Your Dog Doesn’t See The World The Same Way Twice

We like to think of our dogs as Zen masters.

They, unlike us, are present in the moment. When they walk, they walk. When they sniff, they sniff.

They don’t eat while watching tv. Or plan their weekend while chasing a ball.

But did you ever think of what it means to be totally engaged in the present? For one thing, it means your dog doesn’t see the world the same way twice.

No wonder she’ll react one way to something and two hours later she’ll do something entirely different. Don’t understand what I mean?

Let’s look at a few examples with my dog Honey.

Honey the golden retriever on a rock in Fall Creek.

Why do you think I head for high ground in one part of the creek…

5 Ways My Dog Sees Things Differently

A Ramp – When I lay it flat on the ground and put treats on the end to coax Honey to walk across it, she sees it as a scary obstruction. When I stretch it from the dock to the boat where we’re living for the week, she sees it as the path to spending time with us.

Her Ball – When I come home from work, it’s a pacifier she picks up to cope with the excitement of being rejoined. When it’s sitting in her toy basket, it’s just another stinky object covered in dog hair. When another dog picks it up, it becomes the thing she wants more than anything else. And when it goes flying through the air, it’s like a living thing she feels compelled to track down and return.

Riley the Sexy Golden Retriever – When we pass him outside his house, he’s the most gorgeous hunk of dog flesh she ever saw. But when he rushes our fence to bark at two visiting dogs, he becomes a scary threat, even to Honey who first met him as a puppy.

A Thunderstorm – From her earliest days with us, thunderstorms have never fazed Honey. Until one night she started panting and pacing in her crate. I spent a half hour distracting her with training tricks in the kitchen before letting her sleep with us the rest of the night. But every storm since then, she’s been fine.

Squirrels – Most days Honey ignores squirrels. But some days when the sun is shining, the humidity is just so, and the wind is coming from the right direction, she goes insane trying to follow the squirrels up the tree.

Are you starting to get the picture?

Honey the golden retriever wades in Fall Creek.

…but I wade right in a little farther down stream?

Dogs See the World Differently From Us

I’ve always known Honey perceives the world differently from me.

  • She’ll walk right over a treat on the ground, unable to see it so close, only finding it when the scent molecules reach her nose.
  • With a 270 degree range of sight, she’s impossible to sneak up on.
  • Music and radio interviews mean nothing to her while a dog barking from blocks away will cause her to perk up her ears.
Honey the golden retriever in a kayak.

Sometimes I’m very interested in the geese. And other times, I could not care less.

But I finally read Alexandra Horowitz’s Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know (affiliate) and I can’t stop thinking about how different Honey’s world is from mine.

Horowitz, a psychology professor and dog cognition expert, reminded me how much better Honey sees in the dark, the difference in our senses of smell, and how much dogs use their mouths to explore. What she didn’t discuss in her book but I’m noticing more and more is how dogs can experience the same thing very differently depending on the time of day, their mood, humidity levels, lighting and probably a gazillion other factors I never considered.

What Does It All Mean

Here are the lessons I’m learning from focusing on how Honey sees the world differently every time.

Training is never fool-proof.

Longtime readers may remember that Honey almost failed her Canine Good Citizen test. Despite being perfect in training, something about the weather (I believe) on the day of her test caused her to lose all the focus we had gained over months of work

Never assume because your dog is well-trained that she isn’t full of surprises. I never will again.

Anything can affect your dog’s reactions (and you may never know what does).

If you’ve ever worked with a reactive dog, you know you’ll have terrible days where all your progress disappears. And other days where your dog will make a huge leap forward. You may never know what causes the huge swings: extra shadows on the street, smells in the air, humidity, your dog’s hormone levels.

In the end, you can only hold the bad days lightly and hope tomorrow is better. And celebrate the good days without expecting they’ll ever return again.

Dogs are as hard to predict as humans.

Most dog owners recognize their friends have less complex reasoning than humans. They assume their dogs want food, play, walks, and love. And if they’re giving their dogs those things, their dogs probably have a pretty decent life.

If Honey doesn’t think philosophically the way I do, she still has a tremendously rich life. Her perceptions of the world include things I wouldn’t think to notice. And she feels a range of emotion.

She may be a Zen master, wholly present in the moment. But things change from moment to moment.

Honey the golden retriever eyes liver on her Solvit Telescoping Pet Ramp.

Now why do you want me to walk on this thing again?

The weather, time of day, smells, position of the sun in the sky, mood, sounds, and much more affect how she sees the world. And how she acts in it.

They make her unpredictable. Just like me. And so much more fascinating as a friend. Because she doesn’t see the world the same way twice.

Your Turn: Have you seen your dog react differently to some one or some thing on different days or times? Did you ever figure out why?

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  1. Edie Chase says:

    Just this morning (5:30 a.m.) we saw a dog that normally makes my dog go crazy. Thankfully I was able to keep her calm with treats. But I think it was actually the crushing humidity that made her decide that expending all that crazy energy wasn’t worth it.

  2. I guess I haven’t noticed that too much. I never really know how they will react to other dogs, new or old friends. But usually, they seem pretty much the same.

  3. I would definitely say that smells have a big effect on my dogs. Walking the same route everyday can elicit a different reaction each time depending on what wildlife has wondered by earlier. It also makes the leash a necessity. If it’s the scent of the fox, my dogs are gone!

  4. Dogs (and cats) are able to detect dangers far beyond out ability. A simple couch may turn into a blood sucking ghoul from one minute to the next, necessitating the removal of the evil presence in the couch.

    Have a dog friendly 4th from The Poodle (and dog) blog

  5. Dogs (and cats) are able to detect dangers far beyond our ability. A simple couch may turn into a blood sucking ghoul from one minute to the next, necessitating the removal of the evil presence in the couch.

    Have a dog friendly 4th from The Poodle (and dog) blog

  6. Now you have Mom thinking and also thinking she should read that book. You are right, though and that is quite interesting to Mom.

  7. I worked really hard with getting BD not to react when he saw a cat. He wouldn’t act aggressively more wimper and if they took off then would try to chase them. I worked very hard on trying to get him out of this, and was so pleased when one day we walked past a cat without any reaction.

    Then I found out the ex has let BD chase cats. I am still fuming about it as not only do I think it is incredibly cruel but poor BD doesn’t know what the ‘rules’ are so it’s making it harder for him too.

  8. Funny…I was just conversing with a neighbor last night about the incredible focus dogs can have. His puppy (yes, a puppy!!) was so intent on what she was watching, even her body language and stance spelled “focus”. Amazing, what we can learn just from watching them.
    I love your thought about how they’re so “in the moment”. So true.

  9. This explains so much!