Saturday, October 11, 2008

What's that smell?

It's been theorized but never confirmed that dogs smell fear. Now there's proof. Swiss scientists have discovered that the Grueneberg ganglion, which is a bundle of nerve cells residing in the olfactory system, is responsible for the detection of alarm pheromones. Alarm pheromones are given off by animals and even some plants, in the presence of danger, real or perceived.

Scientists were able to pinpoint the Grueneberg ganglion as the alarm receptor in animals by removing it in mice (a lot of mice paid dearly for this little piece of knowledge). Unaltered mice froze when alarm pheromones were sprayed into the air around them but mice with their Gg's removed behaved normally.

The reaction of an animal on sensing alarm pheromones is fight, flight or freeze. You see this all the time between new dog interactions. Two dogs will approach each other, sniffing. Sometimes, the sniffing continues undisturbed and maybe play or indifference follows. But other times, the sniffing suddenly stops and one or both of the dogs freeze. Tensions rise - even the humans can sense that - and the dogs need to be pulled apart immediately or else a scrap breaks out. Because the anxiety level amongst the dogs at Toronto Animal Services is pretty high, as at any shelter or pound, the place must be saturated with alarm pheromones and it's no wonder that a lot of dogs will snarl or cringe in the presence of other dogs there. It's actually quite amazing that it doesn't happen all the time.

This also gives credence to the old saying that you shouldn't act afraid in front of a dog or, more to the point, you shouldn't be afraid. Dogs, like people, understand that fear precedes hate precedes possible violence. You hate what you fear and then you want to kill it. People are obviously great examples of that.

The only time my Doberman Rocky ever barked at a person was one morning when we were on the sidewalk and turned a corner around a tall hedge and surprised someone coming in the opposite direction. The guy was so freaked out by the sudden sight of Rocky, who wasn't even looking at the guy, that he pushed himself into the hedge and stood there staring, shaking and babbling. At that point, Rocky stopped, sniffed the air and barked twice at the guy - and quite possibly made the guy pee his pants -and then we continued on our way.

When Stella, my Dane, was 7 months old, she was bitten hard on the nose by an adult dog as they were sniffing each other. Back then, if I'd known the signals, I would've pulled her out of harms way but being inexperienced in such things, I didn't react fast enough and then it was too late. Stella would have smelled the alarm pheromones coming from the other dog followed by the bite and the association between the two has been strong ever since. That one incident has dictated the way Stella would forever interact with new dogs. Unless I temper her self-introductions, and I always do, Stella will actively try to push a new dog around to see how it will react, to see if it gives off alarm pheromones. If the other dog's alarms don't go off, then Stella is fine. But if the other dog does get anxious and emits the alarm pheromones, Stella freezes and that's when I need to step in, quickly. Throughout the course of the next few mintues of the first meeting, Stella will constantly re-evaluate the new dog, her nose in the air, sniffing around its vicinity, and at some point if the anxiety levels drop then everything is fine but if anxiety stays high, Stella remains on constant alert. It can be very catch-22.

This also explains why the dogs at the shelter, or anywhere for that matter, can react so differently to different people. Sometimes someone might ask me about a specific dog and I'll say, "Oh that dog seems pretty friendly" and then I see the person hesitantly approaching the dog and the dog starts backing away in its kennel, barking. What I should say is, "Yeah, that dog's pretty friendly if you're not scared of it."

So, perhaps this gives us some more insight on how dogs perceive the world around them, that they get different signals from it than we do and thus react to it differently than we do.

For example, let's say there's a video camera following you around. It's broken so it captures only video but no audio. A Martian is viewing the camera's image from his remote monitor on his flying saucer. He can see you and the people you interact with, but obviously can't hear what anyone says. As you walk along, a stranger approaches you. He's expressionless but as soon as he sees you, he stares at you and then says he's afraid of you and he hates you and he's thinking he might just do something about it. The Martian watching the video, can't hear this, and even if he could hear it, probably wouldn't understand the language anyway. All the video shows is someone stopping and then opening and closing his mouth. If you continue along your way without responding to the words of the stranger, the Martian viewing the video might consider that to be congenial, civilized behaviour. If you backed away from the stranger, the Martian might classify you as a timid or even fearful specimen. If you attacked the stranger before he attacked you, the Martian observer might think you were unpredictably aggressive and then he'd beam you aboard his flying saucer and make sure you would never be able to reproduce.

We, as humans, can't fully understand the world of dogs because we can't fully appreciate their sensory input nor their interpretation of that information so do we really have the right to judge a dog as being a good dog or a bad dog? Because dogs live amongst us, are part of our society, we expect certain behaviours from them but perhaps we need to understand that far from being reasonable, in the dog's eyes, these expected behaviours may be downright crazy given the signals they receive which we don't even acknowledge, at least not consciously.

Humans also have Grueneberg ganglion, which means we are also affected by alarm pheromones but perhaps on a more subconsious level. So the next time you walk by someone who gives you or your dog an evil, hateful stare (if you own a dog, I'm sure you've experienced those stares), try spraying some perfume in the air. Some odors really should be covered up.


Anonymous said...

A really fine piece of writing. It isn't just dogs who can smell fear: cats also have an excellent sense of smell -- not as acute as a dog's, but something in the order of 300 times more acute than a human's. (The dog's is

Given the number and amount of pheromones we generate in differing emotional states, is it any wonder our animals know us so well? You can hide how you feel from your office mates, but your dog or cat understands at once. Scent differences may also explain why some people have an irresistible attraction for dogs, while others seem unable to get near them without causing either fear or hostility.

Terry Pratchett comes as close as anyone, I suspect, to describing the world through the senses of a canine when he has Sgt. Angua (a werewolf) liken it to livng in a world with where the air is full of colours that tell the obeserver who has passed by, in what mood, and what they had for breakfast two days ago.

Wish I could live in that world...

Anonymous said...

Great post, Fred - it set light bulbs flashing for me because it explains quite a bit about my Bonzi's reaction to other dogs. Thanks!

Caveat said...

Terrific post, Fred. Great way of explaining a difficult concept.

Anon, be careful what you wish for - you might live near a Taco Bell...just saying....

Anonymous said...

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