In terms of eyesight dogs don’t see such a range of shades and colours as we do. We see things more clearly close-up and have better distance vision also.
Dogs however have much better vision in low-light and also for noticing movement in their surroundings (such as that cat over the road or the squirrel tucked away beside a tree) – a combination that would substantially improve their hunting and survival skills pre-domestication.
They are also masters at reading our body language, right down to the slightest change in facial musculature and identifying human emotions – a skill that has been developed as we have evolved together over thousands of years.
And what about their hearing?
Dogs have excellent hearing – they can hear a far wider range of frequencies than humans, and they can hear things up to four times farther away than we can.
Not only is their hearing more sensitive but each ear has 18 different muscles, allowing them to precisely position each ear to locate a particular sound, or to convey a particular feeling.
And their sense of smell?
A dog’s olfactory cortex (the part of the brain that processes smell) is 40 times bigger than ours. We have 5 million odour receptors, while dogs have 2-300 million.
They can smell things that are up to a million times less concentrated than we can detect – the most specialist breed is of course the Bloodhound.
When you hold out an object what does your dog do first? They certainly don’t take a step back to get a better look, they sniff it. And they sniff everything else, all the time.
Scent is the predominant way that dogs make sense of their world. Sniffing is vital to the way they gather information and interact with their environment. Dogs potentially think in maps informed with their smell. They sniff and resniff a location to find out what has been there.
Unlike our eyes, which take in what is visible and apparent at this moment, their noses can sense the past – who and what was here, and they can sense the future – what’s ahead or who is coming.
Their nostrils can work independently allowing them to determine the direction of a smell.
The little gaps on the side of their nose allow for the old air to exit at the same time as the dog is breathing in new air, which enables the dog to take in scent continuously. When tracking, dogs can make six inhalations per second.
They can sniff out cancer cells, changes in hormone or blood-sugar levels, missing people, a whole host of illegal materials, unexploded bombs that have been buried several inches under the ground for many years – the list goes on.
So how does this knowledge help us in a practical way?
• Doing 20 minutes of scent-work leaves a dog more tired than doing a 20 minute walk.
• Using their nose provides excellent and essential mental stimulation.
• Sniffing causes a dogs pulse-rate to drop making it a calming activity.
• Playing nose games is good fun and a great bonding activity – it also increases your value while out on walks – who wants to go too far from a human who may at any point throw some food to sniff out?
And their other senses?
• Move around if you want your dog to see you at a distance, spread your arms wide when you ask for that distance recall.
• Utilise their skill in understanding our body-language – link specific actions to specific words.
• Be dynamic – this is far more interesting to your dog.
• When talking to your dog speak quietly as they can hear you just fine. If you feel like your dog isn’t listening, resist the urge to shout or to keep repeating yourself – it’s more likely your dog doesn’t understand what you are asking or isn’t motivated enough to respond. That’s where a little training comes in of course!
When you have a moment, just watch your dog. Watch their ears – the position can reveal a lot about how they are feeling or what they are listening to. Pay attention to their nose and how busy it is.
I love to watch my dog lying down in the garden, seemingly doing nothing, yet all the while his nose is busily sniffing the air!
Remember that their understanding is not language based as ours is, it’s sensory, with smell being the most important sense of all. So allow your dog time to sniff and process the environment around them.
Sometimes it’s nice just to go for a potter about – enjoy the visual view while your dog enjoys the scented one, for them it’s real-life smelly-vision!
My young daughter has already coined the phrase “sniff-walk” because she can clearly see what dogs like to do when we let them just be dogs.