From Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know by Alexandra Horowitz:
“Part of normal human development is the refinement of sensory sensitivity: specifically, learning to notice less than we are able to. The world is awash in details of color, form, space, sound, texture, smell, but we can’t function if we perceive everything at once. So our sensory systems, concerned for our survival, organize to heighten attention to those things that are essential to our existence. The rest of the details are trifles to us, smoothed over, or missed altogether.
“But the world still holds those details. The dog senses the world at a different granularity. The dog’s sensory ability is sufficiently different to allow him to attend to the parts of the visual world we gloss over; to the elements of a scent we cannot detect; to sounds we have dismissed as irrelevant. Neither does he see or hear everything, but what he notices includes what we do not. With less ability to see a wide range of colors, for instance, dogs have a much greater sensitivity to contrasts in brightness…. Without speech, they are more attuned to the prosody in our sentences, to tension in our voice, to the exuberance of an exclamation point and the vehemence of capital letters. They are alert to sudden contrasts in speaking: a yell, a single word, even a protracted silence.
“As with us, the dog’s sensory system is attuned to novelty. Our attention focuses on a new odor, a novel sound; dogs, with a wider range of things they smell and hear, can seem to be constantly at attention…. [A] city can be an explosion of small details writ large in the dog’s mind: a cacophony of the everyday that we have learned to ignore. We know what a car door slamming sounds like, and unless listening for just that sound, city dwellers tend to not even hear the symphony of slams playing on the street. For a dog, though, it may be a new sound each time it happens….
“They pay attention to the slivers of time between our blinks, the complement of what we see,,,, Human habits that we ignore — tapping our fingers, cracking our ankles, coughing politely, shifting our weight — dogs notice. A shuffle in a seat — it may foretell rising! A scootch forward in the chair — surely something is happening! Scratching an itch, shaking your head: the mundane is electric…. Details become more meaningful when they are not swallowed up in the concerns of the everyday….”
“Happiness is novelty — new toys, new treats — in a safe, well-known place…. the new requires attention and prompts activity.”
Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Know, and Smell by Alexandra Horowitz is an excellent romp through the sensory lives of dogs. I’ve featured quotes from another book by Horowitz — On Looking: A Walker’s Guide to the Art of Observation — here a few times, and while that book includes some references to observation from both a human’s and dog’s point of view, Inside of a Dog dives deeply into the minds of dogs and how they experience the world, especially the relationships between human-world and dog-world.
If you have a dog, like dogs, or are interested in animals generally, Inside of a Dog will change how you see them. The book contrasts human senses with dog senses, developing a perspective that shifts between how we, as humans, understand the world primarily in verbal, linguistic means to how dogs and other animals perceive it in non-linguistic terms. For animals, the world is primarily one of contrasts, colors, motion, sounds, and smells, all processed cognitively not as words but as (what we would call) images, yet there lives are still ripe with various forms of non-verbal communication along with active imaginations, creativity in play, and integration of new experiences and feelings. If you are a photographer, you may already tend to see the world in snapshots and images; yet consider, if you can, how your awareness of your surroundings would be altered if imagery without words was your primary means of experiencing the world around you.
As the quotes at the top represent, novelty is a big deal for dogs; something new generates an immediate, intense interest. My dog Lobo got three new toys for Christmas (two from me, a koala bear and a dodo bird), and one from a friend (the ladybug), all of which were coveted before I even got the tags cut off. He’s developed a very clear expectation that boxes (“whatever those are”) contains toys (“we know toys!”), and tried — despite his small size and the improbability of success — to snatch the box containing the ladybug off my dining room table, giving me that special canine side-eye look when I hid the box in a cabinet. The novelty wears off quickly, of course, replaced in a few hours with proximity (the nearest toy gets nabbed at the start of a sprint through the house), or maybe a combination of smell and a bit of possessiveness (the last one the human touched becomes the most important one), and many of them get rides in the jaws at some point every day….
… And then … he rests, for a few minutes, anyway…. 🙂
Thanks for reading and taking a look!