The Nose Knows
The E-scentuals of Being a Dog
Driving along Russell-Scott Road recently, I looked over at the 24-pound creature sitting beside me and asked myself, “What do I really know about how this species, which I consider a family member, experiences life?”
As it turns out, not nearly as much as I presumed.
He, and his 800 million brothers and sisters scattered around this planet, were the first domesticated animal. This was 23,000 years ago, and now the dog is not only regarded by some as a pet, but often considered a full member of our households.
These beautiful creatures are now dependent upon us. So, what do we get in exchange for being their caretakers? A lot more than you might imagine.
Dogs have served humanity well, far beyond those we use to hunt and control livestock. Dogs have served valiantly in battle; some are highly decorated for saving lives on the front lines.
Their exceptionally keen sense of smell can locate valuable truffles, missing people, recover bodies both alive or dead, bombs, drugs and even invasive plants and animals.
Dogs now serve as seizure-alert companions for those who have epilepsy. This lovable and loving species helps those with autism and people with PTSD and can detect cancer and other diseases before we know we have them.
We are only now at the threshold of understanding what this single animal species can offer humanity. And what we are learning from recent studies will prove that a dog’s life is much richer than we could ever previously have imagined.
If there is an angel on this Earth, it will undoubtedly have four legs and a tail that wags when we come into view.
I hike every day in one of our fine West Virginia state parks. I strive to walk 10,000 steps daily, which is approximately five miles, according to my pedometer. I do the first 5,000 steps with my dogs, Bongo and Daisy; the final half of the hike is done alone for sustained aerobic exercise.
Although my pace is consistent throughout the five miles, it takes three times as long to do the first half of the hike than the solo portion.
Yes, as all dogs do, they spend time peeing on trees and pooping. But the more significant portion of their time is spent eagerly and meticulously smelling downed branches and other protrusions along the margins of the trail.
What they are experiencing is something that science is just beginning to understand.
What dogs possess in terms of senses, particularly smell, may seem supernatural at first glance. Yet, these abilities are natural in all respects, a tip of the hat to adaptation.
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but how we perceive reality is a pale ghost of how the animal kingdom senses its surroundings.
Yes, we probably have the rest of the animal kingdom beat when doing mathematical equations or writing a new TV sitcom. Still, our feeble senses of sight – we can’t even see in the ultraviolet spectrum – touch, taste, hearing and smell rank well below many insects, let alone the rest of the animal kingdom.
Their senses likely offer a much richer experience of being alive than ours.
Imagine getting up in the morning, grabbing that first cup of coffee, and sitting at your laptop to check your email. Maybe we look forward to our email to obtain information from family, friends and co-workers – data is important to us, yes?
Now imagine your spouse grabs you by your collar and drags you away from your laptop before you have a chance to read all of your emails. You would likely be pissed at this overt act of rudeness.
So, maybe we shouldn’t be too hasty in dragging our dogs away from their e-smell. Dogs, like humans, need and thrive on stimulation and their sense of smell provides an abundance of this.
Your dog’s prolonged sniffing around trees, signposts and fireplugs is a method of obtaining information, much like you do from your phone or laptop. One researcher referred to this behavior as the canine version of social media.
The amount and type of information your dog derives through their sophisticated olfactory system is quite detailed and of great interest to the dog. The next time you are out with your canine buddy, and they are sniffing vigorously at the base of a tree – be patient and give them some time.
All manner of data taken in by the canine nose at a “sniff site” is being mentally processed. Your dog’s scrutiny is picking up on the age, sex, mood and even availability for mating of the depositor.
You’ll note that your dog will often leave a message of his own before heading down the trail. The next dog to come along will gladly open up your pooch’s e-smell and walk away knowing a lot about your dog without ever meeting her.
Visual thinking and dogs
Temple Grandin, a highly functional autistic herself, is a professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University. Dr. Grandin is best known for her work in designing livestock handling equipment that reduces stress on the animal.
Considered an autistic savant, Grandin is also outspoken on animal rights and strives to create humane living conditions for all domestic animals.
In a recent Ted Talk, Dr. Grandin discussed her new book, Visual Thinking: The Hidden Gifts of People Who Think in Pictures, Patterns and Abstractions. She excitedly mentioned a recent Cornell University study demonstrating that the canine olfactory system has a “trunk line” to the visual cortex.
The anatomy of the canine nose
The Cornell study offers compelling new insights into how dogs experience smell. The implications are staggering because smell and vision suggest that dogs are visual thinkers.
This ability is something that humans may have a hard time conceptualizing. It is difficult for us to imagine how the dog is experiencing this connection between smell and the visual cortex.
Does the dog actually see what it is smelling? Further studies may answer this question.
It is hard for the human brain to conceptualize those things that fall outside of our three dimensions – length, width, and height. Einstein proposed time as the fourth dimension but also regarded linear time as purely an illusion.
In fact, time is quite malleable. That is, the passage of time for an individual depends on velocity and gravity. Time is passing slower for someone in a jet than it is for someone on the ground, time is therefore relative. *
This is difficult for our brain to make sense of; this is true even for theoretical physicists.
So, if we cannot truly understand the relativity of time, we will likely fall short of conceptualizing how smell and vision intermingle in the canine brain. For now, only mammals with this special connection know what this means. And they aren’t talking!
Because of our appreciable cognitive abilities, we may have missed the boat on those senses possessed by dogs and other creatures, things like echolocation or using the Earth’s magnetic field to navigate.
Some scientists believe that we may have had more powerful senses at one time, now dormant or vestigial.
Visual thinking aside, the canine nose is the pinnacle of evolutionary success for alternate ways of obtaining vital information. Remember, a puppy is born with the eyes temporarily closed, hearing is still developing, and smell is one sense it is born ready to use.
The nose of your adorable puppy also has a thermal sensor, called a rhinarium, that helps the youngster find its way to the mother’s teat. The canine nose comes fully equipped for all situations.
The anatomy of the canine nose maximizes every available chemical message. Please take a good long look at your dog’s nose; it is a marvel of evolution and sensory perception and very different from our noses.
The prominent slits you see on the side of a dog’s nose are reserved for exhalation only. These slits allow the scent molecules and particles to be retained in the nose’s interior for as long as the dog wishes. He can expel them at any time with a muscular contraction similar to a sneeze; something you’ve probably heard him do.
The two chambers of the canine nose work independently to bring in scents and retain them in the nose through an abundant supply of mucus. This feature allows the dog to determine the direction of travel taken by another animal by aging the scent.
So, even without the newly discovered link between the canine nose and the visual portion of the brain, their olfactory system would be a marvel of sensory perception compared to our puny system of smell.
The amplitude of canine smell directly corresponds to the number of smell receptors; this is where we fall short. We have about six million of these little guys in our noses. And, though that may sound like a lot, consider that a dog has up to 300 million smell receptors or fifty times more receptive area than we do.
Comparatively, that would be about the size of a postage stamp for humans and an unfolded handkerchief for a dog.
Also, unlike humans, a dog can pick up a scent of just one part per trillion. That is equivalent to detecting a teaspoon of sugar in a volume of water amounting to two Olympic size swimming pools.
Winnie, a Welsh Corgi, belonging to Jim and Beth Bullard of Pocahontas County, is functionally blind. Her ability to navigate the Bullard’s house and estate is not the least diminished by her handicap.
Winnie’s magnificent olfactory system provides everything she needs to run narrow trails and even negotiate a doggy door. Knowing this should give those whose dogs lose their eyesight some comfort that they can still function normally and enjoy their lives.
What’s love got to do with it?
In a future column, we will discover how science has determined that our dogs truly love us. Or, as scientists prefer to call love, “An interspecies oxytocin mediated positive loop.”
Come on science nerds; we know our dogs love us without using those fancy words.
Do something with your curiosity today; you’ll not regret it.
* The Twin Paradox
Citations are available on request.