Click on these links for in depth information about each of these dogs senses    SCENT    SIGHT       SOUND         TASTE            TOUCH


One of the most misunderstood aspects of a dog's life is their reliance on their senses. They use them to analyse the environment around them and make split-second assessments as to what type of behaviour is the most appropriate (see Memory). By understanding how dogs depend upon and use their senses we can develop a deeper understanding of how to train and motivate them, how to fulfill their working instincts and how to prevent or change behaviour that we find undesirable.


There are some key points to remember when comparing how one dog uses its senses to that of another. Over the past hundreds and thousands of years humans have deliberately bred certain types of dog to use some senses more than others in order to do specific tasks -


Sight Hounds

In the vast open plains of the Middle East, ancient hunters chose and bred athletic sprinting dogs that were able to detect the movement of prey over long distances.


Scent Hounds

In the more wooded and hilly terrains of Europe where prey could hide from the hunting dog's sight, ancient hunters bred dogs with particularly good sense of smell to detect animal scents in the wind, or follow their tracks along the ground, to lead the hunters to their prey.


Flushing dogs

These were bred to have vast amounts of physical stamina and good senses of movement, sight and smell so that they could be sent into the undergrowth to scare the prey from their hiding places. The hunter could then see the prey and bring it down by sling, spear, arrow, and as technology advanced, with a gun. Unlike the scent and sight hounds, these dogs were bred to have very poor levels of concentration so that they would not chase the first animal they saw, or follow only one scent, but "spot scent" and cover large areas of ground in fast erratic movements creating noise to disturb as many birds and animals as possible.


Retrieving dogs

These have been bred to have very sensitive mouths and to have an extremely strong instinct to touch, taste, smell and carry all manner of things in their mouths. These sensories have been specifically enhanced by selective breeding so that the dogs will pick up and carry prey that the hunter has shot after the flushing dogs have done their work.


Hunting, Pointing, Retrieving (HPR) dogs

In England (particularly), the large estates were able to breed dogs to do a specific job, as shown above. Where there were restrictions on room for hunting as well as financial pressures, dogs were trained and bred to be more useful in being able to perform more than one task, hence the name.


The dog's level of stress is another important aspect to remember when considering their senses. If a dog is overexcited or stressed its senses will be far more heightened and reactive than it would be if it was calm and relaxed. This is because Nature raises an animal's alertness to danger when its adrenaline levels are high. Stress also effects dogs ability to concentrate and assess the senses information correctly.


Dogs brains (like ours and other animals) our being continually bombarded with stimulus and experiences (see Senses) which the brain has to assess in order to decide whether the memory should be important enough to be stored in its short-term or long-term memory, or discarded as "trivial".


When a dog's stress levels are high before an Event, its senses will be very acute and sensitive, increasing its alertness to any stimuli around it. This is why stressed dogs become over-reactive to everyday situations.

Therefore when training a dog a new behaviour or exercise it is very difficult for the dog's brain to remember and later recognise important or rewarding events if it is busy assimulating further (trivial) information immediately afterwards -

  • such as being given other commands and exercises to do

  • meeting and seeing other dogs,

  • being given attention and life rewards by its owner without working for them, etc

The dog's brain does not have time to assess what has just happened - in fact dog's retentive memory is so poor compared to us humans that it does not remember what has happend to it even half a second afterwards. this is why motivators have to be given so quickly so that the dog can link the reward as the consequence of doing the correct behaviour, and why marking the behaviour with a sound such as a clicker can overcome this problem.


Latent Learning

One of the most misunderstood aspects of dog training is the importance of providing the dog with the opportunity to relax and unwind immediately after a training session. This is because when a dog has had a rewarding and pleasant experience it's brain will be triggered to recall the various triggers that were recorded by its senses so that it can recognise a simliar situation happening again and can repeat the experience in order to get another reward.


For instance, that of how dogs retain certain information in their long-term memory, while other parts of their training never seems to be learnt or understood at a deep level. This page has been written to explain how this occurs.


Like humans and other animals, a dog's brain is being continually bombarded with information it receives from its senses. Yet as we ourselves know, the brain does not store ALL this information - it would be impossible! Instead, the brain uses "filter systems" so that the creature can differentiate what are important memories that need to be stored for future use, and those experiences and memories which can be discarded and forgotten.


However, this does not mean that they have to remember all these stimuli - just as we humans do not rmember everything that has happened to us in a single day, never mind the day/week/month/years before. The brain sifts through all the information it receives and either discards the trivial, stores some memories in the short term memory or, if the right criteria are experienced, in the long term memory so that they can be recalled in the future when needed. It must be stressed that a dogs brain is not the same as a humans and so this must be taken into consideration when looking at how dogs remember things.


Dogs do not have thought and brain patterns like humans (although it is very easy to make that assumption when they seem to be reading our minds!).

In order for their brains to be able to retain a particular incident or piece of information in their long-term memory the incident is either

a) so rewarding or

b) so threatening

that a "photo" is made in the dog's brain so that its senses can recognise and respond accordingly if its senses detect a recurrance of the event.



This web site has been written by Sally Hopkins (unless the author of the web page is stated otherwise).


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