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Dog memory tricks

By Scott Hunt – The Dog Grumbler

A GOOD dog trainer has a healthy respect for a dog’s powers of recall.

Of course we don’t know what it’s like inside a dog’s head, although we know quite a bit about its brain. The dog is the first animal to be domesticated; cats, horses and other creatures came much later and a dog’s brain is structured very differently to say, that of a cat.

We know that a cat has an area similar to a human’s that deals with emotions (although current science indicates that dogs love us more). We know that a dog has vastly more mental real estate devoted to processing smell than we do.

We know too that a dog’s nose is many orders of magnitude more efficient than ours and that smell, whether in the nose of a human, dog, or any other creature is connected very directly with the brain and memory. Even we humans can differentiate between up to a million different smells and remember them seemingly forever.

I often use the analogy of recognising a perfume worn by my late aunt, which I had not smelled in many decades.

Considering these things — the superior nose, the massive mental focus on smell and the connection with memory — it stands to reason that a dog will remember smells pretty well. This is why a dog wants to smell your hands and shoes: to learn where you have been and what you have been doing.

We humans think in words and pictures. Imagine going somewhere new and interesting and keeping your eyes closed — then trying to describe it. I believe a dog thinks in smells and, to a lesser extent, textures and patterns of movement.

A walk is about gathering smells. A dog’s life — its interaction with the world — is about smells.

I try to apply this to dog training.

I have spoken often about the importance of patience, repetition and routines when training a dog. I believe smell can and should be part of the mix.

As I work with a dog, I try to fill its head with smells — especially new smells. I put emphasis on overlaying my smell with new scents in the dog’s memory.

That’s my focus on day one — a simple sequence of events, combined with new smells. Usually the sequence ends at home in familiar surroundings where the dog earns a few treats by performing obedience sequences.

The next time the dog meets me, my smell triggers memories of what we did the last time we met, of the things and places we smelled together. When I repeat the routine from the previous session it starts to become a pattern.

Even very young dogs remember things we did months later; I think smell plays a big part in this. I think sleep is important too. In my experience, new smells will send a dog to sleep better than physical exercise.

I operate on the assumption that a dog processes its experiences in its sleep and whereas our human experiences are catalogued primarily in visual images, a dog’s are mostly about smell.

If you have the required patience, you can try this. Take your dog for a walk somewhere new and watch the places it smells with the most concentration, then go back another day and see if it is drawn to the same spots directly by memory, as opposed to discovering them by accident as it did the first time. If a dog is to remember something well it needs to tag it with a smell or more likely an olfactory tapestry at which we can only guess.

The more distinctive the olfactory information, the better the memory of the event.

If you keep this in mind and apply it, I am confident it will enhance your training effectiveness and you will develop a growing respect — as I have — for the nose and the memory of your best friend.