Have you ever heard of ‘smellovision”? This refers to a dog’s ability to see the world through their enhanced sense of smell.
Imagine you are strolling through the woods- think about all the things you see along the way. The path is covered in wood shavings packed down by dozens of human (and dog) feet each day. On the sides of the path, are acres of trees- different sizes, different species, some alive, some dead. The base of each tree is mossy. In some areas along the trail, there are little clumps of bushes. Oh look- someone didn’t pick up their dog poop (grr!). As you meander a bit further, the path becomes a small bridge over top of a little stream. The edges of the stream are rocky, a little slimy and green. Don’t go in there, buddy! If you walk the same way a few days in a row, you probably don’t even notice half of these things anymore. The sights don’t change all that much.
Now, experience the same walk through your dog’s smellovision. He’s walking along, leashed next to you, and that little cold wet nose is just working away. Every day on that trail smells a little different. He can tell that 13 people have already walked in the same direction that you are going that morning. There was a Bichon Frise and an older Golden Retriever too. One of them scratched around a bit and your dog notices that the earth beneath the shavings is damp and it looks like a little mousey highway with burrows flowing back and forth!
The trees are also interesting. Many of them host the calling card of dogs from previous walks. The smell of their urine is strong in the mossy base of some of the nearby trees. Your dog leaves a memento of his walk over top of some of these so the next dog will know that is his tree. Suddenly- your dog bristles a bit. You wonder about his body posture, his hackles are up- and he lets out a low WOOF. He stares off to the left and you jump in surprise- a bear! It’s a ways back and nearly camouflaged in the trees but your dog detected his odor and you watch as the bear sprints away, more worried about avoiding an encounter than you are.
Assured that the bear is long gone, you carry on. Your dog stops again- he takes a big whiff and is as revolted as you are about the poop that has been left behind. He turns his head and keeps moving.Next to a little clump of bushes, he checks around quite closely- and you let him spend a few minutes investigating. He becomes more excited and his tail begins to wag vigorously. His head dips into the bushes, under some ancient rotting leaves, and he quickly retreats- with an old shed deer antler in his mouth! Such a prize- what a good nose!
Stashing your new prize, you carry on. Well the edges of that little bridge are very interesting- did another dog pee there? Your buddy thinks yes, though there is no visible sign of it. He sniffs up and down the wooden stanchion like a very detailed building inspector. He then pulls down towards the water- “Don’t go in there, yuck!” Leaning into his leash at the stream’s edge, he stands and his head raises as he inhales deeply. He looks up stream and you see it- a family of little ducklings and their momma! They quietly paddle around the corner without a quack.
The world is a very interesting place and it’s even more interesting to a dog who has this extra strong sense of smell!
One of my favorite things to do is hike along with my dogs- off leash where it’s safe to do so, but even on leash- and enjoy the second hand smellovision. Typically, in areas where they express a sniffy interest, I will pause to see if there are visual clues. Our dogs have found all kinds of neat things that I would never have discovered. Besides being privvy to seeing discreet wildlife I may have noticed without advanced their advanced scent warning- the dogs have shown me all kinds of neat treasures discarded by other humans. Animal dens. Tiny well-hidden birds nests. All sorts of scat, of course. A clump of fresh ripe berries! Half grown over trails that are hard to see with my eyes but must just glow to a dog’s nose.
As a side effect to paying attention to the smells my dogs pick up on, it has helped me become much better at reading their body language. After some study of the dog’s posture and behavior coupled with environmental cues, I have learned that I can tell whether my dog is smelling a grouse or a coyote based on how she wags her tail. I can read her hackles to know that there is a bear in the vicinity. I see a quickly raised head and know that a human-scented item is nearby. Learning this body language has given me at tiny glimpse into what it must be like to notice so much more than what is visually obvious. Knowing that I can tell if my dog is showing an early warning to a bear’s scent before we get too close (one of my personal fears!) makes me feel a lot safer and enjoy our hikes even more.
What is the most interesting thing your dog’s smellovision has detected for you?