What They Sense in the Shadows

When you stop to consider it, dogs really are remarkable creatures. They slowly adapted over the course of tens of thousands of years (with lots and lots of human intervention) to become the beloved companions we so freely share our homes with today. While this blog post isn’t about the domestication process because the content of that discussion is entirely too long and scientific for a blog post, it is about the senses that dogs still have after many millennia of evolving from wolves to the dogs we see in front of us now. While they may not be as wild as their canid cousins, there still remains in them the vestiges of their wild ancestors that inform how they perceive the world to this very day. And what dogs sense can impact behavior in a big, big way. 

The reason that I want to discuss this topic is because I had an interesting experience with a client’s pup about a month or so ago. I was working with this particular client and their retired racing greyhound (who they had recently rescued) on some behavior concerns including Stranger Danger and leash reactivity. They also needed help with their newly acquired sight hound’s Big Giant Feelings about the dog that lived right next door to them. To be fair, the greyhound didn’t have Big Feelings about the dog next door until the dog next door made it very clear that he did not appreciate this new neighborhood interloper moving into the house next to him. The very first time that my client let their new pup into their backyard, he was quite startled by the neighbor dog’s rushing the fence and barking, lunging, and trying to jump the fence to yell at him some more. We all know that a good offense is the best defense and so the greyhound barked back and thus began an ongoing war of “words” between the two. 

As we started our work together, one of our focuses was to reduce the greyhound’s reactivity towards other dogs on walks and to improve his relationship with the neighbor dog. We weren’t going to focus on the dogs becoming best of friends or even acquaintances but we did want to help the greyhound learn that the dog next door was a neutral enough stimulus so that my client’s could simply walk past the neighbor’s house without their greyhound screaming dog obscenities at the house by way of losing his sh**. Yeah, it was that bad.

We worked on several exercises to help my clients and their dog gain skills that taught him that he didn’t need to scream anymore. Things began to improve so much that the only time the greyhound would have a reaction was when he could visually see the dog in the backyard. We began working on reducing his reactivity under those conditions as well and again, we saw great improvement. We had practiced and rehearsed new skills enough times under fairly controlled conditions that the greyhound went from being pretty dysregulated to watchful and alert with loose, relaxed body language. 


Here Comes the Interesting Part

On our second to last session, we were going to be taking a walk together so that we could assess and make adjustments to our training exercises. This was at the point in our work together when we were more or less tweaking things as needed to help address the dog’s leash reactivity. After a very successful walk, we headed back to the client’s house as we could all see that the dog was tiring. As we were approaching the neighbor’s house, we saw a car pulling into the garage. My clients shared that the neighbor was out of town and that they had a family member staying there to care for the resident dog. Interestingly enough, I noticed that our greyhound friend’s body language rapidly went from relaxed to tense and rigid and he was on very high alert. The humans had a discussion about how weird that was because the only living thing in the car that we could all see was the human. As the driver of the car started to exit, my client’s dog became even more tense. His mouth went from open and panting to closed, his ears perked all the way up, his tail got very still, stiff and was held high over his back.  

Because we saw the changes in his body language, I immediately had my clients employ some of the skills we had practiced. Even though we had never needed to use them with observed humans on walks, it was apparent that the greyhound was having some sort of heightened response to the situation unfolding directly in front of us. Still, all we could see was this unsuspecting person as they exited the car and went around to the back seat to open the door. I then saw the greyhound furiously begin to sniff the air. Hmmmmmmmmm. Interesting, no? New person smells, perhaps? And suddenly, out of the backseat of the car, jumped nemesis dog. He must have been laying down on the backseat and so was not visible to us humans. But our greyhound friend, with his extraordinary canine abilities, had known well before our slow human brains could catch up. How remarkable that he could sense what we could not long before we had visual proof of what that something was! 

The great news was that because we had responded to his body language signals and trusted that something was going on, we were able to use the techniques that we had practiced repeatedly quite successfully in this situation. We moved away from the space, practiced other skills at a distance where our greyhound could be successful, waited until the dog entered their house and then made our way into the client’s house all without a single curse word being uttered. Now, that’s what I call a win! 


The Dog’s Nose Knows

Everyone knows that a dog’s sense of smell is far superior to a human’s. But just how amazing are they? According to a scientific study found in the National Library of Medicine journal entitled Canine Olfaction: Physiology, Behavior, ad Possibilities for Practical Applications (Kokocinska-Kusiak, Woszczylo, Zybala, Maciocha, Barlowska, and Dzieciol, 2021) a dog’s sense of smell is not only their main way of sensing the world around them, it far exceeds our human capabilities. Dog’s have specific anatomical structures in their olfactory system that help them to “experience scent in a way that allows them to detect specific scents in drug and explosives but also changes in emotions as well as in human cell metabolism during various illnesses, including COVID19 infection.” The study also goes on to say that a dog’s olfactory ability provides information that is currently happening in the environment but also allows them to detect signals from the past. This intermingling of smells from the past and present “creates a three dimensional image of the surrounding world across time, playing a key role in maintaining such basic life activities as finding food, recognizing threats, or finding a reproductive partner.” Wowza, that’s some powerhouse nasal structure right there! No wonder the greyhound knew long before we did that his arch nemesis was close at hand. Really, if you have the time, read the highlighted study as it describes the complexity of the canine olfactory system in detail. It’s fascinating stuff! 

Alexandra Horowitz’s book Being a Dog, is dedicated entirely to the dog’s nose. In it, the author describes in detail just how complex the canine olfactory system is. This is the extraordinary ability of the dog’s sense of smell compartmentalized into one brief paragraph: “Both pet dogs and detection dogs have been put through the paces in a variety of threshold detection tasks that ask how diluted an odorant can be before a dog stops noticing that it’s there. Pick out a canister with the smell of banana, amyl acetate, from non-banana smelling canisters, for instance. Dogs keep finding the banana until it is diluted to 1-2 parts per trillion: a couple drops of amyl acetate, one trillion drops of water.” One trillion drops of water. It’s kind of nuts when you really pause to consider. Read the book. You will never look at your dog’s nose again without pausing to marvel at the complex engineering of such a robust machine. No wonder dogs so frequently stop to sniff when they are out in the world. They are getting information about the world in which we live that we can only dream about. 


Do You Hear What I Hear?

In my opinion a dog’s ears may just be the most adorable thing about their anatomy. When you stop to consider it, dog’s ears are just about as varied as dog breeds are themselves. Beyond the aesthetically pleasing appearance of any dog’s ears, they function as an outer layer that protects the inner apparatus that allows their hearing to be so keen and acute. But a dog’s outer ears are more than something to admire and coo over. Their ears are controlled by up to 18 muscles with an amazing range of motion. They can rotate and tilt their ears to orient to and pinpoint where a sound is coming from. Human ears barely move at all.  In comparison to a human, a dog is able to hear things four times farther away than we can. They also hear at a higher frequency than humans. If we can hear it, it is very likely that a dog who is not hearing impaired will hear it too

According to the book Inside of a Dog, again by Alexandra Horowitz, the following is true: “Even a typical room is pulsing with high frequencies, detectable by dogs constantly. Think your bedroom is quiet when you rise in the morning? The crystal resonator used in digital alarm clocks emits a never-ending alarm of high-frequency pulses audible to canine ears. Dogs can hear the navigational chirping of rats behind your walls. That compact fluorescent light you installed to save energy? You might not hear the hum but your dog probably can” (page 93.)  Ask Emily, one of Pet Harmony’s owners about the case she worked on when the family dog’s behavior completely changed and her client could not for the life of them figure out the cause. After some sleuthing, Emily helped them discover that the bug light they had purchased and installed was faulty, and was emitting an atypical sound that was quite literally driving their dog to the brink of madness. Removing the light reversed the dog’s behavior to his previous baseline behavior quickly and without other interventions being needed. 


Seeing is Believing

Humans are primates and primates are visual beings. We sense the world first through our eyes. Dogs? Sure, they use their eyes but not primarily like us. We’ve already established that a dog’s nose knows. That doesn’t mean that they don’t use sight though. Most dogs have “20/75 vision which means they must be 20 feet away from an object to see it as well as a human who is standing 75 feet away” according to an article in Scientific American entitled  What Colors Do Dogs See? (10/04/23)  Which basically means that dogs’ vision is a whole lot blurrier than a human with typical vision. Even though their vision may not be as sharp as a human’s, dogs have evolved to see much better than we do in low light meaning that they can see better in the dark than we do. 

And while dogs do not have the full color spectrum with which humans view the world, they do see shades of yellow, blue and gray but not shades of green and red. But don’t fret over your dog’s limited color vision because the article then goes on to explain one of it’s most fascinating propositions; that dogs may be able to smell in 3-D due to a connection between their olfactory bulb (processes smell) and their occipital lobe (processes vision.) According to the article, “this integration of sight and smell had not been observed before in any animal.” It might mean that a dog’s sense of smell is used to orient their sight which sort of makes sense when you watch a dog work their way through tracking or trailing a scent.  


Now What?

I think it is obvious that dog’s perceive the world in a way that mirrors our own but is completely different in some respects. Besides being completely fascinating information, what does that mean for folks who are sharing their lives with one or two or more dogs? Here are some final thoughts for your consideration, especially as it relates to changes in your dog’s behavior. 

  • It is logical to learn about your pet’s senses and how their senses are used to experience the world around them. While similarities exist between species, there is enough variability and certainly differences from human’s senses that gaining knowledge about  your pet’s senses will help you to better understand them. 
  • If you detect changes in your pet’s behavior and they have been cleared by a vet for physical ailments, you may want to investigate your home environment to see if anything might have been added that is causing your pet to feel distressed or disturbed. 
  • Be observant and take notice of changes in your dog’s body language as they are interacting with the environment. Those body language changes are happening for a reason. Even if you can’t see something, hear something, or smell something, it doesn’t mean that your dog can’t. Body language changes can be your very first clue that something is going on. Noticing these changes early can give you an opportunity to make decisions that can help your pet from escalating. 
  • And finally, working with a behavior professional can be a game changer especially if you are feeling stuck, overwhelmed or uncertain about your situation. 


Happy Training!