Study Suggests Dogs Form Mental Picture Of What They Can Smell

*sniff* benokky1972/Shutterstock

We are driven by expectations, even in the most basic sense of the word. When we hear someone we know talking around a corner, we walk around it anticipating we’ll then see them too. Does the same apply to dogs, though? Do they have a mental image of what they expect to find when they follow a scent trail?

A new paper, published in the Journal of Comparative Psychology, suggests that they do. Although the results are preliminary, they give us a rough insight into the minds of our venerable companions when it comes to their perception of the world around them.

The portion of a dog’s brain dedicated to processing smell is 40 times larger than ours, proportionally speaking, and they’re adorned with 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses. In general, compared to humans, their sense of smell is at least 10,000 times better than ours – so it’s understandable that a dog’s world is driven by smell far more than ours is.

A pair of researchers – from the Max Plank Institute for the Science of Human History and the Friedrich Schiller University of Jena – wanted to know more. “Although it is well known that dogs have an excellent olfactory sense and that they rely on olfaction heavily when exploring the environment or recognizing individuals, it remains unclear whether dogs perceive odors as representing specific objects,” their study explains.

For the purposes of their study, 48 dogs were recruited, almost evenly split between working dogs – those used by the emergency or security services, say – and family dogs. First, two toys that the dogs were particularly keen on were identified, and then the trickery began.

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