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Your knowledge of your dog is unparalleled: You, not I, know whether she sleeps in the same spot all night or instead has a migratory sleep pattern. You know her affinity for trash, or lack thereof. And telling me her breed, age or name won’t give me access to those intimate details. They are for you to know, and for me to, well, not know.
Recently, researchers at The Queen’s University of Belfast found that our knowledge of dogs extends beyond what we see. Deborah Wells and Peter Hepper of the Canine Behaviour Center  in the School of Psychology “examined the ability of humans to identify individual dogs by smell.” (An alternate title could have been, “Turning the Tables: Dogs Aren’t the Only Ones Who Can Sniff”).
In the study, dog owners smelled two blankets — one that had been infused with the individual odor of their dog, and one that had the smell of an unfamiliar dog. In case you ever want to try this at home, to infuse a dog’s smell in a blanket, the researchers placed the blanket in the dog’s bed for three nights with nothing else in there. Dog owners were blindfolded and then smelled the two blankets. The blindfold prevented owners from noticing, for example, that the blanket was covered with their dog’s hair (if anyone out there has figured out a way not to be covered in dog hair, contact me at @dogspies ).
So what happened in the sniff test? Owners rocked! Without the help of visual cues, 88.5% were able to accurately say which blanket smelled like their dog (23 out of 26 owners).
While we don’t ordinarily think of ourselves as a species who pays much attention to smell, when it comes to those we care about, our nose knows more than we think it knows. Back in the 1980s, researchers learned that mothers who’ve just given birth can identify a t-shirt impregnated with the smell of their newborn. As children age, both mothers and fathers can identify their child’s smell when given the “smell this t-shirt” test. Now we can add our dogs to this list. (If you live with a college-aged male, you might want to avoid the “smell this t-shirt” test.)
I wanted to say goodbye to 2013 with this study because it’s a reminder of how tuned in we can be to our dogs. We rightly allude to dogs as “man’s best friend” and many proclaim to be members of “nations of dog lovers.”
But at the same time, we often get dogs wrong. We think we have a solid understanding of who dogs are and what makes them tick, but animal behavior and cognition research continues to reveal there’s more of a disconnect than we may realize. We make human-based assumptions, rely on old theories and frequently don’t look at actual dog behavior.
Here at Dog Spies, we’ll ring in 2014 with How Well Do You Know Your Dog?: Part 2. I’m on a continual quest to see the dogs right in front of me on their terms, not mine. I hope you’ll join me!
Photo: Girl Smelling Marigolds  via moodboard. Flickr Creative Commons.
Porter & Moore. 1981. Human kin recognition by olfactory cues . Physiology and Behaviour 27, 493- 495.
Porter et al. 1983. Maternal recognition of neonates through olfactory cues . Physiology and Behaviour 30, 151-154.
Wells & Hepper. 2000. The discrimination of dog odours by humans . Perception 29, 111-115.
This story was originally published by Scientific American.  Reprinted with permission.