This morning, I took my dog for her walk. Like all dog owners, I watch her and wonder what is really going on in her mind, if she has one, or in her experience of the world we share, which she does have.
She keeps looking back at me to check where I am. One of the things I learned very early about dogs is that if they have bonded with you, it doesn’t matter whether you can see them, they always know where you are.
But most of the rest of her activity is done with the help of her nose. Like me, she uses her eyes, but unlike me she mainly experiences the world through her sense of smell.
Any dog-owner knows this is so. Their sense of smell is thousands of times more powerful than ours. Just as they can’t possibly understand the world we live in, so we cannot experience the world they live in.
We would need a nose the size of a bucket, for a start!
This brings me to their experience of Time. It is generally thought that dogs have no sense of time. We kid ourselves that they do, but this is anthropomorphic codswallop.
We say, “I’m just popping out. Back in a minute”, and we think this will reassure the dog, who knows perfectly well that we’re “popping out” (indeed, probably knew that even before we did!),but we know the dog has no concept of a minute. We still say it.
But the dog doesn’t know we’re coming back, does it?
But, with repetition, practice and routine, they learn when we are coming home and who is on the telephone, ringing from the train.
How do they do that?
It’s because they can tell the time!
They can’t read the clock, obviously. They don’t even know the purpose of the round thing on the wall, anyway. After all, they have no use for hours and minutes.
They can tell the time through smell. When they smell the mess of another dog on the pavement, not only do they pick up information about the other dog’s identity, diet, and breeding state, but they also know when the mess was deposited.
Odours decay with time. Not in a regular, hours and minutes kind of way, but in a flexible way that dances wit the weather and the wind. But dogs know this, and know how to read it accurately. They do it when they’re tracking or searching. They will quarter the ground till they catch the smell, then work up-wind to the source
So, when a person leaves the house, their smell begins to decay. The dog knows how long you have been away. A dog’s sense of smell is so acute, you would have to be away for a very long time before your scent disappeared completely. That is why a dog will remember you so long. And she will remember your grandmother, even if she hasn’t visited you for two years.7