How often have you found yourself thinking your dog is sad because he gazes at you with mournful eyes? That a sigh signals boredom? We’re prone to anthropomorphizing animals. It’s hard not to, because our ability to imagine what a dog might want is limited by our knowledge of a dog’s experience of the world. Not that dogs don’t have feelings or thoughts; they surely do. We get into unfortunate territory when we interpret canine expressions and behavior by our own standards (an upturned mouth is a smile and indicates happiness, etc.) and then proceed to scold, comfort, discipline, outfit, or medicate our dogs based on our faulty assumptions. Despite the best of intentions, we might do more harm than good—or at least miss the mark by a mile.
How can we adopt a more canine perspective? A good first step would be to better understand what the world looks like to dogs. Take their sense of smell. It’s not just that dogs pick up more with their two to three hundred million scent receptors than we with our measly six million, or that the very mechanics of their noses are so different from ours. Rather, a dog’s whole world is a web of complex smells. Objects are first assessed not by handling but by sniffing. Time is a matter of smell—strong means new, weak means old, older, ancient. We humans each have our own signature odor, as distinct to a dog as a fingerprint to the police. Hence dogs’ ability to track a person’s route through a crowded street days, even weeks, later. They track a cloud of molecules.
A dog’s world is fascinating, and you don’t need a degree in ethology to explore it. Books by Temple Grandin, Alexandra Horowitz, or Jean Donaldson can serve as excellent initiations into the world of dogs. After all, as nature writer and essayist Edward Hoagland said, “In order to really enjoy a dog, one doesn’t merely try to train him to be semi-human. The point of it is to open oneself to the possibility of becoming partly a dog.”