If I asked you to describe the room you’re sitting in right now you would probably tell me something like, “there are white walls, a brown desk covered with papers, tan carpeting, a stack of books in the corner . . .”
Since we humans are visual creatures, our assessment of things is always done using our eyes and is focused on what we can see.
If I asked your dog that same question his response would go something like this: “There’s an underlying musty aroma throughout the room; on the desk is a combination of oak, coffee and a hint of yesterday’s lunch of chicken salad and cupcakes (busted!); the carpeting is a mixture of grass, dirt and some weird chemical smell . . .”
For our dogs, the world is “seen” through a colorful assortment of scents and is experienced in a very different way from what we’re used to.
What’s in a nose
Inside the nose (both ours and dogs) are bony scroll-shaped plates, called turbinates, over which air passes. This is where most of the scent detecting cells hang out, along with some nerves that are responsible for sending the information gathered to the brain. In your nose the area containing these odor analyzers is about one square inch in size. In your pooch, however, this area would unfold to about 60 square inches. A big difference indeed.
It doesn’t end there though. The dog’s brain is also fine tuned to analyze scents and it does this job with the efficiency of a super computer.
So exactly how much better is Fido’s sense of smell as compared to ours? Think on this – depending upon the breed, dogs can smell anywhere from 1,000 to 10,000 time better then we can. Pretty amazing stuff if you ask me. The average human has about 5 million scent receptors in their nose, while a Bloodhound – the super sniffers of the canine world – have 300 million.
A dog for a day
I’ve always said that if I found a genie’s lamp that granted me three wishes, I would spend one wish on the ability to experience a dog’s sense of smell for one day (don’t worry I won’t waste them all – my other two would be world peace and super human strength). It must be such an incredible way to see the world – and very, very different from everything we know.
Today when you take your dog for a walk watch closely the way your dog sniffs anything of interest to him. Watch his nose as he’s actively taking in some good sniffs. You’ll notice his nostrils move a bit from side to side as he inhales the air in quick bursts. He doesn’t just casually sniff, he smells with deep concentration and mindfulness. He really takes it all in and you can watch his expression as he processes the information – everything he takes in is noted.
Alexandra Horowitz goes into this stuff in great detail in her book, Inside of a Dog. Here’s how she describes what it’s like to be a dog:
Imagine if each detail of our visual world were matched by a corresponding smell. Each petal on a rose may be distinct, having been visited by insects leaving pollen footprints from faraway flowers. What is to us just a single stem actually holds a record of who held it, and when. A burst of chemicals marks where the leaf was torn. The flesh of the petals, plump with moisture compared to that of the leaf, holds a different odor besides. The fold of a leaf has a smell; so does a dewdrop on a thorn. And time is in those details; while we can see one of the petals drying and browning, the dog can smell this process of decay and aging. Imagine smelling every minute visual detail. The might be the experience of a rose to a dog.”
When you take your dog for a walk, the smells of the world are pulling at him relentlessly. He wants to understand what’s going on around him but he can only do it if he can get his nose over and inspect it.
Think about when you see something interesting. What do you do? You move in for a closer look to check it out in more detail. If you see a really cool car, or a great pair of shoes in the store window, or even what looks like a quarter laying on the street. You move in to learn more about it – visually.
Imagine that you constantly see something colorful and interesting looking but it’s just out of focus. You can’t really make out what it is but it’s peaked your curiosity. What would you do?
That’s right, you would walk over to it to see what it is.
Well that’s exactly what dogs are doing when we go out for walks. They catch a whiff of something intriguing and want to go in for a closer “look.”
People often get frustrated because their dogs pull them to sniff stuff on their walks. It’s easy to get mad but if you take a moment to consider what the dog is going through you might be a bit more understanding next time you dog is intent on spending some time at the local fire hydrant.
Try this exercise. When out for a walk with your dog today, every time he stops to sniff something you do the same. Take a deep breath and a long sniff of the air around you. Think about it, process it. Can you pick out some scents that you recognize?
Instead of fighting with your dog to always keep moving (I’m so often guilty of this), take some time to smell the roses . . . and tree stumps . . . and car tires . . .
Be a dog for that short walk, take some lessons from your dog and learn the time honored art of sniffing.