How Dog Senses Are Different Than Ours

Part of how I’m supporting myself in Peru is through teaching English online. It’s a simple format; most of my students like to read daily news articles. I like it because it keeps me abreast of some of the finer things happening in the world (such as the free Kim Jong-Un and Donald Trump haircuts offered in Vietnam before their summit there).

One student chose an article about a topic that particularly excited me: an exhibit about life as a dog happening in California. The exhibit allows people to experience the way dogs hear, see, and smell, and has other demonstrations, such as one golden retriever leading blindfolded participants around an obstacle course.

The article finished with another interesting bit of information: when we humans look into a dog’s eyes, our bodies release oxytocin, the “love hormone.” Apparently the dog experiences this release as well. This in contrast to chimpanzees, who just look away.

And so I thought I’d take the time to research and write a little about how dogs’ senses work, and how they’re different from ours.

To begin, I often hear people say dogs can only see in black and white. This actually isn’t true, according to these articles about dogs’ vision. Apparently because dogs have eyesight more evolved to seeing in low light conditions, their ability to see color is lessened - but not so much so that they can’t see it at all. Indeed, scientists theorize that dogs can see on a spectrum of yellow to blue, so any mix with red will not register. Additionally, though dogs can’t see as far as humans can, they do have the ability to detect movement at quite a distance. And, of course, I am envious that they can see well in the dark. It is also due to the setup of cones and rods in their eyes that their eyes glow green in photos while our human eyes glow red.

Another interesting thing to note: studies do show that dogs have the ability to recognize faces, and pay more attention to the eyes for this, as well as when assessing emotions.

So overall, a dog’s sight isn’t as strong as ours, but their hearing abilities make up for it. Obviously we already know dogs can hear in much higher pitches than we can (hence the dog whistle), but they can hear at a much greater distance as well. With more muscles and longer ear canals, dogs have more sensitivity to sound, and they can move their ears to focus better on any given sound. My favorite piece of information is from this article, and is about cats, who can apparently hear so well they can distinguish from another room the sound of a normal cupboard opening, versus the sound of a cupboard opening with their food behind it.

And, of course, there is the matter of how well a dog can smell. This article by PBS details how many more olfactory receptors dogs have than we do - dogs’ ability to smell is so powerful that one drug detecting dog could identify a bag of marijuana in a gas tank filled with gasoline . OK, so we already knew dogs had the ability to smell more than we could, but I didn’t know that dog’s noses separate air between air used for smelling, and air used to breathe. And, furthermore, when dogs breathe out, they have access to scents they couldn’t catch with the first inhale.

Thus, scents are incredibly important for dogs, and it’s why they love stinky treats, and stinky food - seriously, the stinkier the better!

The inner life of dogs is harder to measure, as they don’t have a verbal language we can understand. Instead, a lot of scientific studies focus on physical responses to ascertain dogs’ emotional responses. Thus they’ve seen how the human-dog bond is so important for dogs that a dog’s stress level (in a rescue facility) stays down for days after an interaction from a human.

Overall, dogs are amazing animals. And just so you don’t think I’ve forgotten - I will be doing a version of this for cats as well.

What’s an example of a time you’ve seen a dog’s incredible senses in action?

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