Take a deep breath and smell with your noses! Spend any amount of time with New York Times best-selling author Dr Alexandra Horowitz and you’ll quickly find that she’s motivated by one thing: finding out how dogs think.
She followed up her book ‘Inside Of A Dog’ with ‘Being A Dog: Following the Dog into a World of Smell’, including further studies into dog cognition. Somebody who dedicates her time to watching replays of dogs in slow motion was a great choice as the keynote speaker of the Delta Institute’s 2017 Dog Behaviour Conference in Sydney last weekend.
She said we think we know what dogs want, but do we really? She therefore studied the ways dogs play to know more about their minds.
“Dogs are rare, they play their whole lives,” she said. “It’s a highly complex dance incorporating rule following and turn taking.” She unpacked it – making a familiar behaviour to all dog lovers unfamiliar – through a frame-by-frame analysis of videos of dogs in dog parks.
The elements of play Alexandra categorized were:
- Self-control if needed (she called it self handicapping but I chose more inclusive language)
- Each partner takes the abilities and behavior of the other into account.
Her researched focused on play signals e.g. play bow, slap, chase me and attention getters (bump, nose, bite, barking, paw etc). What was interesting was that dogs would match the type of attention getter used (visual, tactile, auditory) to the attentional state of the play partner i.e. match it to the inattention state so if a dog was looking away, the play partner would bark or if they were looking at each other, a play bow would ensue.
When she studied humans playing with their dogs through 239 self-submitted videos from 19 countries, Alexandra find that high touch play had the most positive impact on a person’s experience with more laughter and giggling observed. Yet low-touch play such as throwing the ball, what is the most common default for playing with dogs, created a more neutral response in the humans.
Alexandra also spent time unpacking the importance of smell as that is how they experience the world, more so than through visual input. Owners are keeping their dogs from sniffing each other’s butts – we see it as impolite. But it’s chemical communication where they get relevant information from each other. It’s necessary as it shares knowledge about their sex, health, mating status, identity. New studies show that females tend to sniff face first then the rump. Males go to the rump first.
Even the simple tail wag or shake off could be a way of spreading their scent, in addition to getting dry or being a greeting.
Experiencing the world through the nose was an out-take for the humans in the room. She encouraged attendees to take deep breaths to activate the super power of smell we have but rarely use. Intentional smelling through our nose brings a whole new richness to the world and gives us a better idea of how our canine companions are experiencing the world.
After all, a dog is a nose with a body attached to it… so let them smell the world!