Tom Ross: Your dog smells better than you do
November 14, 2011
Steamboat Springs — Dogs are capable of some revolting behavior, but now that I'm reading "Inside of a Dog," by Alexandra Horowitz, at least I understand a little better.
It was during a backpacking trip to the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area in summer 2009 when we returned to camp from fishing a distant lake to find unmistakable signs that a bighorn sheep had paid us a visit while we were away.
It got nasty when the rambunctious pup that had been livening up our trip nosed up to some wild sheep poop and nibbled it the way you or I might nibble on Brie and loganberry preserves spread on a cracker. I stepped out of line a little bit (it wasn't my dog, after all) and insisted that the pooch cease and desist.
"Don't worry about it. He's just being a dog," my buddy pointed out.
It turns out, he was absolutely correct.
If you want to learn in detail why that's true, and many other aspects of your dog's psyche, I recommend you sniff out a copy of Horowitz's book. She's a dog lover, but she's also a psychologist.
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On the level of popular psychology, we tend to think the discipline deals with people who need counseling about their emotional problems. But if you scraped by in Psychology 202 like I did, you've engaged psychology as the study of the way our five senses shapes our reality.
It turns out that dogs live in a separate sensory reality from yours and mine. Horowitz' book makes the case that increasing our understanding of a dog's reality helps us let go of the urge to transform our pets into dull humans, and instead celebrate their dog-ness.
You and I engage our world first with our eyesight and second with our ability to touch things. Dogs go through life with their snouts leading the way. And sometimes, ingesting refuse you and I wouldn't touch can strengthen the connection between a world full of intense odors and a dog's olfactory senses.
Of course, it comes as no surprise that dogs have a keen sense of smell. We all know about bloodhounds tracking escaped inmates and drug-sniffing beagles.
Human and canine noses are lined with special tissues and fine hairs that trap the scent carrying molecules carried in the air we inhale, Horowitz explains. My nose has about 6 million of these sensors and your beagle's nose has about 300 million. And the area of a dog's brain devoted to olfactory input is much greater, on a percentage basis, than a human's. In relative terms, it's as if you and I can't smell anything at all, while our dogs live in a world of complex, overlapping scents.
So what's that got to do with snacking on sheep pellets? Dogs have a highly developed vomeronasal (don't worry, I can't pronounce it either) organ that sits just above the hard palate on the roof of their mouths and at the base of their nasal passages, Horowitz writes. It's the organ that picks up on the intense chemicals we call pheromones. Pheromones have been known to initiate social responses (like breeding) among members of the same species but also tell dogs something of who it was that just passed this way. Was that a domestic sheep or a wild bighorn sheep?
One of the ways they draw these pheromones into the vomeronasal organ is through their ever-wet noses that can absorb the pheromones. It's likely that another way is by licking urine and feces left behind by other critters.
"Inside of a Dog" is much more complex detailed in its exploration of dog psychology than just a discussion of their sense of smell. Somewhere between a college textbook and pop science, it's not the kind of book one breezes through, but the author makes it very accessible in terms of vocabulary and through anecdotal information about the author's own relationship with a dog named Pump.
If you want to know more about what makes your dog tick and how it fits into your family, take a look at "Inside of a Dog."
And please, try to smell better.
— To reach Tom Ross, call 970- 871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com
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