Falcons’ eyes and hounds’ noses in the news

Harry: 300 million scent receptors. Me: 6 million scent receptors. That explains a lot!

Harry: 300 million scent receptors. Me: 6 million scent receptors. That explains a lot!

THERE were two news notes that got my attention this weekend. One was a book review in Sunday’s New York Times about Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know. It’s an attempt to understand and explain how dogs experience the world, and there are some interesting observations in it (I already bought my copy). This isn’t a dog-training book; it’s more of a natural science book, although it’s written in very accessible, non-technical language. I’m not that far along in it yet, but here are some interesting bits and pieces:
  • A beagle’s nose has 300 million receptor sites, compared with a human’s paltry six million (“I could have told you that,” says Harry the Stealth Beagle)
  • Scent equals time, for dogs. “Trained dogs don’t just notice a smell. They notice the change in smell over time,” writes author Alexandra Horowitz. “The concentration of an odor left on the ground by, say, a running footprint, diminishes with every second that passes. In just two seconds, a runner may have made four or five footprints: enough time for a trained tracker to tell the direction that he ran based just on the differences in the odor emanating from the first and fifth print.”
  • Dogs are social animals, but their idea of a pack doesn’t appear to be based on the “alpha wolf” pack theories put forward by trainers who say owners should behave dominantly. “What dogs do seem to have inherited from wolves is the socialty of a pack: an interest in being around others. Indeed, dogs are social opportunists. They are attuned to the actions of others, and humans turned out to be very good animals to attune to.” Trainers who use dominance techniques are “farther from what we know of the reality of wolf packs and closer to the timeworn fiction of the animal kingdom with humans at the pinnacle, exerting dominion over the rest. Wolves seem to learn from each other not by punishing each other but by observing each other. Dogs, too, are keen observers–of our reactions. Instead of a punishment happening to them, they’ll learn best if you let them discover which behaviors are rewarded and which lead to naught.”

We’ve certainly found that last part to be true in our household. It took some creative thinking to find our way around Harry’s sinister side and Toby’s seemingly incessant barking when we made the dogs’ meals each night. Various forms of “no” didn’t have much effect, but psychology did, and in surprisingly short order.

THE other bit of the hunting world in the news this week was a story on National Public Radio’s “Weekend Edition Saturday Show” about the use of falcons to keep starling flocks away from California’s vineyards, where they can wreak expensive damage to the grapes if left to their own devices. Though just under five minutes long, it was a fascinating piece on an ancient hunting art. You can hear it (and also read the accompanying article) at the link above. One of the more tantalizing aspects of it was the notion that “the golden thread” arguably can exist between falconers and their charges, just as it does between exceptional huntsmen and their packs. Clearly, falconer Tom Savory thinks so. In any event, the working falcon-human partnership here is as interesting as the working hound-human one. In each case, as one vineyard owner says in the piece, you have an animal “that basically is doing what it would do in nature anyway, but for our benefit.”

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