Written by Anna Hollisey
What can our dogs see, sniff, and hear with those wonder-senses of theirs? Bet there’s at least one on the list that you didn’t know about… (odds are, it’s number 4.)
There’s a well-known piece of research comparing wolf pups with domesticated dog pups. In the experiment, all pups were trained to search for an item. The domesticated pups looked directly at their owners’ faces to look for cues, while wolves completely ignored their human handlers. This important experiment proved that our dogs have evolved to read the human face. They ‘read’ our faces for clues – and to see whether we’re happy, sad, or disapproving.
This is why the ‘watch me’ command is such a good one to teach your dog. Once they know the command to look at your face, it makes further training much easier.
In another piece of research at Goldsmiths College in London, researchers showed that domestic dogs paid extra attention to strangers when they wept (but not when they talked or hummed). These dogs sniffed and nuzzled their new acquaintances – showing a remarkable level of empathy.
There is, in fact, a great deal of research indicating that dogs detect human sadness. Another paper showed that dogs’ levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) increased when they heard a baby crying.
How do our dogs know what we need when we’re sad? They’re simply mirroring our compassionate behavior towards them – putting a comforting paw on our knees or pressing their noses gently against our faces.
Did you know that your dog’s sense of smell is at least 10, and up to 50, times stronger than a human’s? They can be trained to sniff out cancers – including prostate and lung – and may be used, in the future, to provide early warning to patients.
In one experiment, a German Shepherd sniffed more than 900 urine samples and detected prostate cancer with a 100% sensitivity rate. Her colleague, similarly trained, maintained a sensitivity of 98%. They were able to identify certain compounds in the urine. This piece of research offers considerable certainty that a trained dog’s nose is capable of picking up the scent of cancer.
If you’re pregnant or afraid, you release a new hormone – and, even though it’s odorless, your dog can pick it up.
How? Just like some other mammals (and even snakes), dogs have an extra sensory superpower. Jacobson's Organ is an olfactory sensor which opens into the roof of your dog’s mouth. It’s connected directly to the brain – more specifically, the part of the brain which handles the mating instinct!
This clever bit of kit allows your dog to pick up the presence of scentless pheromones, identifying female dogs who are on heat, their own family, and unusual pheromones which are emitted from people they love.
Even more amazing: our dogs have instincts to protect their humans when they smell hormonal changes, illness, or pregnancy. Since they evolved as pack animals, dogs are programmed to protect family members – especially when they are undergoing change.
We love our dogs because they’re straightforward. They don’t manipulate us and they don’t hide their feelings. Right?
New research shows that dogs can hold grudges just like humans do.
For a while, we’ve suspected that our dogs dislike the people we dislike. Now it’s been proven. In a 2017 experiment, dogs watched their owners struggle to open containers and ask two strangers to help them: one did, and one refused. Later, when the strangers offered the dogs attention, the dogs preferred the people who had helped their owners.
Watch the dogs celebrating the people who helped their owners!
OK. This one’s not scientifically proven… yet. But there are so many reports about dogs who are eagerly waiting at the front door when their owners put the key in the lock – day after day.
How do dogs know when to expect their favorite person home?
One theory is that they could be demonstrating associated learning. This means they’re using their spectacular senses to smell or hear triggers which signal ‘home time’. For example, your neighbor could be in the habit of arriving home 6 minutes before you – and brewing a pot of coffee. Our dogs can hear sounds up to a mile away, so they could even pick up their owner’s vehicle when it’s a few blocks south!
Your dog understands you – but can you understand their signals? Discover how to tell the difference between a sad and happy bark. Learn more about your dog’s ability to sniff out illnesses or cancer.