Known by the Nose

It’s common knowledge that a dog’s sense of smell is much better than a human’s. The scent receptors in a dog’s nose would almost fill a sheet of typing paper while ours fit on a postage stamp. I’ve heard estimations that a dog’s scenting ability is anywhere from a few thousands to a million times better than that of  homo sapiens.

It seems like scientists could be a bit more precise than that! After all that’s quite a range of possibilities! I’m sure one of the reasons it’s so big is that not all dogs have the same ability. Shorter-snouted dogs are less gifted in the number of receptors whereas long-nosed dogs like Beagles and German Shepherds have more. The Sultan of Smelling is, of course, the Bloodhound that has been bred for centuries to track and trail.

Just what does does that mean, anyway? — that dogs smell “better” than humans? Surely it’s not all about how many sensors, but how they are used. Scientists have discovered the percentage of a dog’s brain used to interpret scent information is about 40 times bigger than ours. So, while our brains are designed to interpret and store visual data, a dog’s is used mainly to process information from the nose.

A dog’s vision is quite poor, not seeing details, but mostly perceiving shapes. That’s why dogs will bark at familiar people who are wearing a different hat, or big bulky coat or have a backpack slung on their back. The outline is different than the remembered outline, so the dog treats the person as a stranger. It’s only after the dog catches the person’s scent that recognition sets in. Toss a treat to a dog, and if it falls to the ground, the dog obviously stops LOOKING for it and starts SMELLING it out. Walking our dogs is often a start-and-stop experience as we wait for them to read the “pee-mail!” Clearly all dogs depend far more heavily on the information their nose “knows” than people do.

Our memories are full of pictures and anchored by language. Dogs, who do not have language as we do, and for whom vision is a lesser sense, must have memories made up of smells. Think about that for a moment — remembering a place you’ve been by the aromas there. Not a visual map of landmarks, but a grid of odors, a puzzle of perfumes, reeks, tangs, whiffs and fragrances. I can’t begin to conceptualize it. I imagine someone with Synesthesia, who might “see” smells as colors or hear numbers as musical pitches might find it a bit easier to visualize.

See, even our language reflects how the human brain thinks: “visualize” because that is how our brains process information. In our “mind’s eye!” Do dogs think with a sort of mental nose?

I find it fascinating that such a familiar, well-know, well-loved animal that lives in my home with me can be so alien. Not “alien” in a creepy, scary, inferior way, but a mind-blowingly interesting and awe-inspiring way. So different from us, and yet we presume to “know” what a dog is thinking!

How can we think that we really understand what is going on in a dog’s mind? It seems we’re only guessing according to our human-visual bias. We’re really imagining what another human might be thinking in the same circumstances.  Unless we really know what our dog’s nose knows, those guesses won’t be very accurate.

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