Anything You Can Do I… Can’t Do Better?
You know that frustrating moment caused by a lack of understanding between you and your pooch? We’ve all been there. We all approach that moment in many ways. Some get angry, some give up, some try to appeal to their perception of their dog’s human side. The truth of the matter is no matter which approach you take in that moment your dog is probably as frustrated as you are. He will never have a completely human understanding of the situation or behavior because as much as we treat them like our human children, they have their own unique view of the world. Dogs see differently, taste differently, hear differently, and thus rely on different approaches to reason. They also value differently because of their differences. That’s usually where we run into problems.
Umwelt, pronounced “Um-velt” is a term first coined by Baltic German biologist Jakob Johann Baron Von Uexkull (I seriously didn’t make that up). Umwelt is a German word meaning “environment or surroundings” that often gets translated to “self-centered world”. It’s a semiotic (semiotic studies: the study of “meaning making”) theory that lies at the heart of the study of communication and signification, not just for humans but for every living organism on the planet.
Through his theory of Umwelt, Uexkull theorized that every organism in an environment can have their own unique view on that environment depending on their own unique abilities and needs. Furthermore he theorized that the umwelt of each of these organisms can be ever changing depending upon how they grow and interact with their environment.
These Eyes, Are Coning,
What does this mean for Fido? It means that because of his biological make-up he sees the world differently than his human counter part. Many are aware that dogs are colour blind, which isn’t exactly true. A mixture of rods and cones make up any eye. Cones distinguish colors and detailed definition, while rods better distinguish shades of light. Dogs have two types of cone cells as we have three. They can see blue color but they can’t tell red from green, instead seeing them both as “yellow-ish”.
That being said they have more rods, and thus can see figures moving in darkness 5 times dimmer than us. This gives them a ‘night vision’ of sorts compared to us. Furthermore, because of the makeup of their eye they actually see the world in a lower resolution than we do. The center of a human eye is 100% cones, while the center of a dog’s eye is 20% cones 80% rods. This means that what we really focus on we can see 5 times more defined than our dog friends.
Dogs also see things at a frame-rate of 60-90 images per second, whereas humans see at 30-60 frames per second, depending on adrenaline usually. This means dogs can see the flutter of a flies wings, or the flicker in your TV as it’s pictures load, whereas to us a fly is a blur and the picture on our TV show is smooth and consistent. Your high def Planet Earth documentary is nothing but a blurry slideshow in a foreign language with weird sounds for your dog friend! One amazing conclusion we’ve drawn from similar research is it’s likely that dogs recognize people based on a memory of movements as opposed to facial features. This is because their lack of definition, paired with their ability to see a more deconstructed movement pattern have led to a change in their memory patterns. Overall it’s generally accepted people see ‘better’ than dogs.
OO OO That Smell!
Dogs have a definite one up on us though, with their incredibly heightened sense of smell. They have 220 million olfactory receptors in comparison to our 5 million. They even have a special organ, the Vomeronasal, which is specifically made for detecting pheromones. The portion of their brain we believe is dedicated to analyzing smells is also 40x greater in size than ours. In her book ‘Inside of a Dog’, Alexandra Horowitz, a dog-cognition researcher at Barnard College, writes that while we might notice if our coffee has had a teaspoon of sugar added to it, a dog could detect a teaspoon of sugar in a million gallons of water, or two Olympic-sized pools worth.
Experts have reported incredible true stories about the acuteness of dogs’ sense of smell. There’s the drug-sniffing dog that found a plastic container packed with 35 pounds of marijuana submerged in gasoline within a gas tank. There’s Daisy the Dog, who’s sniffed out over 500 cases of cancer, some of which doctors adamantly argued the spots were benign, until persistent biopsies revealed what Daisy already knew – they were melanomic. After training Daisy and others’ accuracy increased 75% in persistently search for, and informing us, about cancer cells detected in breath, urine, and skin cells. Doctors are still almost universally fighting that dogs have no place in medicine, however Claire, an animal behavioral psychologist, envisions a country with satellite offices where dogs are employed full-time checking samples of urine and skin sent from people in their area to utilize their natural talents. This would be a great step along the path of true animal-human societal integration.
With that information in mind when we, as humans with our three cones color spectrum and higher resolution sight see a tree on our hike with Fido our umwelt is that it is a beautiful, colorful, spectacle of nature. When your dog, with it’s 220 million olfactory receptors and Veomeronasal organ sees a tree, their umwelt is that it is a treasure trove of scents and messages left behind by other dogs, it’s kind of like their neighborhood bulletin board! Who knows what could be discovered on the tree today? Just like a blank bulletin board you walked by yesterday could have your dream job posted on it today! Everyday, you check it out, see if there are any new notices, and move on.
It’s a Bird! It’s a Human! No. It’s a Dog.
That’s just one example of the many ways that your dog views that world differently than you. I can never stress enough the importance of trying to understand that world from your dog’s point of view. As much as we try to anthropomorphize our friends, select human qualities do not make a human. We need to respect our differences and hopefully, ultimately, embrace them. You will gain your dog’s trust so much faster with an attempt to think in terms of his umwelt, rather than being permanently frustrated that he doesn’t understand yours. We do have one major ‘up’ on dogs; our raw IQ. Our ability to reason is far greater than dogs, so use it. Be reasonable and think about what your dog is doing and why the next time he stops you on your walks to sniff that same tree for the 100th time, we can safely assume he won’t be capable of reasoning why it’s not important from your perspective!
It you are interested in reading more about umwelt, Alexandra Horrowitz writes about it in the chapter “sniff” in her book “Inside of a Dog”.