What the Nose Knows

Here, in its entirety, for posterity or for sticking up on your fridge, is a lovely little, unsigned editorial from Saturday’s NYT:

How well do you know your dog? The answer is, not nearly as well as your dog knows you. Given the right incentives, humans can certainly be perceptive enough. But most dog lovers discover, sooner or later, that dogs have an alertness to the behavioral signs of their owners that humans rarely equal. And that’s nothing. Scientists have recently discovered that dogs can distinguish, with almost unerring accuracy, between breath samples from people with lung cancer and from people without. The dogs have to be trained to do it, of course. But the fact that they can do it at all is remarkable. There aren’t enough biscuits in the world to teach a human to smell at such an extraordinary level of subtlety.

This news will give pause to almost anyone who lives with a dog. Just what a dog “knows” is hard to say, because the human idea of “knowing” is so closely related to the ability to express what you know. Even trained cancer-sniffing dogs express their knowledge – their distinction between samples – only by sitting or not sitting. But this is what always happens. We tend to forget the extraordinary powers of the animals we live with simply because we live with them. We tend to humanize them, which means, if nothing else, that we tend to reduce them – in terms of their sensory powers – to our muddling level. We can barely take in the fact that when a dog comes up and sniffs us, it is really giving us a nasal M.R.I.

Not that this will change the dynamic of our relations with man’s best friend. For a while – remembering the cancer-sniffing dogs – some of us will wonder when we see our pets cock their heads, “What are you looking at?” But time will pass, and humans will be humans, and we will forget, at our end of the leash, that the beast we are walking with may already know things about us that we will discover only too late.

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7 Responses to What the Nose Knows

  1. Sam says:

    I wonder if you can tell about a stranger looking at his dog – so if the dog barks at you, does he feel his owner does not like you?If the dog is pulling away, maybe the owner wants to be away from you?And if the dog is sniffing, might his owner be curious about you, like you?Just wondering…

  2. Rob Paterson says:

    SamI think you can tell a lot about how they see issues of control (leashing and fear) of openess etcI have found that dogs model the local culture and reflect their owners view of the worldChoice of breed would be another indication. What is the statement of a Rottweiler vs a Toy Poodle? A mutt vs a show dog?

  3. What a terrific post. Thank you. I’ve also heard of dogs who know when their epileptic owners are about to have seizures and warn them so they can prepare. They’re all wonder dogs.

  4. lugon says:

    Mine is just curious. Now 13 months old, he takes noticeably longer to sniff at each and every lump we find on the way. A reflective beast, or looks like it. Brings me to Now.

  5. akirrrsra@yahoo.com says:

    Hello it a very interesting site!Thanks for the good material!

  6. Fascinating. What struck me as very true was your statement that “…the human idea of “knowing” is so closely related to the ability to express what you know.” It’s something that frustrates me (I’m tempted to say “annoys”): the ubiquitous tendency to dismiss as irrelevant or meaningless anything that’s difficult or impossible to articulate. I feel sometimes that The Enlightenment, for all its value, has been so bright it’s blinded us.

  7. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks, everyone. Pohanginapete, that’s what I liked most in this editorial. That’s why I think if we can learn to understand what other animals are ‘saying’ (and there are lots of people working on that) we might regain our respect for all life on our planet.

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