Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Research on Scent Dogs

You may want to research a little of the science on canine perception if you like to know how things work before you start trying to do them. How well should you know the nose?

There are several ordinary-language works on how your dog perceives the world. One of the better ones is Chapter 5 of Stephen Budiansky’s The Truth About Dogs. While other sections of the book, such as the pro-alpha stance and the aggression discussion, may be debatable, he’s done a very nice job of summarizing the science on canine perception, particularly on sight and scent. Too, the illustrations of color perception are worth a thousand words. You will see very soon why your silly dog can fetch his blue toy out of the grass so much faster than his red one! Knowing this, you can make your scent articles easy to see for you and invisible to him or plant your decoy in the woods wearing bright red in summer so you can watch your dog's alert as you get close.

For scent work, Pearsall and Verbruggen have an excellent first four chapters in Scent. Their discussion of skin rafts, the microscopic few-cell bits of our surface which we shed constantly, is coherent and understandable, though it may give clean freaks the heebie-jeebies for a little while. Likewise, the length of time a fingerprint can persist is enlightening when your dog takes off on a trail you were pretty sure couldn’t possibly be there. The training portion contradicts some of the science end of the book. I bought the book used, refer often to the first parts for understanding how human scent is deposited and perceived, and largely ignore the rest.

If you want to get technical, try the “Sources” section of the Budiansky and start Googling. There are some excellent articles out there, though many of them are hidden behind the academic-access filter. Another resource is to accept common-source articles. For instance, through searching one academic article, I found accessible ones which cited it, though I could only reach the abstract of the original. “The Use of Scent Detection Dogs” in the Irish Veterinary Journal is beautifully thorough and relatively recent, published in 2006. I have to agree with the final sentence: the limit on how we can utilize a trained dog’s nose is primarily our own imaginations. Find fire ants? Exterminated mice for safe removal before decomposition? The use of human growth hormone by athletes? First, someone has to think to try it.

Even if you never train your dog to search for a specific thing, knowing how sensitive his nose is may make you more likely to listen when he wants you to know you smell different to him. Untrained dogs can still alert their owners to everything from cancer to pregnancy, whether the children are smoking something they shouldn’t, and household risks. However, the humans of the household still have to be willing to take the “I smell something different” body language seriously.

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