The Canine Senses: not just the nose

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London Hanover University

By Karen Haller Lovelace

“The canine has the ability of cognitive resonance” (Aycock, 2014). Canines are able to use smell, sight, touch and hearing in conjunction with muscle memory in order to create a motor program. Motor memories motivate the canine to action: to hunt, to reproduce, to defend its territory and pack and basically to survive in its environment. When in vitro, motor memory of the canine is developing so the animal, when born, can respond to fear, hunger, sex or aggression (Aycock, 2014).  The animal will move because the response is written in its motor memory.

The motor memory is added to when the canine is born and enters its environment. So innately, the canine will respond, as it was programmed to do in the womb. According to Aycock (2014), however, our senses will detect an event, record the event onto the motor memory, depending on the situation present at that time in that specific environment. Therefore, if the same event picked up by the senses occurs again, the dog will react based on fear, aggression, mating rituals or hunger.

Using information from our London Hanover University Supplementary Handouts, Week 2 and Week 4, (2014) I have documented the work of three canines I have trained and one handled by another person. I have noted these canines using their senses separately or in tandem as a means of survival in their environment. I have tried to detect a link between the motor program (the experiences given to the dog through DNA from both parents in vitro) and the learned pattern (the experiences gained through the sensory input within the environment). Actions result from the information gleaned from the senses. The sensory information is taken to the motor cortex to be used for further reference.


Cognitive Value-Clara

The canine uses the interaction of its senses to create a mental plan for its survival (Aycock, 2014). The interaction of what is important to the dog, an innate sense of value is the Cognitive Value. The Cognitive Value combined with the olfactory sense, hearing, sight and touch creates a complete spectrum of information the dog utilizes in its environment for its ultimate goal of survival. In training, the canine uses these senses together in order to accomplish certain tasks.

According to the London Hanover University Supplemental Handouts, Week Two and Week Four, (2014) a dog’s memories are genetic and learned. These memories are enhanced by information acquired by the senses of sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing. A certain sense accompanied by an event can heighten that memory and make it high value. For example, I ran track from AAU, through high school and then in college. I will always associate a track with the smell of Eucalyptus trees. Most of the tracks in the 1970s were dirt. The Eucalyptus trees were excellent wind breaks. To this day, if I am around Eucalyptus trees or smell the scent, an image appears in my brain of a particular track on which I ran.

Since information about the environment is transported to the brain (London Hanover University Supplemental Handouts, Week Two and Week Four, 2014) what input that has already been genetically programmed at birth (such as how to chase prey or to hunt) is added to or modified by environmental input. Memories are then modified and new memories are formed.

When we participated in our Search and Rescue group training in March, 2014, Clara, our Wilderness dog, searched a wide area in a very deep wash filled with sage barriers, wide crevices and deep holes. She searched north, west and south as we came down into the area from the east. Suddenly, a rabbit sprung from the sage. In the 30 second period, following our initial searching and dropping into the wash, my mind was prepared and aware of what we may encounter. Suddenly, I saw the prey as Clara did, and I recognized the facial expressions and body movement of the dog. I reached for my whistle as Clara was about to chase down the rabbit. She engaged at the same time and made about a 20m run ahead of her position. Within the next 30 seconds, for Clara, the value of that rabbit was high. However, the value of the find at the end of our search was greater. She turned around and came back to me upon hearing the whistle once, followed by my voice, “Good Girl.” Clara’s obedience to the find and the ultimate reward, the toy, was greater in value than the rabbit.

We continued our search. Clara’s motor memory kicked in when another rabbit sprung out of the sage. However, I saw her look at me as I said, “Clara.” She did not chase the rabbit. She focused on the find, and I praised her for ignoring the rabbit with, “Good Girl,” and said, “Find.” The find was of higher Cognitive Value than catching the rabbit because she did get her toy and play after the find was made about 10 to 15 minutes later. The value of the find therefore was reinforced with her reward at the end.

Olfactory— Daisy

Even though a canine has over 220 million Odorant Sensory Neurons (OSNs) the canine only reacts to scents it is familiar with because it knows a reward will follow the detection of scent (Brownlee and Aycock). When a dog is trained to find the scent of a human, as we train our dogs to take scent and find a person during our SAR training, the dog knows there is a high value reward at the end, a toy, or food and lots of praise with each.

The Dorsal Meatus allows passage of scent to go through the top of the dog’s muzzle and down into the lungs and olfactory areas (Brownlee and Aycock). The canine is therefore able to take scent from all directions. The dog will give a head snap or nose press in the direction of the scent’s origin. The Alar Fold of the dog’s nostril takes and carries the gasses of odor down to the Dorsal Meatus for processing on the receptors. The motor memory of the cerebrum makes recognition, and the dog alerts on the familiar scent. For trailing with my dogs, when I produce a scent article, the dog’s nose takes the odor (in our case, the odor from a scent article of a person hiding or lost).

The dog makes a rapid sniff and the dog is able to push the odor to the back into the Dorsal Meatus. The Alar Fold diverts the scent to the Dorsal Meatus, but some gas travels to the respiratory tract so the dog can breathe at the same time it is detecting odor. Once the air enters the Dorsal Meatus, scent goes into the Olfactory Recess, and to the Ethmoturbinate bones where the 180 million receptors detect organic molecules (Brownlee and Aycock).  At this point, the scent is able to be detected and read by the brain.

When the dog takes a rapid sniff, it also purges or pushes the scent molecules which are on the surface into the air in a whirlwind. With each rapid sniff and purge, more scent is pushed to the Ethmoturbinates. The brain reads the information provided by the receptors as a new scent or a recognized one. The motor memory recognizes the same scent from the initial article at the start and makes the read when the find is made. The motor memory confirms or disconfirms as the person hiding or not.

During training April 12, 2014, my Bloodhound, Daisy got out of the truck, acclimated herself to the environment and headed for the scent article with me. She took a rapid sniff of the article and within the 30 second initial interval of training, Daisy began her 360 m trail to find my son at the end. When Daisy came to the road, her nose picked up slightly with the wind blowing about 15 MPH north to south. Within the next 30 second time frame, Daisy gave a negative with her body south and crossed the road onto the grass and sage field. Her behavior shifted, and the nose went clear to the dirt as I could hear her making her snorting sound when she trails. Nose down, Daisy made her way west checking north and south in a cone of scent. We continued, and during the next 30 second period, and Daisy’s behavior changed again as she snapped her head in recognition of the salient becoming stronger. Her pace always picks up when she is closest to the source of scent. With a “Good Girl,” I let her work. Again, her gait is faster, the tail begins to wag and Daisy almost leaps as she is running towards the source. I always know she has the find by reading her signals. Daisy received her food reward and lots of praise from my son and me when she did indeed make the find.

Daisy has been recertified four times (her very first one in a similar situation of encountering very high crosswinds). She understands the trailing process. On this particular day, we practiced trailing with a high speed crosswind. Daisy had a crosswind distraction the entire trail and encountered a wash with sage barriers. This was a planned exercise to practice working in windy conditions. Even though scent was being blown with the wind, north to south, and Daisy was traveling west; she kept her nose down, rapidly sniffing the odor. Daisy has had this experience many times before, and she exhibits the same behavior. Her nose goes down, and she focuses on the scent, lifting the head to check a road, as she did during our session mentioned above, or when she comes out of a wash to check in a 180 degree pattern before committing to the scent. The motor memory of trailing technique in windy conditions from prior experience enabled her to make a connection with the scent article provided at the start and the person hiding at the end of the trail, regardless of the environmental distractions along the way. Her nasal receptors in the Ethmoturbinates allowed Daisy to match the starting and ending scents, send the read to the motor cortex, match the two and then tell Daisy yes, you got it!


Hearing and Sight Combined- Captain

My nine year old son hid for our GSD and SAR 1dog Captain this past Saturday. The wind was blowing 15 MPH or more from the north quite steadily. My son’s scent was blown across the trail he made; he was positioned west. Within the first 30 second interval of the 360m trail, Captain took scent of my son’s hanker chief and headed to the dirt road. Captain picked up his head and checked the dirt road south. Within the 30 second time frame, Captain checked west and committed with the scent west into the grass and sage. Captain ignored the high wind blowing across the trail and headed downhill west with his nose down. The dog’s body made a definite change when he came to a deep wash containing thick sage as a barrier. At this 30 second interval, he lifted his head, picked up scent, and searched for an opening in the barrier in order to cross it and move in the direction of the scent picked up after crossing.

Captain paused, as he always does after crossing a road or barrier, checked with his head in a 180 degree motion and committed west. Within 124m of my son, Captain’s body stopped as he pointed it west, with ears straight up in the direction of a sound. My son had blown his whistle. During this next 30 second interval, Captain paused for a good 5 seconds and made a decision. He converted his static position into a kinetic one. He picked up the pace, and I was ready to go. We moved quickly toward the sound. In the next 10 seconds, Captain was about 76m from my son and I could see his eyes scanning the landscape in a 180 degree scope, looking for any moving object relating to the sound. Captain honed in on my son visually as he got closer and made the find.

This day, Captain used his sense of smell during the first 200m of his trail. Upon hearing the whistle, even though the sound drifted south with the wind, Captain honed in on the source of the sound using his ears, and as he got closer to the source, he focused in with his eyes.  

According to (London Hanover University Supplemental Handout, Week Four, 2014) the dog’s hearing is combined with other senses; it does not work independently. Action occurs with the sensory input and the processing of it. Information taken in by the eye’s optic nerves and the ear’s auditory nerves is processed by the motor cortex. The motor cortex will log in the certain memory received as important for the dog’s survival. If the dog encounters the same event again, the motor cortex triggers a response appropriate for the situation. According to London Hanover University Supplemental Handout, Week Two, 2014) if the animal encounters something that requires a physical action, the brain will open that specific motor memory action and carry it out. In addition, whatever the senses have picked up at the same time the motor cortex is processing the event, it is also recorded. So the event is tied to sight, sound, smell, taste, or touch that occurred at the time of the event.

 “Wolf vision evolved to detect fast-moving prey in light or dark conditions” (LeCroix, London Hanover University Supplemental Handout, Week Four, 2014). Dogs also hunt under all-light conditions. Considering that dogs can see a large object in focus about 20 feet away (LeCroix, 2014) my son was 125 m away from Captain when he heard the whistle. Captain paused, actively searched and could not see my son who was still and surrounded by large rocks. So Captain went with the sound he heard, even though the sound and smell were drifting in the 15 MPH wind. However, as Captain moved in towards the direction of the sound, his vision focused as he approached the 20 m mark for visual acuity of the canine. Thus, Captain’s sense of hearing detected noise and sent the information to his brain. His sense of sight kicked in when my son came into focus. Captain’s experience with trailing and his innate ability to use his senses together had already been logged in to his motor memory.  His motor memory then set his body in motion to find the source sound and scent. We have trained using the whistle before, during SAR night searches. Captain’s reaction is the same with his head and body position. He will utilize his hearing when he cannot see, then use his vision as the range for visual acuity becomes appropriate for sight.

Nociceptive- Dog Observed During Obedience Class

The body is made of cells, tissues, organs and systems. Nerves run through the body to activate the above components of our body. The senses are comprised of nerves and nerve endings or receptors. These receptors contain axons and dendrites forming a gang of nerve cells called a ganglion. The auditory, olfactory, optic nerves plus the motor and sensory areas of the cerebrum receive information which activates motion. The axons of the nerve endings pick up signals from the muscles of the body through the sodium and potassium exchange inside the corresponding muscle. The nerves in the muscle, experience hot, cold or pain and will send appropriate signals through the axon to the dendrites in the brain. The communication within the ganglion relays the sensation information to the brain.

In terms of the sensation of pain, if a canine experiences any form of pain, the ganglion relays the sense to the brain. The brain sends the information back to the muscle experiencing the pain, and the dog will make appropriate muscle reactions, such as removing its paw or body part from the source of pain. According to the London Hanover University Supplemental Handout, Week Four, (2014) the canine’s most common touch sensory igniter is pain. The response to the sensation of pain is called a Nociceptive Response. For dogs, their pain reaction is a necessity for survival. Dogs are very hyper aware of pain in their motor memory (London Hanover University Supplemental Handout, Week Four, 2014). If a dog has experienced pain and has associated this pain with an action, the dog will respond in an adverse way to avoid the pain if the same or similar action occurs again.

 My older son and I took an obedience class together at our local veterinary office in California.  We had to heel our dogs in a large circle with other handler and dog teams. Our instructor had the teams walk in the heeling pattern slowly, then quickly before slowing again and stopping to sit our dog. One handler in particular was heeling his dog. When it was time to sit, he encountered the problem. Within the first 30 second time frame, he shouted his dog’s name and then said sit in the same tone. He did not gently put pressure on the lead and collar upward while pressing down lightly on the dog’s behind with the fingers of the other hand to guide the dog into a sit. He did not bridge with a “Good Dog.” He jerked and screamed the command to the dog. The dog reacted negatively in the next 30 seconds by turning its head and looking around in avoidance, cowering, even when the trainer came over to intervene. The dog was avoiding not only the physical pain from the lead jerking on its neck, but the pain in her ears from all of the yelling. When the trainer came over, the dog associated the prior event from her owner with the trainer who only wanted to help. So the canine’s reaction when the trainer took the lead was to cower and turn its head to avoid more punishment.

The handler tried to work properly with the dog, after the trainer demonstrated proper handling within the next 30 second interval. However, as a result of the prior negative association with the sit exercise, the dog continued to turn and duck its head when told to sit while the handler applied light pressure. The dog’s motor memory recalled the harsh jerk and yelling previously, even though the handler’s behavior changed to be less forceful and stressful for the dog. The sit exercise became a negative experience for the dog and was recorded negatively for the canine in its motor memory, with a negative physical reaction when the event (the sit exercise) was repeated.

I have documented the canine’s cognitive ability to take in stimuli from its environment using its senses: Cognitive Value, Olfactory, Hearing, Sight and Nociceptive senses in the context of working in SAR and in obedience training. The precursor for each event has been documented, as well as the 30 interval prior to the event, the 30 second timing after the event and the post cursor for each occurrence. The sense or senses the canines utilized during training exercises has been included to give a complete documentation for when each sense was associated with a certain physical response made by each canine. I have also included my reaction and another handler’s reaction to the response of the canine to complete the picture of how sensory input is converted to physical movement by the canine and its handler.











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