Making sense of my dog’s senses

As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, January 16, 2022. Above, Rhody shortly after we rescued her.

Three gunshots pierce the early morning quiet and hit my dog, Rhody, in a place I can’t see.

It’s duck-hunting season down on Greenwich Cove. For about 60 days, random pops are the neighborhood’s alarm clock. And now Rhody, ears back and tail down, is shaking in the corner of my bedroom.

Don’t let her name fool you. She’s from Georgia, not Rhode Island, trucked here as a puppy with dozens of other strays and dropped off at Petco on Quaker Lane in Warwick for one of their raucous Saturday adoption events. When she burrowed into my daughter’s lap amid the clamor, we knew we had to take her.

Rhody’s sleek black coat is punctuated by two white dots on the top of her head. If she were an insect, antennae would rise from those dots, and we considered naming her Radar because of them. Like most dogs, her hearing is acute – four times as sensitive as mine, I’ve learned – and she cowers at the rumble of thunder, the howl of a windstorm, and the whoosh of an Amtrak train barreling through our town. The Fourth of July is a nightmare.

And yet there is something different about how the gunshots trigger her. Even when they are muffled by a blanket of fog at dawn, they can leave her panting and scurrying to our basement. That’s the thing about rescue dogs: They come to us with a past all their own, mysterious and inscrutable.

Rhody’s sense of smell is as impressive as her hearing. I marvel when she raises her nose at the sight of another dog more than a hundred feet away during our walks around Academy Field.

“Got your sniffer going, huh?” I say to her.

Dogs have as many as 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses compared to a mere six million for humans. And the part of their brains that decodes smells is proportionally 40 times greater than ours. 

Even more remarkable is the anatomy of the canine snout. While the human nose uses the same airways to breathe and smell, a dog has one for respiration and one for olfaction. And the pathway dedicated to sensing scents has accomplished astonishing feats. One drug-sniffing dog detected a plastic container stuffed with 35 pounds of marijuana submerged in a gas tank filled with gasoline. A cancer-sniffing dog kept nuzzling a patient in a spot that doctors had pronounced to be cancer-free; a subsequent biopsy revealed melanoma in a small fraction of the cells.

During duck-hunting season, I play music in the early morning in an attempt to drown out the random gunshot pops, but Rhody’s quivering exposes my folly. Wrapping her in a soft blanket seems to help in the same way it soothed our children years ago when they were babies. We have yet to invest in a so-called “thundershirt” or anxiety vest that the American Kennel Club recommends, but we aren’t ruling it out.

This past Fourth of July, the good doctors at Hill & Harbour Veterinary Center provided medication that allowed Rhody to ride out the evening fireworks with less panting and more sleep. Summer lightning storms are less predictable, though, and when one rolls through, chances are we’ll find her under a table or curled up in a corner.

Two more gunshots from the cove send Rhody to the basement. I make a note to call the vet for more medication while taking a small measure of comfort knowing the best prescription is already on the way: duck-hunting season ends on January 23.


What a great insight. Our daughters family dog has this sensitivity too, and lives on a military base. My experience has been that our canine friends are often more attuned to things than we are.

John you are a great writer and teacher!
Thanks as always,

John, thanks for another good one. Give Rhody a pat on the head from us. Gpa

WHEW John! I thought with the first sentence she was injured. Thanks for another great piece!

    Hey John…loved this one on your doggie. Well done! It prompted me to revisit a Kipling poem which speaks of another power that dogs have over their masters! Are you familiar with that masterpiece of poetry? I have included it here for your reading pleasure. The Power of the Dog
    Rudyard Kipling – 1865-1936
    There is sorrow enough in the natural way
    From men and women to fill our day;
    And when we are certain of sorrow in store,
    Why do we always arrange for more?
    Brothers and Sisters, I bid you beware
    Of giving your heart to a dog to tear.

    Buy a pup and your money will buy
    Love unflinching that cannot lie—
    Perfect passion and worship fed
    By a kick in the ribs or a pat on the head.
    Nevertheless it is hardly fair
    To risk your heart for a dog to tear.

    When the fourteen years which Nature permits
    Are closing in asthma, or tumour, or fits,
    And the vet’s unspoken prescription runs
    To lethal chambers or loaded guns,
    Then you will find—it’s your own affair—
    But… you’ve given your heart to a dog to tear.

    When the body that lived at your single will,
    With its whimper of welcome, is stilled (how still!).
    When the spirit that answered your every mood
    Is gone—wherever it goes—for good,
    You will discover how much you care,
    And will give your heart to a dog to tear.

    We’ve sorrow enough in the natural way,
    When it comes to burying Christian clay.
    Our loves are not given, but only lent,
    At compound interest of cent per cent.
    Though it is not always the case, I believe,
    That the longer we’ve kept ’em, the more do we grieve:
    For, when debts are payable, right or wrong,
    A short-time loan is as bad as a long—
    So why in—Heaven (before we are there)
    Should we give our hearts to a dog to tear?

Whew, I echo what Bridget said, glad Rhody wasn’t injured!! Love the piece, and your insight into the senses of dogs. Rhody is adorable!

“I want to be the person my dogs think I am.”

No, not a waiter — although that is a noble profession.

I want to be a person worthy of limitless trust, unconditional devotion, and love unsullied by self-interest.

Whatever slim shot I have at becoming such a human being rests within the souls of my four dogs still on this plane and the souls of the rest of our pack who have transcended.

But come on … waking me at 3:00 in the morning for a bit of tug-of-war? I mean, there are limits!

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