…forgetting what we think we know is the best way to begin understanding dogs…If we want to understand the life of any animal, we need to know what things are meaningful to it, beginning with what it can perceive—what it can see, hear, smell, or otherwise sense.
Human noses have about 6 million of these receptor sites; beagle noses have more than 300 million. The difference in the smell experience is exponential. Next to a beagle, we are downright anosmic, smelling nothing. We might notice if our coffee’s been sweetened with a teaspoon of sugar; a dog can detect a teaspoon of sugar diluted in a million gallons of water.
What’s this like? Imagine if each detail of our visual world were matched by a corresponding smell. Each petal on a rose may be distinct, having been visited by insects leaving pollen footprints from faraway flowers. What is to us just a single stem actually holds a record of who held it, and when. A burst of chemicals marks where a leaf was torn. Imagine smelling every minute visual detail. That might be the experience of a rose to a dog.
A dog looking around a room does not think he is surrounded by human things; he sees—and smells—dog things.
What we may think an object is for, or what it makes us think of, may or may not match the dog’s idea of the object’s function or meaning. Objects are defined by how you can act upon them: what the German biologist Jakob von Uexküll called their “functional tone.” A dog may be indifferent to chairs, but if trained to jump on one, he learns that the chair has a sitting tone: It can be sat upon. But other things that we may identify as chair-like are not so seen by dogs: stools, tables, arms of couches. Stools and tables are in some other category of objects: obstacles, perhaps, in their path toward the eating tone of the kitchen. A ball, a pen, a teddy bear, and a shoe are in some ways equivalent: All are objects that one can get one’s mouth around.
What about a dog’s power of visual and mental perception? Look a dog in the eyes and you get the definite feeling that he is looking back. Dogs return our gaze. They are looking at us in the same way that we look at them. Naturally we wonder, is the dog thinking about us the way we are thinking about the dog?
In fact, we are known by our dogs probably far better than we know them. They are the consummate eavesdroppers and Peeping Toms: Let into the privacy of our rooms, they quietly spy on our every move. They know about our comings and goings. They know whom we sleep with, what we eat. We share our homes with uncounted numbers of mice, millipedes, and mites—none bothers to look our way. Dogs, by contrast, watch us from across the room, from the window, and out of the corners of their eyes. Their sight is used to see what we attend to. In some ways, this is similar to us, but in other ways it surpasses human capacity.
Dogs are anthropologists among us. They are students of our behavior. And what makes them especially good anthropologists is that they never tire of attending to minute changes in our expressions, our moods, our outlooks. Unlike us, they don’t become inured to people.