Although we walk side by side with our dogs through the same world, what we see, hear, and smell is quite different from our dog’s perception of the world. If we understand our perceptual differences, we can better understand our dog’s behavior.
We humans are visual creatures, sensing and interpreting our world first and foremost through our eyes. For dogs, vision ranks third behind smell and hearing. A dog uses its eyes to detect and track moving objects in daylight and in the dark. As such, dogs are better than humans at detecting subtle and more distant motions, can see better in the dark, have a wider field of peripheral vision, can detect higher frequency motions, and can differentiate more shades of gray.
On all other visual counts, we humans win. We can detect stationary objects better and at a further distance (1800’ for dogs, 2600’ for humans), can see both distant and close up objects more clearly (objects closer than 13” are blurry for dogs), and have better depth perception. We can also see more colors than dogs, which have difficulty distinguishing between red, orange, yellow, and green. The picture to the left shows what we see versus what a dog sees. These visual handicaps explain why your dog has trouble spotting a treat on the floor that is only inches from his nose, will never be able to tell the red ball from the green ball, and doesn’t appreciate the autumn foliage scenery. With their ability to perceive higher frequency motions than us, our dogs may see TV and movies very differently from us. For motion to appear smooth to a dog, they need more frames per second than we do. Dogs may see TV and movies the way we see old silent movies, with motions appearing jerky and disconnected.
A dog’s second most important sense is hearing. They can hear somewhat lower pitched sounds, and much higher pitched sounds. The shape of their ears and their ability to move them amplifies sounds and lets them quickly and accurately pinpoint the origin of sounds. They are also better able to differentiate individual sounds within a mixture of sounds. The only aspect of hearing we humans excel at is distinguishing changes in pitch. We humans can detect as little as a twelfth of an octave change where dogs can only detect a third or more of an octave change. A dog’s hearing abilities can explain why they seem so easily distracted, wince at loud or high-pitched sounds, how they can pick out their owner’s voice in a crowd, and why they don’t seem to appreciate music.
Dogs perceive their world mainly through their noses. They live in a world of thousands of rich, complex, and meaningful odors, which they carefully analyze to learn about their world. Compared to dogs, we are almost smell-blind. The number of odor receptors in a nose determines how many different smells can be detected. We humans have about 5 million receptors. Dogs have around 220 million.
The size of the brain devoted to analyzing odors determines how much we can learn from odors. The odor analyzing part of a dog’s brain is 40 times larger than ours. Top that off with the dog’s facial and nasal structure, which enables them to waft huge volumes of air through their nasal organs, and you have an incredible odor detecting and analyzing system.
This is why dogs seem obsessed with smelling everything and anything. Expecting them to walk down a street without smelling everything is like asking you to walk down a street blindfolded. For every time we wonder why our dogs don’t see what we see, they must wonder why we don’t hear or smell what they do.
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