By Howard J. Bennett
If you’re a dog lover like me, you already know the answer to this question. Seconds after arriving home, you come face to face with a tail-wagging, wildly excited pooch that can’t get enough of you. Depending on the breed, you will be blitzed by three to 150 pounds of motorized fur that showers you with kisses. Actually, what you are really being showered with is canine saliva (dog owners call them kisses because it sounds better). But is that the only way dogs say hello?
Like us, dogs have five senses: smell, touch, sight, hearing, and taste. Humans and other primates (chimps, gorillas, etc.) use sight as the primary sense for recognizing each other. Dogs, however, use smell. This is so important that a dog’s sense of smell is tens of thousands of times better than ours. Therefore, not only can your lovable dog tell what a person smells like—as opposed to a cat—but she can also tell the difference between members of her human family based on their individual smells. (Lots of teenage girls can smell their brothers when they are nearby, but that’s because boys hate taking showers, not because girls possess the sniffing abilities of dogs!)
Dogs recognize each other by the smell of their pee and poop. That’s why dogs greet each other not eye to eye, but nose to butt. By taking a quick whiff of his friend’s behind, a dog instantly knows who he’s with. This is also why dogs smell everything they can during a walk. By sniffing grass, bushes, trees, and the occasional street sign, dogs know who’s been around lately. (You could say they were checking their p-mail.) Dogs also know if the smells they perceive belong to male or female dogs and whether the animal in question is pregnant. Keep this in mind the next time you’re proud of yourself for being the first person to detect someone’s fart on a crowded bus.
Here is one more fact to consider when you are lounging around petting man’s best friend. Dogs are farsighted; that means they have lousy vision up close. So they are much more likely to recognize who is near by smell rather than by sight.
That creates some interesting behavior in the home. We have two dogs in the Bennett household. A 9-year-old named Jessie and a 5-year-old named Mojo. If one of our dogs leaves the room for just a few seconds, they both smell each other’s bottoms when they see each other again.
If I translated this behavior into words, it would go something like this:
Jessie (smelling Mojo’s butt): Hey, Mojo. Where have you been?
Mojo (smelling Jessie’s butt): I was in the kitchen getting a drink, but now I’m back.
Jessie (heading for the couch): Want to take a nap?
Mojo (following Jessie): Sure.
© 2012 Howard J. Bennett. All Rights Reserved.
(First published in the Washington Post 4/27/09.)
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