What the Dog Saw - Critical summary review - Malcolm Gladwell

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What the Dog Saw - critical summary review

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Society & Politics and History & Philosophy

This microbook is a summary/original review based on the book: What the Dog Saw - And Other Adventures

Available for: Read online, read in our mobile apps for iPhone/Android and send in PDF/EPUB/MOBI to Amazon Kindle.


Publisher: Little Brown and Company

Critical summary review

If you read Gladwell’s The New Yorker column regularly, then you shouldn’t read “What the Dog Saw”: the book is a collection of his best (and best-known) essays. 

However, if you don’t have a The New Yorker subscription, then buy this book. It’s Gladwell, so you’ll never regret that decision – even if you subscribe to The New Yorker in the future.

Who is Malcolm Gladwell, in short? He is a bestselling Canadian author and long-time staff writer for The New Yorker. Gladwell is also the host of the popular podcast Revisionist History. In this collection of essays, you might be compelled to explicate the connection between performance and intelligence. But let’s not reveal everything yet.

The power of writing

 “Nothing frustrates me more than someone who reads something of mine or anyone else’s and says, angrily, ‘I don’t buy it,’” writes Malcolm Gladwell in the preface  of “What the Dog Saw.” 

Part 1: Obsessives, pioneers, and other varieties of minor genius

The first section of the book includes six essays and is, in the words of Gladwell, “about obsessives and what I like to call minor geniuses — not Einstein and Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela and the other towering architects of the world in which we live, but people like Ron Popeil… and Shirley Polykoff.”

The Pitchman: Ron Popeil and the conquest of the american kitchen.

First published in 2000, The Pitchman won Malcolm Gladwell the 2001 National Magazine awards. It discusses Ron Popeil, an exceptional direct response marketer and the inventor of things such as Showtime Rotisserie and the Veg-o-Matic.

But, wait, there’s more! No, there’s not. That’s just another thing Popeil has invented. 

The Ketchup Conundrum: Mustard now comes in dozens of different varieties – why has ketchup stayed the same?

Back in the 1970s, a guy named Howard Moskowitz did a detailed study of the different types of spaghetti sauce on the market and realized something groundbreaking. What was it? Well,  that there isn’t a perfect spaghetti sauce, nor either one of them is better than the others. Simply put, perfection has a plural nature, and intermarket variability became a thing. 

Blowing Up: How Nassim Taleb turned the inevitability of disaster into an investment strategy.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb books already were featured on numerous bestseller lists and TV shows. If you’ve read at least some of them, you already know everything you need to know about this essay, which is more than worth the read, because it reveals the roots of Taleb’s Socratic and crucial discovery: we’ll know more once we admit that we don’t know all the things we say we do.

How times change, though! Just a year after “What the Dog Saw” was published, Taleb stopped being a minor genius and grew to become one of the celebrated cited thinkers of our time and age. Some would say even a lot bigger than the guy who profiles him here.

John Rock's Error: What the inventor of the birth control pill didn't know about women's health.

John Rock was an American gynecologist and obstetrician. Also, a devout Catholic, which makes the title of the article already a bit strange – who would have guessed that it was a Catholic who invented the birth control pill? (Monty Python certainly wouldn’t.)

Now, what the article deals with the most is a possible and interesting side-effect of the pill. To wit, the fact that it guarantees 12 periods a year means that Western societies – and especially American women – are more prone to cancer. It’s a taxing task for the body to be subjected to more than 400 menstrual cycles for 40 years!

“What we think of as normal – frequent menses – is, in evolutionary terms, abnormal," writes Gladwell. In other words, women may pay more than what they bargain for when using the pill often.

What the Dog Saw: César Millán and the movements of mastery.

In case you don’t know him, César Millán is the Mexican-American host of the National Geographic show “Dog Whisperer.” In this essay, Gladwell tells his story, from his humble beginnings on his grandfather’s farm in Sinaloa – where he was called El Perrero, “the dogboy” – to his present-day successes. 

The epiphanic moment in Millán’s life: the realization that, quoting the article,  “to succeed in the world he could not be just a dog whisperer. He needed to be a people whisperer.” And his techniques have done precisely that – because they now help two species communicate better. Gladwell unravels what goes on through Millán’s head while he trains a dog  but also what probably occurs in the dog’s head when being trained. 

Part 2: Theories, predictions and diagnoses

“The second section,” writes Gladwell, “is devoted to theories, to ways of organizing experience. How should we think about homelessness, or financial scandals, or a disaster like the crash of the Challenger?” Well, let’s see!

Open Secrets: Enron, intelligence and the perils of too much information.

That it’d be possible for people to one day start a sentence with “Enron was…” would have made little to no sense to anyone as late as 2000, and yet, just a year later, Enron, an employer of almost 30,000 people and “America’s Most Innovative Company” for six years in a row, filed for bankruptcy.

You should have already learned a lot about the Enron scandal by now, so why should you read Malcolm Gladwell’s article? Here’s a great reason:

Because it uses the scandal to unravel one of the paradoxes of our age. Namely, how it is not lies and secrets, but an abundance of available information that obfuscates the darker sides of the complex organizations in the modern world.

Million-Dollar Murray: Why problems like homelessness may be easier to solve than to manage.

This article is already a classic. It follows the daily struggles of Murray Barr, “a bear of a man, an ex-marine, six feet tall and heavyset,” but also a hopeless alcoholic roaming the streets of Reno, Nevada. His routine? Getting drunk, falling over, then being taken by police officers to the hospital; upon release, he starts his routine all over again.

Gladwell’s interest in Barr? Patrick O’Brien and Steve Johns – the policemen who spent almost two decades picking up Murray – realized that Murray’s hospital bill is higher than anyone’s in the country. O'Brien's surprising conclusion: "It costs us one million dollars to not do something about Murray."

The Picture Problem: Mammography, airpower, and the limits of looking.

The Picture Problem – at least if you ask us, the least interesting article of the collection – deals with the extent of the faith we put in images.

You see, we are pretty aware nowadays that we see in many images precisely what we want to see in them, and even though sometimes finding the right info in them is similar to searching for a polar bear in a snowstorm, we believe that we can do that. However, that’s not how the Iraq War started.

Something Borrowed: Should a charge of plagiarism ruin your life?

This article deals with the play “Frozen” by Bryony Lavery, first performed in 1998 to great acclaim. In fact, in 2004, the play made it to Broadway and was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play. 

However, that very same year, Lavery was accused of plagiarizing some parts of it, taking at least 675 words from the book “Guilty by Reason of Insanity” by Dorothy Lewis and, especially, a 1997 article about Lewis written by none other than Malcolm Gladwell.

Gladwell uses the event to discuss the difference between plagiarism and borrowing and the copyright laws and its limitations.

The Art of Failure: Why some people choke and others panic.

According to Gladwell, there’s a difference between choking and panicking, and it’s a big one. Such difference happens because choking is a type of failure that results from thinking too much over matters you’ve previously mastered.  This often happens in sports – no matter how good a player is, sometimes the pressure of a moment overwhelms him, and is suddenly unable to shoot properly.

On the other hand, panicking is a failure that results from the absence of knowledge. In this case, you’re in a situation you’ve never been before, and you have no idea what to do. As you can see, there’s a big difference between the two. Gladwell paints it vividly in this essay.

Blowup: Who can be blamed for a disaster like the Challenger explosion? No one and we'd better get used to It.

This essay is about the Challenger disaster, and Malcolm Gladwell offers a fresh pair of eyes to it.

His conclusion is a depressing one: no matter what we do, in some spheres of life, disasters will always happen simply because there are just too many factors that can contribute to them happening.

Part 3: Personality, character and intelligence 

“The third section,” writes Gladwell, “wonders about the predictions we make about people. How do we know whether someone is bad, or smart, or capable of doing something really well?” He also considers himself skeptical about how accurately we can make any of those judgments.

Late Bloomers: Why do we equate genius with precocity?

In this article, Gladwell shows that there are two different types of creative geniuses: child prodigies and late bloomers. He uses Pablo Picasso as a metaphor for the former and Paul Cézanne as a metaphor for the latter. But that’s not where the differences stop. 

According to Gladwell, the Picassos of the world create impulsively and quickly; the Cézannes slowly and incrementally. The first ones know what they want to do before they start doing it; the latter ones experiment with their vision while creating it.

Most Likely to Succeed: How do we hire when we can't tell who's right for the job?

In this article, Gladwell tries to point out many of the problems inherent in the process of predicting job performance and evaluating talent in numerous different spheres. He mainly focuses on three: financial analysts, teachers, and quarterbacks. 

Gladwell’s analysis of the failings of the NFL Draft caused a very energetic debate in the intellectual spheres of the Internet soon after the article was published, mainly because it seemed strange to say that the NFL Draft was fraught with errors.

According to Gladwell (and the Berri-Simmons study he cites), per play, “quarterbacks taken in positions 11 through 90 in the draft actually slightly outplay those more highly paid and lauded players taken in the draft’s top ten positions.”

Among others, Steven Pinker noted that this “is simply not true.” It turns out that it is; but, then again, it’s far from simple why and Gladwell may be wrong on this one.

Dangerous Minds: Criminal profiling made easy.

In Dangerous Minds: Criminal Profiling Made Easy, Gladwell yet again casts doubt over our capability to predict some future event based on the present.

In this case, he examines the methods and practices of the Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) of the FBI and shows that, in reality, “the whole business is a lot more complicated than the FBI imagines.”

In other words, for all those CSI TV shows, psychological profiling has never been empirically proven.

The Talent Myth: Are smart people overrated?

To those who read us regularly, the idea that talent is overrated should be nothing new.

In The Talent Myth, Gladwell revisits this idea through the example of Enron, a company that took so much pride in its employees that one of its CEOs once noted that “the only thing that differentiates Enron from our competitors is our people, our talent."

 "Enron hired and rewarded the very best and the very brightest," Gladwell writes in this thought-provoking essay, "and now they are in bankruptcy." 

You should ask yourself: What if smart people are overrated?

The New-Boy Network: what do job interviews really tell us?

Story-driven – as all Gladwell articles are – The New Boy Network tries to answer the question posited in the subtitle “what do job interviews really tell us?”

Apparently, some of the things they do are not the ones you’d expect them to. The main reason is something called the Fundamental Attribution Error, or FAE, for short, is "the tendency to believe that what people do reflects who they are." Do you want to avoid making the FAE? Instead of informal conversations, use structured three-way interviews.

Troublemakers: What pit bulls can teach us about crime.

Breed-specific legislation (BSL) – in case you don’t know – is a law that prohibits the keeping of particular types of dogs. The reason? They may be dangerous. The usual culprit? Pit bulls.

In this article, Gladwell argues that it’s not that simple. In other words, any dog can be trained to be evil, and that no dog is genetically predisposed to violence.

The simple solution? Laws should target dog owners and not dogs.

Final Notes

Simply put, “What the Dog Saw” is Malcolm Gladwell at his best. From reading the articles, you’ll come to some startling discoveries, and the things that previously seemed complex may now appear to you in a new form of simplicity. 

Remember that no idea is above scrutiny, and you have every right to bring pressure to bear on any notion or lifestyle for that matter. But, really, don’t take our word for it. Check out these articles in their fullest form, and make up your own decisions.

12min Tip

Every truth is subjective, depending on the angle you are looking from, but there are some truths that we regard as factual. We encourage you to take a deep dive into “Factfulness” by Hans Rosling and see a different perspective of the world that is often depicted through horror, terror, and violence.

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Who wrote the book?

Malcolm Gladwell is a Canadian author and longtime staff writer for The New Yorker. Gladwell is renowned for his unique viewpoints of popular culture, and author of the New York Times bestsellers “The Tipping Point,” “Blink,” “Outliers,” “What the Dog Saw,” and... (Read more)

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