Inside of a Dog -- Young Readers Edition
FROM THE DOG’S POINT OF NOSE
This morning I am woken up by Pump coming over to the bed and sniffing at me. Her nose is millimeters from my face, her whiskers grazing my lips. She suddenly sneezes explosively, an exclamation point on her greeting. I open my eyes and she is gazing at me, smiling, panting a hello.
Go look at a dog. Go on, look—maybe at one lying near you right now, curled around his folded legs on a dog bed, or sprawled on his side on the floor. Take a good look. And now forget everything you know about this or any other dog.
Okay, I admit it—you can’t really forget all that you know. I don’t expect you to forget your dog’s name or his favorite food. But humor me and try. We are going to be looking at dogs through the lens of science, and science asks us to set aside what we think we already know and focus instead on what we can prove.
It will turn out that some of what we thought all along about our dogs is true, and other things that appear obvious are more doubtful than anyone knew. And when we try looking from a new point of view—from the point of view of dogs themselves—new ideas may arise in our minds. So the best way to begin understanding dogs is by forgetting what we think we already know.
The first thing to do is to stop thinking of your dog as if he is a human being.
It’s easy to make this mistake. We think about our dogs as if they are people, because being people is something that we easily understand. Of course, we say, dogs love and long for things; of course they dream and think. We believe dogs know and understand us, feel bored, get jealous, and get depressed. We believe our dogs do all these things because we do all these things. But we’ll come to a better understanding of dogs if we start with what dogs—not people—can actually feel, know, and understand.
We understand human experiences the best. So it’s simplest for us to explain our dogs by imagining that their experiences are just like ours. If a person’s eyes look mournful and she sighs loudly, we can figure out that she is sad, maybe even depressed. If your dog does the same thing, is it safe to say that he is sad? Depressed?
Sometimes we’re right when we assume that dogs have feelings and reactions that match ours. Maybe our dogs really are depressed. Maybe sometimes they’re also jealous,
curious, or extremely interested in having a peanut butter sandwich for lunch. But maybe they’re not.
If we see an animal’s mouth turn up at the corners, we might think that the animal is happy. But a dolphin isn’t happy just because its mouth turns up—its mouth is made that way. A chimpanzee who shows his teeth in a grin is actually making a sign of fear and submission. He’s about as far from happy as a chimpanzee gets.
A human who raises her eyebrows is usually surprised. A capuchin monkey who does the same thing is not surprised—he’s signaling to nearby monkeys that he is friendly. A baboon who raises his eyebrows, however, is making a deliberate threat. (So be careful when raising your eyebrows at a monkey.)
If we think only in terms of what humans want or do or like, we can end up missing or ignoring things animals do when they are simply being animals.
TAKE MY RAINCOAT, PLEASE
For instance, many dog owners have noticed that their dogs resist going outside when it’s raining. From this observation, they come to a conclusion: My dog does not like rain.
So the owner buys the dog a raincoat.
My dog does not like rain. What does this mean? Does it mean that the dog dislikes getting rain on his body? It seems likely. Most humans, after all, do not like getting
wet in the rain. But does that make the same thing true for dogs? We can look at the dog himself for evidence. The dog can’t speak up to say how he feels about the rain, so we must look at what the dog does.
Is the dog excited and wagging when you get the raincoat out? This seems to suggest that the conclusion is true—the dog does not like rain and appreciates the raincoat because it keeps the rain off his fur. But there’s another possible explanation for this behavior: Maybe the dog is simply excited because he knows the raincoat means that he is (finally!) going for a walk.
More evidence is needed. Does the dog flee from the raincoat? Curl his tail under his body and duck his head? This suggests that the conclusion is not true: The dog doesn’t like the raincoat.
What about how the dog behaves when his fur is actually wet with rain? Does he look bedraggled? Does he shake the water off excitedly? What does this mean? It’s hard to be sure. The dog’s behavior is not giving us a clear answer here. Does he mind the rain or doesn’t he? Does he need a raincoat or not?
We need some more clues, so we could take a look at some animals closely related to dogs—wolves. Both dogs and wolves, obviously, have their own coats on all the time. One coat is enough; when it rains, wolves may seek shelter, but they don’t try to cover up with, say, leaves or branches. This suggests that dogs, too—except those
with little or no fur—do not need an extra coat to protect them from the rain.
And a raincoat is something more than protection from falling water. A raincoat is a covering. It feels snug on your body. It presses on the back, chest, and sometimes the head of a dog who is wearing it. There are times when wolves get pressed upon the back or the head—when they are being scolded or “dominated” by another wolf.
A “dominant” animal is one who has authority over another, “submissive,” animal. A dominant wolf is usually older, stronger, and larger than a submissive wolf. Sometimes, a wolf who is trying to show his dominance will pin another wolf by the snout, or actually stand over the other wolf. The wolf underneath will feel the pressure of the wolf’s body on top of him. The pressure of a raincoat on a dog’s back might feel similar.
For a person, wearing a raincoat feels like being protected from water in the air. For a dog, wearing a raincoat might feel like being told that another, stronger animal is nearby.
Is this the best interpretation of the dog’s behavior? Looking at the evidence will tell us. Most dogs, when they are getting put into a raincoat, freeze in place. (You might see the same behavior when a dog who is getting a bath stops struggling when his fur gets heavy with water or a heavy towel is placed over him.) This is what a submissive wolf does—hold still to show he accepts the other animal’s authority.
Ultimately, we can correctly conclude that a dog wearing a coat may go out peaceably into the rain, but it is not because he hates the rain or he likes the raincoat. It is because the coat makes him feel that someone else is in control.
If we think about what human beings are like—we don’t like being wet and we want to protect our bodies from water—we’ll come to the wrong conclusion about dogs and raincoats. If we look at what dogs (and their close relatives, wolves) actually do, then we’ll come to a conclusion that is more likely to be true.
AN ANIMAL’S WORLD AND HIS UMWELT
In most cases, it is simple to start thinking of the dog as a dog and not as a small, furry human. All you have to do is to ask the dog what he wants. Then you must learn to translate his answer.
The first tool you’ll need in getting that answer is this: understanding the point of view of the dog.
Each dog—each animal—has a point of view. Even more, each animal has its own world. It is a world made up of all the things the animals can see, smell, hear, or sense in some other way. It is a world made up of all the things that matter to the animal, that could help it or harm it, that are worth its notice or important for its life.
One scientist coined a word for it: umwelt, or “self-world.” (You say it OOM-velt.) A creature’s umwelt is
made up of all the things that matter to that creature—all the things it notices or needs, can eat or sleep on or climb or fight with or run away from.
For example, consider the tick.
You probably haven’t thought much about them. Maybe you’ve found one or two of these pests on your dog. It would be surprising if you had taken the time to consider what the world of a tick is like.
But take that time now.
Soon after hatching, a young tick climbs to a high perch—say, a blade of grass. Here’s where things get interesting. Of all the sights, sounds, and smells in the world, the adult tick is waiting for just one. It is not looking around; ticks are blind. Sounds don’t interest it. Only one thing will get a reaction from that tick: a whiff of butyric acid, a chemical given off by all warm-blooded creatures (like us—and dogs). We can sometimes smell it in sweat.
The tick might wait for that smell for a day, a month, or even up to a dozen years. Once it smells that precise odor, it drops off its perch. The tick’s body is sensitive to warmth, and now it begins searching for a source of warmth and scurrying toward it. If the tick is lucky, it will reach the warm, sweaty being it has sensed nearby, climb aboard, and drink a meal of blood. After eating once, it drops off, lays eggs, and dies.
The point of all this is that the tick’s world, its umwelt, is different from ours in astonishing ways. All that matters
to the tick is smell and warmth, and so those two things are what it notices. The wind that whisks through the grass? Doesn’t matter to the tick. The sounds of a child’s birthday party? The tick doesn’t care. The delicious crumbs of cake dropped on the ground? The tick doesn’t notice that they are there.
The tick has four simple jobs—it mates, waits, drops, and feeds. So the tick’s universe is divided into things that help it do these jobs, and things that do not matter. Its umwelt is made up of ticks and non-ticks, things it can climb on and things it cannot climb on, surfaces it might or might not drop onto, and things that it may or may not want to eat. Nothing else matters to the tick. Nothing else is part of its umwelt.
We humans have an umwelt too. In our umwelt we pay a lot of attention to where other people are and to what they are saying. (A tick, on the other hand, could not care less about a beautiful song or funny joke.) We see and hear the things that reach our eyes and ears, and we can smell strong odors that are right in front of our noses. There are other things going on all around us—the cry of a bat, too high-pitched for our ears to hear, or the smell of what a passerby had for dinner last night—but because they are not part of our umwelt, they mean nothing to us.
The same object might exist in several creatures’ world, but it will mean different things to each. To a human being, a rose is a certain kind of flower, a romantic gift,
or a thing of beauty. To a beetle, a rose might be an entire world, with places to hide, hunt, or lay eggs. To an elephant, a rose might be a thorn barely noticeable as it is crushed underfoot.
And to a dog? In a dog’s umwelt, a rose is not a beautiful object or an entire world. A rose is just one part of all the plants that surround the dog. It is not particularly notable unless it has been urinated on by another dog, stepped on by another animal, or handled by the dog’s owner. Then the rose becomes a thing of vivid interest, and it matters more to the dog than even the most beautiful rose might matter to us.
To understand a dog, we must do our best to enter his umwelt, to experience the world as a dog sees, hears, and (most importantly) smells it. Let’s try it now.
Try smelling every object that you come across in the space of an afternoon.
Try listening to all the sounds around you now, the ones that you normally tune out. Can you hear a fan behind you, a beeping truck backing up in the street outside, the murmurs of far-off voices, someone nearby shifting in a chair, your own heart beating, a gulp as you swallow? If you could hear like a dog, you might notice these things plus a pen scratching on paper, the sound of a plant stretching as it grows, the cries of the insects that are always around us.
Drop down on the floor. Spending a bit of time at the height of your dog is surprising. What does the world look
like down there? What do you notice? What becomes important to you?
Of course, even if you are down on your hands and knees, you are not seeing the objects in a room exactly as a dog sees them. A dog looking around a room does not think he is surrounded by human things; he sees dog things. Some dog things are the same as human things. Some are different.
A person sees a chair as a thing-to-be-sat-upon. A dog might see it that way too. The dog also sees the sofa, a pile of pillows, and the lap of a person on the floor as things-to-be-sat-upon. But he probably doesn’t see a stool that way, although a person might. To a dog, a stool is more like an-obstacle-in-the-way.
A dog and a person are both likely to see a peanut butter sandwich as something-to-be-eaten. But to a dog, things-that-can-be-eaten is a wider category than it is to a person. Garbage isn’t on a human list of menu items, but it is on a dog’s.
Dogs have categories of their own—things-that-are-good-to-roll-in, for example. And dogs don’t notice or care about many items that matter to humans—forks, knives, hammers, pushpins, fans, clocks, and so on. A dog cannot do anything to or with a clock, so the clock isn’t part of the dog’s umwelt. A dog cannot hammer a nail, so the dog doesn’t care about the hammer—unless he notices the wooden handle and puts the hammer in the category of things-that-can-be-chewed.
A clash of umwelts can happen when a dog and a human see the same object in different ways. For instance, many dog owners insist that the dog is never to lie on the bed. Perhaps the owner will go out and purchase a large pillow, labeled a “dog bed.” The dog will be encouraged to lie on this special bed, the non-forbidden bed. The dog will do so, sometimes reluctantly. And the dog owner feels successful: no dog on the bed!
Or is there? Many days I returned home to find a warm, rumpled pile of sheets on my bed and a wagging dog greeting me at the door.
The reason this happens becomes clear when we think about how a dog’s world is different from a human’s world. To a human, the difference between the dog bed and the human bed is obvious. The dog bed is low on the floor; the human bed is higher. The dog bed has a plain covering; the human bed has sheets and pillows. The dog bed is for dogs; the human bed is for humans. We would never be tempted to curl up on the dog bed. We expect the dog to feel the same way about the human bed.
What about the dog? Dogs don’t generally see beds as special places for sleeping at all. They sleep and rest where they can, and prefer places that allow them to stretch out or curl up, where the temperature feels good, where there are other members of their family nearby, and where they feel safe. Any flattish surface in your home probably meets a dog’s definition of a decent place to sleep.
So does a dog see the same clear difference between the dog bed and the human bed that we do? Probably not. Here’s what your dog is likely to notice about your bed: It smells like you. It’s a place where you relax, where you leave clothes, where you might drop crumbs. All those things make it a wonderful place to sleep. Better than the dog bed by far.
Beginning to understand a dog’s umwelt is the first step in understanding what’s happening inside a dog. The next step is learning to understand the ways a dog talks to you.
It’s easy to ask a dog a question—say, if he’s happy or sad. There’s no problem with the question. It makes perfect sense. The problem is that we have a very hard time understanding the answer.
Language makes us terribly lazy. If a friend of mine is
behaving strangely, I might spend weeks trying to figure out what’s up with her—or I could take a shortcut and ask her. She’ll tell me.
Dogs, on the other hand, never answer the way we’d hope. They don’t reply to questions in well-punctuated sentences. Still, if we look, they have plainly answered.
Licks are Pump’s way of making contact, as though reaching out a hand. She greets me when I come home with licks to my face as I bend to pet her. I get waking licks to my hand as I nap in a chair. She licks my legs clean of salty sweat after a run. Sitting beside me, she pins my hand with her front leg and pushes open my fist to lick the soft warm flesh of my palm. I adore her licks.
When you arrive home from school, your dog may happily lick your face or your hand. “Kisses” are what a lot of dog owners call these licks: slobbery licks to the face, focused licking of a hand, or tongue-polishing an arm or leg.
When people kiss someone, it’s because we love them. We assume that dogs do the same thing. Even the great scientist Charles Darwin was sure that licks mean affection. He wrote that dogs “have a striking way of exhibiting their affection: namely, by licking the hands or faces of their masters.”
Was Darwin right? My dog’s kisses feel affectionate
to me. But is the dog trying to show affection?
Dogs and wolves can answer this question for us, if we look at their behavior.
First, the bad news. Adult wolves, foxes, coyotes, and other wild dogs leave their puppies at their dens while they hunt. When a parent returns, the puppies eagerly lick the adult’s face and muzzle. In response to the licks, the parent vomits some food and the pups gobble it up. The pups lick their parent’s face to get fed.
Your dog must be so disappointed that, no matter how much he licks your face, you’ve never thrown up lunch for him to eat.
There’s also another fact to consider—our mouths taste great to dogs. Dogs can taste most of the same things humans taste. They are enthusiastic about our food. Once I started thinking about it, it didn’t take long for me to realize that Pumpernickel’s licks to my face often happened just after a nice meal had gone into that face.
So if your dog licks your face, he could simply be excited because you taste like something delicious, and he’d love to share. This is how mouth licking started out: as a way for wolf pups to get their parents to give them some nicely pre-digested food. But it has also become something else.
Adult dogs and wolves lick muzzles simply to welcome another dog back home, and to get a report, by smelling, of where the newcomer has been or what he has done. Mothers clean their pups by licking, but they also give a
few quick licks when they are back together after a time apart. A younger or timid dog may lick at the muzzle of a bigger dog to show he will not be aggressive or start a fight. Dogs who are familiar with each other may lick when they meet in the street. Perhaps this lick, along with a nice sniff, helps them be sure that the dog bounding toward them is who they think it is.
What began as a way for puppies to get a meal became a way for dogs and wolves to greet each other. These greeting licks often go along with wagging tails, mouths opened playfully, and general excitement. All of this behavior of dogs with other dogs shows us something about what your dog’s behavior means with you. A dog doesn’t kiss you for the same reason another human being might kiss you—but when a dog licks your face, it is indeed a way to say that he is glad you’ve finally come home.
To answer these kinds of questions about dogs, we have to understand a dog’s world, its umwelt. The next chapters will help us do that. First, we will look at how dogs came from wolves, and the changes that happened to them along the way. Then, we must understand how a dog’s senses work. We need to appreciate what a dog smells, sees, and hears, and imagine the view from two feet off the ground. Finally, we’ll take a look at how the brain of a dog works.
Together, all of these pieces will combine to start to give us an answer to these questions: How does a dog think? What can a dog know? What does a dog understand?