Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Senses, human and canine

We are visual animals. There's barely a challenge for second, either: audition is part of nearly every experience we have. Olfaction and touch might duke it out for third, and taste runs a distant fifth. Not that each of these isn't important to us on any particular occasion. . . . Still, on most occasions we first direct our gaze to a new scene or object. If we notice something unusual or unexpected on the sleeve of our jacket, we turn to examine it with our eyes. Vision would have to really fail to provide any information before we decide to learn about it by inhaling it closely or taking a bold lick.
The order of operations is turned upside-down for dogs. Snout beats eyes and mouth beats ears. Given the olfactory acuity of dogs, it makes sense that vision plays and accessory role. When a dog turns his head toward you, it is not so much to look at you with his eyes; rather, it is to get his nose to look at you . . . .
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One might well ask what a dog would even need eyes for. They can navigate and find food with their remarkable noses. Anything that needs closer examination goes right in the mouth. And the can identify each other through that sensory apparatus squished between their mouth and nose, the vomeronasal organ. As it turns out, they have at least two critical uses of their eyes: to complement their other senses and to see us. The natural history of the dog eye, seen in the story of their forebears, wolves, explains the context in which their vision evolved. It is a happy and transformative side effect that this has made them good watchers of human beings. 
Alexandra Horowitz, Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know (New York: Scribner: 2009), pp. 122-23.

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