If we are to provide socializing sensory experiences for our dogs we must first build our understanding and appreciation of their sensory perceptions as well as their emotional and mental response to the stimuli. In doing so we will need to imagine their experience and set aside our biases.
Too often we think of socialization of puppies and older dogs as limited to exposure to dogs and people. Socialization must also include places, things and sensory experiences. Socialization is not a single event but an ongoing process. In this article I would like to explore sensory experience.
The sensory experience of a dog is different than our own. Jacob von Uexkull (1864 – 1944) was one of the first people to explore and write about the world as perceived by other creatures. In his writing A Stroll Through The World of Other Animals Uexkull created the word umwelt to describe the unique way a living organism perceives the world. Umwelt then, in ethology (the science of behavior) is the environment as it is experienced by a particular organism.
Judith and Herbert Kohl have since written in The View From The Oak, The Private Worlds of Other Creatures ;
“If you decide to observe animals in their natural environments, it is crucial to understand that in the world of all but the simplest creatures there is a range of responses. In order to understand animals, it is necessary not only to understand their world as they experience it, but to be more specific and understand how an animal feels at the moment that you’re observing.”
So, what are our dog’s senses and how are they different than our own. Let’s examine smell, taste, touch, sight and hearing.
Smell and scent is a dog’s primary way of experiencing the world while we rely on sight. Whether the dog is moving with their nose to the ground or “just standing” their nose is always working, just as we are always watching. While we may be focused on going for a walk from point A to point B and returning, our dog is focused on the cacophony of scents and wanting to check them out further. Your dog is probably more concerned about exercising their olfactory skills and taking notes about their environment. Socializing to smell will require patience and time to do so, a longer leash and off lead freedom in a safe area. Socialization to smell, requires us to have an imagination of their world, give them permission to “go sniff”.
Humans have about 9,000 taste buds and dogs have about 1,700. Humans taste salt, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami (savory), dogs probably only taste salt, sweet, sour and bitter. There is a great deal we don’t know about canine nutrition despite what dog food manufactures may lead us to believe with their advertising. Regardless of how varied you may make your dog’s diet there are some foods and additives that are dangerous for your dog to consume; chocolate, onions, garlic, avocados, nutmeg, grapes, raisins, macadamia nuts, caffeine, alcohol, marijuana, and xylitol. (Bekoff and Pierce, Unleashing Your Dog 2019) .
The Jacobson’s Organ or vomeronasal organ (VNO) is a group of sensory cells that enhances odor by adding taste. The VNO is specially structured to smell pheromones, this is why your dog may taste urine and other gross stuff to further investigate and learn about other dogs in the area. We may have to set aside our reactions to gross stuff and let our dogs learn more about their social world. What we may consider just gross may be the local community bulletin board for your dog.
The sensation of touch is activated when dogs wear a collar, walk or run on surfaces, play with toys and sniff. “We know less about the canine sensory experience of touch than we do about their sense of smell or taste” ( Bekoff and Pierce Unleashing Your Dog 2019) There appears to be a remarkable variation in how dogs initiate and respond to touch.
Dogs touch many surfaces in their daily lives. Early socialization to surfaces will assure a more confident life for your dog. It’s not unusual to get a new puppy that has never been on any more than one surface. Exposure to grass, sidewalks, various floor surfaces, stainless steel examination tables, grooming tables, sidewalk grates, stairs, elevators and cars are all important exposures for puppies and naïve older dogs.
“Contrary to popular believe, dogs don’t have really thick skin on their necks, nor does their fur protect them from pressure on their neck. … the human neck skin is 10 to fifteen cells thick the skin on a dogs neck is only three to five cells thick…a dog’s neck is very sensitive” ( Bekoff and Pierce, Unleashing Your Dog 2019)
Prong, choke and shock collars should only be used carefully for severe behavioral conditions and after consulting with an experienced trainer or behaviorists. Prong, choke and shock collars are most likely to worsen behavior. More about collars, leashes, leash handling and walking your dog in future articles.
Take time to learn your dog’s touch preferences, the type of petting, body location and pressure are all accepted differently by different dogs. In general long slow strokes of medium pressure along the back is most often accepted. This type of petting has been shown to release oxytocin, associated with trust, affection and bonding. Rapid patting of moderate or greater pressure especially on the head will generally not be appreciated by the dog and may increase stress. Many dogs find hugs threatening or aversive and will withdraw or more severely react with a snap or bite.
Vibrissae or whiskers, the long, thick and stiff whiskers on a dogs muzzle are very sensitive to touch. Humans lack such whiskers and therefore we may not appreciate their importance and sensitivity to a dog, Again we have to imagine the dog’s experience. They undoubtedly help the dog locate objects and their proximity. While not yet studied it is likely that vibrissae play a role in the social lives of dogs and perhaps in greeting and other exploratory behavior.
Even though dogs primarily rely on scent they are also keen observers. The language of dogs is a language of body postures and expressions. People being primarily visual can learn this language. The language of dogs is one of ears, eyes mouth, tail, and body position. Subtle changes in each of the body parts conveys a message and reading the whole dog as a mosaic is essential.
They don’t see color the same way we do.
The American Kennel Club; August 21, 2014 published; See What the World Looks Like to a Dog
"Humans see red, green, and blue because we have receptors in our eyes that are sensitive to these three colors individually. But in dogs, the cells that read green and red are the same, making these two colors less distinguishable. This theory goes against the previously held notion that dogs can’t see colors at all, which was found to be untrue by Russian scientists in 2013. Although they have a limited spectrum and can’t determine as well as humans how bright a color is, they can see some colors."
They have less visual acuity.
In bright light, dogs see the world a bit blurry, but they do see better than we do in dim light. According to Northwest Animal Eye Specialists in Kirkland, Washington, dogs’ visual acuity is about 20/75 (but this can also vary by breed)
"But don’t be too bummed for our less sharp-eyed canine companions. When it comes to movement, dogs have a leg up on humans, being able to spot fast-moving objects (or prey) easier than we can. Also, with the position of their eyes, dogs have a wider field of view. And, of course, the function of our human snozzes can’t come close to the way dogs explore the world through their noses."
The View From the Oak concludes; "The human view of the world is only one of many. It enriches our understanding of ourselves to move away from familiar world and attempt to understand the experience of other animals with whom we share common ancestors. The respect for other forms of life we can gain from these efforts might in some small way help us work toward preserving the world we share."