Training Tuesday: Stoopid hoomins tracking with smart dogs

Milo used to be great on corners. In competitive tracking, the dog has to follow a trail around several sharp turns. This can be tricky, especially with a fast dog, because they can shoot past a corner and lose the scent. Usually, Milo takes corners like his nose is glued to the track.

That is until the last time we went tracking when every single corner flummoxed him. He never stopped working. However, instead of smoothly walking around a corner he started zigzagging all over the place searching for the trail. Not like him at all.

My friend Liz was observing us work, and at the end of that track, she kindly asked me what on earth I was doing. Wait a minute. What was I doing? I wasn’t zigzagging. Milo was zigzagging.

Let me back up a bit. Tracking is difficult for me, even though I’m not the one doing the sniffing. It is difficult because I have to lay down the track and then remember, exactly, where it goes. This maps on to zero of my strengths. My capacity to get lost is only beat by my ability to forget landmarks.

So, I thought to myself, “Self, you need to figure a way out of this.” Hmmm.

“I know,” I thought, “I can throw a small flag a meter or so off the track at the corners. Milo keeps his head down so he won’t see it, but it is easy to see from my height.”

I marked the corners for myself. Problem solved.

Or not.

When I explained this reasoning to Liz, she looked at me out of the corner of her eye: “Your scent is all over those flags.“


Picture this. Milo is tracking along like a pro, and he encounters a T-intersection in the scent trail: the track turns right, but I threw a flag a meter to the left.

While I’m wondering why on earth he isn’t turning right, he’s wondering what the hell is going on with the track. From his perspective the person he’s tracking suddenly split in two like some gigantic amoeba.

Instead of berating me for being confusing, Milo kept his nose to the ground, sniffing here and sniffing there, trying to figure out the conundrum I created. Have I mentioned lately that he is a good boy?

I forgot that, even though Milo and I live in the same house and spend most of our time together, we live in different worlds—scientists call these worlds umwelten, which is German for “life-world.” My umwelt is primarily full of things I can see. Milo’s is primarily full of things he can smell. This is one of the things I love about tracking: Milo’s doing something that I can hardly even imagine. He has a sniffing superpower. When we’re tracking together, we are a team, and we expand each other’s senses. Cool!

However, even though I think about the differences between human and canine senses more than a person might strictly consider reasonable, I still fell back into my human bias in favor of sight.

Note to self: When Milo is tracking think of everything with the target scent on it like it’s a flashing neon light.

Also, how lucky am I to have a friend who points out my silly mistakes and a dog who works hard even when I’m goofy? ❤ (Hint: very lucky.)

German Shepherd smelling grass

What the dog smells: The world of canine olfaction

Milo the AwesomeDog often punctuates our walks with fits of coughing, sneezing, and snorting. He’s not sick. He just sniffs thgerman shepherd dog trackinge ground vigorously enough to suck dirt and leaves right up into his nose. He takes his sniffing seriously and his days revolve around finding things to smell, and then smelling them.

It’s difficult to imagine what it is like to be Milo because while we humans are visual creatures, dogs are sniffing creatures. Dogs live with us, some of them in our homes, but at the same time, they live in a different world, a world of smells.

Nineteenth-century biologist Jakob von Uexküll called these different worlds umwelten. An animal’s umwelt, literally ‘life-world,’ is its subjective environment consisting of objects that it can perceive and with which it can engage. In the same physical space a dog, a bat, and a human have different umwelten because they can perceive and do different things. Humans can see the color red, but dogs can’t. Bats can echolocate and fly, but dogs and humans can’t.

We can begin to understand how a creature experiences the world by investigating how its senses work. If we want to understand the inner experiences of dogs, we need to study how they smell things.

This four and a half minute video, written by canine cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz, does a great job explaining the complexity of dog noses and dog olfaction.  It gets us started answering the question “what is it like to be a dog?”

This video taught me that when it comes to smell, there is a bigger difference between the umwelten of a dog and a person than I initially imagined.

This difference is based on more than the fact that dogs are better sniffers than humans, although they are. Dogs can smell odors at lower concentrations than we can–100 million times lower. To illustrate the scale of this difference, Horowitz describes dogs as being able to identify the individual components of a spritz of perfume in a football stadium.

It is not just dog noses that differ from human noses, dog brains differ too. Horowitz points out that the olfactory bulb in a dog’s brain is HUGE compared to ours, and that olfaction bypasses the “thalamus to connect directly to the brain structures involving emotions and instincts.” A dog’s sense of smell is orders of magnitude more powerful than ours, AND olfaction itself is an “immediate and visceral” mode of sensation. So when you think of what it is like to be a dog, you have to imagine a powerful sense of smell, likely producing emotionally charged sensations.

Dogs can smell in stereo. Just as we can tell what direction a sound is coming from, dogs can detect the direction that an odor is coming from. They can use scent to orient themselves in the world.

Finally, a dog’s sense of smell gives them the ability to travel back and forth through time. Dogs can smell into the past to determine who you had lunch with and what you ate. And they can smell into the future, alerting you someone approaching around the corner ahead of you.

Dogs can do different things with their sense of smell than we can do with ours. This impacts their emotions, their perceptions through time, and their ways of navigating the world.

This is exciting and distressing. Exciting because it’s fun to imagine having the superpower that is a dog’s sense of smell. Distressing because the gulf between what it is like to be me and what it is like to be Milo is wider than I thought.

Even though Milo and I spend most of our time at each others’ sides, we live in different umwelten.

German Shepherd smelling grass