MAKING SENSE OF DOG SENSE:
How Dogs Perceive Their World
How humans and other animals perceive the world around them is accomplished through their biological senses. Aristotle first identified the “big five” senses: touch, sight, hearing, smell and taste. While more senses (e.g. proprioception, thermoception, etc.) have been identified since the times of Aristotle, understanding the big five senses is all you need for dog training. Applying how dogs perceive the world to training allows you and your dog to thrive.
TOUCH: Sensations perceived on the skin are the sense of touch. Touch sensations are stimulated by physical interactions with other beings (humans, dogs, other animals) or things and include pressure, temperature, vibrations, etc. When humans touch their dogs through handling and petting, everyone’s nervous system is stimulated. Touch through massage is a great way to calm dogs in the moment.
Interactions between humans and dogs are quite unique. First, the interspecific relationship between dogs and humans is rare. In addition, humans use their agile hands to handle and pet their dogs. Instead of using their paws, dogs primarily use their mouths and teeth when interacting with others, including dogs and humans. This is why young puppies use their teeth extensively to mouth, nip and bite when they interact with others, be it dogs, humans or anything else.
SIGHT: Vision is the primary sense used by humans to perceive and interact with the world. Dogs are not as reliant on vision. While dogs cannot tell us what or how they see, we make interpretations based on the anatomy and physiology of their eyes.
Both humans and dogs have a collection of photoreceptors known as rods and cones arranged on the retina of the eye. Rods are responsible for vision at low light levels; cones are active with high light levels. Humans have many more cones that produce color vision and high spatial acuity. Dogs have more rods, allowing them to see in lower light conditions.
How photoreceptors are arranged on the retina varies significantly between humans and dogs. Humans have a tiny spot on the back of the retina (fovea centralis) that is densely saturated with the cone receptors; this arrangement produces high-acuity vision. In contrast, dogs have streak of photoreceptors (area centralis), not a tiny focal spot. This streak allows predators to see fast movements, which helps to detect prey species.
SMELL: While vision is the primary sense for humans, smell (olfaction) is the primary sense of dogs. The dog’s snout is their prominent facial feature; the olfactory lobe of the dog’s brain is over 40 times larger with at least 25 times more scent receptors than humans. The fabulous dog nose can detect human scents, drugs, cancer, COVID infections, diabetes, seizures, and more.
While humans cannot relate to having any amazing sense of smell, we can appreciate that the dog’s sense of smell reigns supreme. Smells are also fundamental in dog communication. Case in point is when dogs sniff each other’s butts. We humans can be thankful we have alternate forms of communication so that we don’t have to smell each other’s butts!
HEARING: Along with their incredible sense of smell, the dog’s hearing is much more acute and at least 4-times more sensitive than human hearing. The importance of a dog’s hearing is attributed to their amazing ears, which vary in appearance from floppy to pricked up. In addition, dogs can rotate and move their ears independently, allowing them to hone in on sounds.
Dogs communicate with others by making sounds for others to hear. For example, barking is to alert others of danger. In addition, many dogs are able to make sounds like whining, howling, singing, chattering and more.
TASTE: Believe it or not, dogs have a poor sense of taste and possess far fewer taste buds than humans. Many dogs will eat just about anything that looks edible, even though they don’t enjoy the actual taste.
In training, many use food treats to lure and reward dogs. And, many use different food sources to represent different treat values (e.g. high-value treats versus low-value treats). While dogs may smell the different values of treats, the taste differences may not be significant to the dog. This is something to consider when treat-rewarding dogs in training.
APPLICATIONS TO TRAINING
Perception is the ability to see, hear or become aware of something through the senses. Dogs perceive their world through their big five biological senses: touch, sight, smell, hearing, taste. While humans use vision as their primary sense, dogs have a different strategy. Dogs use smell first, followed by hearing and sight. Believe it or not, dog’s weakest sense is taste.
When training from The Dog’s Perspective, we appreciate what is important to dogs and rely on what dogs understand and like. We rely more on physical petting (TOUCH) and verbal praise (HEARING) as training rewards. We capture dog’s attention by teaching them to focus (SIGHT) on our faces. We understand that dogs can smell everything, so food treats are kept in a closed container. However, when the food treat is needed, it becomes a “secret weapon”. And, because dogs have a limited palate (TASTE), we keep food treats simple. In fact, we typically use the dog’s regular kibble to encourage specific skills, such as the all-important LOOK skill.
Please contact us to learn more and experience training dogs from The Dog’s Perspective.
Kathryn R. Gubista, PhD is an evolutionary biologist, college biology instructor, former zookeeper, author and certified professional dog trainer with Lucky Dog Training Asheville and The Dog’s Perspective. Please follow us on Instagram @LuckyDogTrainingAVL and @TheDogsPerspective. Please contact us for more information at TrainingLuckyDogs@gmail.com or call us at 828-423-9635.