How do dogs see the world?

Sometimes, while taking my elderly neighbour’s fat dog for his daily walk, I recall the question I often asked when I had dogs of my own: how does their view of the world differ from ours? So well have dogs adapted to human society, so effectively have they become our ‘best friends’, guarding our property, protecting our persons, providing affectionate company, entertaining us, responding to our commands – and finding ways of communicating their own wants and needs – that it’s easy to fall into the trap of regarding them as small hairy four-legged humans. They aren’t.

Anatomy aside, two differences between the species are so obvious and well known that it seems otiose to mention them, yet they point to a fundamental contrast in the ways in which dogs and humans perceive and conceptualise the world. They also point to a seeming paradox.

Dogs have effective long-term memories, as humans have, otherwise they wouldn’t remember their canine and human friends, their way about, or the commands they’ve been taught. But their short-term memories are almost non-existent. If one human has an angry confrontation with another, he/she isn’t likely to forget it during the following minute or two. We go on seething. But when a dog has an angry confrontation, he/she is sniffing the wayside and wagging again within seconds, all signs of anger gone. Dogs’ emotional and behavioural responses to the world are far more transient and volatile than ours, though often more intense.

And while we rely most on vision for perceiving and understanding the world, dogs rely most on scent. Hearing is important to both species, though dogs tend to have more acute hearing and can be very good at distinguishing among sounds that humans consider nearly identical. But my point concerns the difference between vision and olfaction as a basis for world-view. What we see is the here-and-now, an event of the moment, provided we don ‘t have to consider the speed of light. But what we smell (and what dogs smell) isn’t. Any scent comprises a mixture of components, some more volatile than others. The more time has passed since the scent was laid, the greater the ratio of non-volatile to volatile ingredients. Therefore, the quality of the odour changes with time, and indeed provides a rough measure of time. For a hunting animal, it can no doubt be very useful to know whether that hare, that deer, that rabbit – or that hyena – passed by this way five minutes ago or an hour ago.

So the dog’s principal sensory modality gives the animal’s brain a map of the world containing a time dimension. Our visual depth perception is much better than the dog’s (and dogs don’t have colour vision), so – to state the matter loosely – we perceive the world in three spatial dimensions and the dog perceives it in two spatial dimensions and one time dimension. Quite a difference.

Have you noticed how dogs become much more lively, active, and interested in the scents they detect during their walks when the weather is cold and frosty? The colder the weather, the more slowly the volatile components of the scent are lost, so the fresher the scent must appear. What the dog is experiencing is perhaps, in effect, time shrinkage.

Now here’s the paradox: how does it come about that an animal whose picture of the world contains a time dimension has such a vestigial short-term memory? Wouldn’t we expect the ‘perception of time’ to entail a very good short-term memory?

Do you really understand your dog?


  • Intriguing… I often contemplate what animals must think or feel, what their perspective on the world must be. But for a simple twist of fate millions of years ago, it might have been dogs–or horses or pigs or whatever–that evolved to supremacy on our planet. Instead, it was the apes… (And possibly the dolphins–though, if so, I think they’re doing it better than we are; they seem more peaceable and contented that we human types.) But you certainly pose an interesting view here–both in perspective of being and in the relationship of time and space… and maybe if someone could pin down how a dog’s brain works (short-term / long-term memory and such), it would even help in understanding better memory loss in humans? Or, then again, mayhap such would just go to the dogs……

    • As the late lamented Douglas Adams observed, dolphins haven’t invented the things that have made humanity great (the wheel, war, income tax…) so they can’t be as clever as us. Or, to see it from their perspective, they’ve obviously cleverer – for the same reasons.

      How other organisms experience the world is an endlessly fascinating question. Dogs are easier to observe than most species because they spend so much time with us, but they’re not necessarily more interesting in any objective sense.

  • It’s difficult to refute a man who has written ‘Life, the Universe, and Everything’… I mean, the research alone must have taken years!

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