If you had to do without one of your five main senses tomorrow, which one would you give up? I’m guessing that most people would put sight and hearing at the bottom of the list, and not having any sense of touch would just be strange. Lacking a sense of taste would also make eating pretty uninteresting.
We actually have a lot more than just five senses, but only considering the classical five, this leaves the sense of smell as the one that a lot of people would give up if they had no choice. And I’m not just guessing here. Surveys have shown that this is the overwhelming answer.
But your dog would answer the question quite differently.
While humans may not even really notice their sense of smell until it’s assaulted by a very strong odor, for your dog, it’s their primary way of experiencing the world. It’s their first sense to begin functioning, even before they can see or hear, and it’s the way they first learn about their mothers and how they find their only food source.
To a dog, your scent makes up most of your “name,” and it’s how she knows you. It’s also how she’ll know when you’re ill or not in a good mood. Her nose lets her know what’s going on in the neighborhood, what kind of animal ran through the garden and how long ago, and which way it went when it left. To a dog, their nose is Google, GPS, and Facebook.
This is also why dogs that lose another sense, particularly sight or hearing, can make up for it. Their noses are so powerful that they can provide all of the navigational assistance or environmental information necessary. In fact, this can sometimes make it difficult for humans to even notice that their dog has gone blind or deaf for a long time, because they can “cheat.”
This is also the reason that a dog with perfectly adequate senses may appear to be selectively blind or deaf as we wave for or call him from across the dog park. He can see and hear us perfectly well. It’s just that something has engaged his nose for the moment, and he’s gathering all of the information he can.
Don’t actually try this at home, but if you want to be amazed at how powerful your dog’s nose is, imagine how hard it would be for you to find your way around the house just by following your sense of smell. You’d probably walk into a wall in the first minute. You can try this, though: Take a moment to close your eyes, see how many different scents you can identify, and if you can tell where they’re coming from.
You might be able to smell that coffee brewing, although to your brain the aroma may seem to be coming from everywhere. You may catch a whiff of the shampoo you used this morning, or the detergent you last cleaned your clothes in — but you’ll have no idea just from the smell how long ago you washed your hair or did your laundry.
Meanwhile, your dog can probably detect the last dozen meals cooked in the kitchen, and every visitor who’s been to the house over the last couple of weeks, as well as how long ago each meal or visitor happened. At the same time, she can smell the unfixed neighbor dog who’s going into heat, the nest of squirrels in the attic, the opossum living under the house, and the exhaust from the engine on the letter carrier’s truck, which hasn’t come around the corner yet but which is a looming threat.
And she’s sensing all of that and processing it without thinking about it. Why? Because information coming in through the nose is processed in a part of the brain called the olfactory bulb, which is in the limbic system.
This part of the brain is sometimes referred to as the “lizard brain.” It is the center for fight or flight reactions and emotional responses, so it operates in the world of pure instinct, meaning it interprets all of the incoming odor information without your dog having to consciously process it.
To a dog, smelling is knowing, and his response to this information is instantaneous and instinctive. This is why we can go so wrong when we think that our dogs perceive the world in the same sensory order that we do: sight, sound, touch. But if we really want to perceive the world as they do, or at least understand how they do, then it’s one time where we’d learn more by not listening and not looking.
Take a deep breath, and welcome to your dog’s world.
Stay calm, and smell the roses!