Smells Like Teen Spirit

Last week in my therapy dog class, we talked about how our dogs experience the world through scent. The best way I’ve found to describe this is to imagine that as we see the world—with all its vibrant color and varied texture—dogs smell it with the same intensity and clarity. Try this with me: Close your eyes and take a deep breath. What do you smell? Is it sweet or sour? Is it something new or familiar? Can you taste it on the roof of your mouth? What do you see? Are you building an image in your mind? Every time I do this exercise, I wonder if this is how Harley and Travis experience the world everyday.

As their primary sense and the only one functioning at birth, smell is a vital part of the cognition and recognition process for dogs. But what does that process look like? How detailed is that chain from scent to action and how much computational if-then thinking is included? Let’s take cheese, for example. Harley likes to smell everything before it goes in his mouth. Does he sniff, recognize it as edible, consult his visual cues, have a chemical reaction that triggers salivation, remember that it tastes good, then gently take it from my hand? I’m convinced that Travis’s train of thought is much shorter: It’s near my mouth, snatch it, chew it, determine what it is, spit it out or swallow. Repeat.

Smells always trigger memory pictures for me. Much to my brothers’ chagrin, I don’t have many clear, easily recalled memories from our childhood together. But if I smell peanut butter fudge, I have a very clear image of my grandmother’s kitchen in Springfield. The smell of a light rain on dirt and asphalt spirits me back to the ball fields of my youth, Dad on the mound, pitching batting practice.

Is it a memory or a recognition for dogs? Is there a difference? Halloween is always a difficult time for dogs because the picture they see and the picture generated in their mind’s eye by the scent don’t match. You smell like you, but you look like The Grim Reaper or Elvira. Even the most loyal companion struggles when sight and smell don’t match.

When I come home from appointments, I always let the boys smell my pants and shirt. I imagine them creating scent pictures to match the smells, perhaps using the same cues they would if they were sniffing the dogs themselves. Building a profile based on elemental facts like age, sex and general health. I often wonder if they met one of my clients if they would recognize them based on scent alone. And how would I know?

So many questions, but that’s part of the fun of living life with a dog. You can’t just ask. You have to make the effort to wonder, to watch, to consider and to be satisfied that your question will never be answered definitively or that the answer may change over time. It’s all in the experience of learning from your dog. That’s what brings us closer.

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