3 Facts About Dogs and Their Senses

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close-up to dog faceBy Arden Moore, a certified dog and cat behaviorist with the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. Arden is an author, radio host, and writer for Pets Best, a pet insurance agency for dogs and cats. 

The following question was sent to me by a fellow dog lover, “My Siberian husky can be snoozing upstairs in the back bedroom, but within seconds of a bag of potato chips being opened on the first floor, she suddenly appears, tail wagging and ready to share. When we go out on walks, I am amazed at how she sniffs out a cat hiding under a bush or tracks down the smallest bit of something edible on the ground. She can spot a squirrel scampering up a tree faster than I can but will sometimes stop and stare intently at a stick or a rock as though she expects it to move. When it comes to our senses, how do we compare to dogs?”

We all know better than to challenge our dogs to a hearing contest. Canine ears, whether erect, dropped or folded, capture more sounds at greater distances and wider frequencies than human ears.

1. Despite their many different shapes and sizes, canine ears have the same basic function:  to zero in on sounds (especially that magic word, treat, or in your case, the rustle of a potato chip bag) and to help the dog maintain equilibrium while moving. Ears also play an important role in canine communication and can express happiness, playfulness, curiosity, submissiveness, and dominance, for example.

2. Hearing prowess, however, takes second place to a dog’s acute ability to smell. The phrase “led by the nose” takes on a whole new meaning in the canine world. Olfactory receptor cells inside the canine nose are bolstered by tiny hairs called cilia that are coated with mucous to help trap scents. People have about 5 million olfactory receptor cells compared to more than 100 million in dogs. These receptors are capable of breaking down the individual ingredients in each scent. So not only can your dog tell if you’re baking a chicken or turkey, he can also distinguish the particular spices you put in the stuffing.

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3. In the battle of the senses, we compete with dogs most closely in the field of vision. We rely on our eyes more than our dogs do. Canine eyes are much more sensitive to movement and to light than ours, but they can’t focus on objects as well as we can.

Dogs also tend to be nearsighted, which explains why your dog can spot a bird flying at dusk but may fixate on a motionless object that you can clearly see is not a squirrel, or have trouble spotting a bright yellow tennis ball from a foot away. Their large pupils and wide field of vision enables them to zoom in on moving objects or potential prey. Dogs do have better peripheral vision, however. Standing still, dogs can see up to 250 degrees without turning their heads, while humans can see, at best, up to 180 degrees.

In summary, your dog wins by a nose and is all ears, at least compared with you.

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This article has been adapted from its original version in Arden’s book, The Dog Behavior Answer Book.

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