in to “uh-uh, I have had it.”

And what I think is interesting is that point is usually when we step in. So there's a reason to think that we are substituting as parent figures. But in their little brains, are they thinking about us truly as parents? I really don't know. It's amazing to me, frankly, that they just waltz into human homes and can deal with it, versus so many other animals for which this would all be a gigantic disaster. So they must see us as like them, just as weird bipedal dogs.

TH: Do they actually think we're dogs?

AH: Well, they smell us like we're dogs in a way, right? They do treat us in many ways like dogs — but the ones who are in control, the ones who control the resources, control where they can go.

TH: So when you say like they treat us like dogs, you mean with the sniffing and the licking and all? Are they weirded out that we don't lick them back?

AH: If you do, they actually seem a little surprised

TH: Oh, have you tried that?!

AH: As someone who has licked back at my dog, yeah — but I probably am not doing it right. I don't think they fool themselves into thinking that we're dogs; it's like their concept of who you live with is broader than even ours is.

Watching a puppy evolve from general interest in everything to specific focus on you is among the benefits of a longterm relationship, Dr. Horowitz reports.

TH: What satisfaction did you get from being with Quid her puppy year?

AH: Physically, it was a lot of fun to watch her grow. Seeing when her tail would get longer and longer and finally touched her back and startled her — that was great. There's a huge satisfaction in the physicality of puppies. They're very asymmetrical when they're young, because their head and their fore limbs grow faster than their rear limbs.

Then you see them come out of it, and they're just physically capable. Like, seeing her neatly leap onto the counter: I could not like that, because maybe I don't want her on the counter, but I'm like, that's really impressive! Because before remember how you couldn't get up the stair?

And also, her starting to see us is of course very satisfying, the way that she goes from just being generally interested in the world to really, really caring about us. You see yourself reflected in your dog.

I can focus on either the wonderful or the difficult things, but overall I would absolutely not take it back. It's great having gotten to know her.

"The Year of the Puppy: How Dogs Become Themselves" is available now from Penguin Random House.