Thursday, February 14, 2013
Dedicated to my friend, CRM, and her family in Minneapolis, Minnesota
A couple of days ago, I walked out the front door to take our Chiweenie, Little Guy, out for his late afternoon constitutional. I noticed the sky–simple, beautiful, and infinite. Ironically, I had just finished reading a Facebook message from an art school pal I have not seen in thirty years. In the note, she mentioned the song "Blue Skies" reminded her of me. I conjured up a faint recollection of her singing it so long ago. We were really children then. Facebook wreaks havoc with the space-time continuum.
While looking up at a seemingly infinite blue sky, basking in the memory of a time so far and long ago, I realized that Little Guy was not sharing my reverie. I looked down and watched his snout sweep methodically over a small patch of ground. Like all dogs, he is farsighted. Color perception: he like normal dogs sees shades of grey and a narrow, muted range of yellows and blues. His visual perception of the ground beneath his nose appeared as this.
From eight inches off the ground, I view the same patch in sharp focus, albeit with the aid of reading glasses. I am able to distinguish a subtle range browns and a scatter of green blades of grass.
For Little Guy, the ground oozed a font of olfactory data. I knelt down and sniffed at what he found so intriguing. The smells were faint and overpowered by a faint whiff of exhaust fumes and a stronger scent of freshly cut grass coming from the yard up the street where a man pushed a sputtering lawn mower.
A dog's nose, depending on the breed, is anywhere from 1,000 to 10,000 times keener than the average person's. Not surprisingly, a dog's primary means of perceiving and navigating the world is through smell—followed by sound, then sight, and finally touch and taste. Dogs' brains are puny compared to humans. However, the part of their brain that processes smell is forty times larger in proportion to the smell processing section of human brains.
Dogs are able to detect odors given off by molecules left behind weeks or even months prior. They gather a lot of information about the diet, health, emotional state, sex, fertility, size, shape, and home-life of other dogs by sniffing the ground for messages encoded in urine, feces, and paw prints. I think it is remarkable that my dogs sense and interpret so much of me through odor. They are able to distinguish a multitude of smelly molecules—such as the fabrics and dyes of my clothing, laundry detergents, soaps for bathing, colognes and perfumes that people in proximity to me used, foods I may have come into contact with or eaten days ago, medicines, people I have hung out with, dogs that brushed against my trousers, etc. The odors that my glands emit telegraph a lot about my mental and physical state. Our eldest dog, Jazz, is highly attentive towards me when things are amiss.
Imagine what it is like to walk into an expansive room appointed with intricately patterned oriental rugs, curtains, curios (of various sizes, shapes, textures and colors), ornate architectural details, house plants, wooden and plush furniture, a fireplace filled with ash from several different varieties of fruitwood, art, and the Sunday newspaper. Speaking for myself, I would be inclined to explore the room primarily with my eyes. I may catch a few odors here and there. Now imagine the experience from a dog's perspective: low to the ground, equipped with a highly tuned odor recognition apparatus. All of the abovementioned items emit complex olfactory harmonies from the past as well as the present. The room and the items in it have been touched, trod upon, subjected to aromas from food and drink, particulate matter from the air, solvents, inks, polishes, dust, mites, mold, etc. Any dog worth its weight in fur has the capacity to detect odors left behind by foot traffic from over the past week or two or three.
To wrap my head around the idea of a dog's hypersensitivity to detect odors, I devised a crude visual metaphor. It represents how the patch of ground pictured above might look like in smell-o-vision.
Thank you for reading this peculiar essay, Blue Sky Memory and Dog Senses. I have another thing or two to say about the sky. However, out of respect for your time and patience, I will hold off until the next post.