"To follow animals is to become more attuned to our own existence. To follow DOGS is to begin to apprehend the experience of our silent, loyal partners through our days"
- Alexandra Horowitz, ON BEING A DOG (2016).
This blog is based on a Toastmasters talk I gave last week in Calgary, Canada. It was in front of an audience of other Toastmasters' members and the entire talk was to be 5-7 minutes. I think I spoke for just over 7 mins ... I started out by bending down, with my left hand outstretched, as I would if I were to greet a smaller dog. Let's begin ...
Who has a dog, a small dog? … then you have an idea of what I may have been doing. I was presenting a part of my body for the tiny dog to smell … this is a very fascinating topic for me, as I have been watching my little Chihuahua over the past year and a bit since I first got her. She is my second dog ever in my life, the first one was in my childhood and I didn’t really pay much attention back then, and my memory fails me to remember that far back.
Today I’d like to change the way we look at dogs, or really, change the way in which we may interpret dog behaviors. As you can imagine, dogs have a wide range of behaviors and idiosyncrasies that are not only interesting, but could shed light on our understanding of them. However, today I am going to focus on the nose … more specifically, their sense of smell, and their ‘art of smelling’, if you will. The world around a dog comes to him through his nose, and is infinitely more rich than ours, as we have left the reliance on the nose millions of years ago, relying instead on other senses namely hearing and sight. We do, however, have a strong memory attached to a smell, stronger than a sight of someone’s face, or the hearing of a song, you know what I mean if you smell that lover’s perfume again or that food your mom cooked when you grew up. It is intense. Imagine how intense the world on a daily basis is for dogs?
Dogs make use of their noses to 1) as a form of communication between the dog and another being, dog or human; 2) they use their noses to ‘see’ their world; and 3) work for humans to detect certain smells where the human nose can’t go.
We’ve all had the awkward, embarrassing moment when you go to a friend’s place and they have dog who immediately stuffs his muzzle between your legs, sniffing out your private parts like a crazed perve on four-legs … for if this dog was a person, the equivalent would be some party creep delivering us the cheesiest of pick up lines … However, from the dog’s point of view, this is the same as a kiss on the cheek, a hug, hand shake or even we can go so far as to suggest extending a name card - there is some familiarity, but if there isn’t, then the card will instantly reveal who this person is to us, if even just by name and rank. For the dog, they get this same ‘info’ from a good hearty genital sniff … we, too, have seen them at the dog park, nose of our dog making its way, ever so delicately, around to meet the butt of the stranger’s dog … often, then, there is change in behavior, the dogs will either move forward or move on. There is real communication going on here, they sniff to know and they allow themselves to be sniffed. This is essential for dogs to take part in, they need to know friend, foe or frenemy. Back to my bending down and reaching out the imaginary dog, I was making it easy and less stressful for her to first get wind of me, to allay any fears she might have of me. I might say to her, ‘nice to meet you’, and she would say to me, ‘nice to sniff you’.
Just as you or I might go out for a walk, attend a theatre performance or go to an art gallery, let a lone snuggle up by the fire with a good book, a dog takes in and experiences his world from that which comes in to his nose. When our dog is out on the walk with us, they can pick up the weather changes, what wild life has darted past in the past few hours, changes in the flora around and what other dogs have laid scent or played ball. Kind of like an olfactory ‘Facebook’ for dogs when they take a walk with us, and even more so when they hit the off-leash park where they can pick up and follow ad hoc. I once heard an experienced dog trainer say that the best walks are those where the dog IS allowed to roam, and not constrained to a tight leash. Remembering back to the art gallery, I want to go where I am interested, not where the docent wants to take me. Moreover, you may have heard the sniffing and snuffing noise that a dog makes as it motors through the grass, weaving back and forth, sniffing and snuffling along? In fact, they don’t just sniff in, but there is a 3- part process to sniffing, and after the initial sniff in, the nose then triggers the dog to blow warm air out, which causes a gust of wind down on whatever he was sniffing, causing more particles to be stirred up and then re-sniffed up in to the muzzle.
Dogs work for us in ways we might never be able to thank them for. An obvious physiological difference between dogs and ourselves would be the absence of a muzzle, which is where millions upon millions of smell receptors are housed. The real difference between the dog’s sense of smell and our own is beyond words really, however, there are some descriptive examples. Scientists have broken down this difference into the ability of dogs to sniff out a pictogram of a smell, something that we can’t even begin to fathom. If we look at it another way, say use the example of a smell that we are more familiar with - a Cinnamon roll baking in the home kitchen. The average cinnamon roll has about a gram of cinnamon in it, and our nose is certainly on to it when we open the door and smell the roll baking. Now let’s imagine the equivalent intensity for a dog … that would be close to a trillion rolls - that is how powerfully different their smell is to ours. It is then with no surprise that dogs are used for work such as search and rescue, criminal line ups to point out the murderer, narcotics, TNT explosives, cadavers, and in some parts of the world, they help scientists with locating hard to find scat from endangered species. One area that I find interesting and that is becoming popular is in detecting disease. While dog trainers are leaping to the chance to train pups in this field, and doctors are excited about a back up opinion, scientists are still deciding if it is the actual ‘disease’ they are smelling, or the effect of the disease on the human that creates the smell that dogs notice and locate. I have a personal experience of how this is possibly works, and I don’t even have a trained working dog. My Chihuahua Lucy came to me in January 2016 and it was about 6 weeks later that I had my mom over for dinner and to meet Lucy. Interesting, Lucy freaked out, she growled the entire time my mom was in the house, wouldn’t go near her and ran away with her tail tucked between her legs. A few weeks later, this time at my mom’s place, and Lucy’s behavior didn’t change, as we thought that maybe she was like that because it was the first time or the cigarette smoke. Nope, she was still growling and such. Mom seemed fine, we just sort of brushed it off as ‘it will take time’ to bond. On a third time, my mom came over to drop something off at my house, Lucy was growling and behaving quite protective and still wouldn’t approach my mom, nor let my mom approach her. The sensitivity of my young dog’s nose was made perfectly clear when my mom passed away three weeks later, due to bowel obstruction, in that her condition was so advanced, and docs felt that she had been essentially rotting for a long time before she died. Lucy, my little Chihuahua, was on to this, but of course used the only communication method that she knew - growling, tail between legs, avoidance and fear. I believe she could smell the death on my mom.
To summarize, dogs are amazing and even so when we recognize and acknowledge their finely tuned noses, not only in how they communicate with us and other dogs, in the way that they take in the park, and how they can really ‘see’ things that we can’t. The take away today is to slow down and observe your dog, bend down and present your hand to a tinier dog, giving her the chance to know you, and to let your dog explore his surroundings on the next walk. By paying attention to these ‘best friends’, then we might have a better understanding of our environment and relationships. An interesting field of research might be in comparing the smell of blind humans with that of the dog.