Social Media For Dogs

Status updates? There’s a species which has been posting perky self-publicising confidences in the public domain for millennia.

I speak, of course, of The Dog.

While we congratulate ourselves on having finally created Facebook, Twitter and the internet, on which we can all, democratically, leave our mark, canis lupus familiaris has the whole social media thing taped, and doesn’t even need a computer.

No: it needs a prolific bladder, a semi-decent aim, and a nose for news.

Take that scruffhound from the Berkshire Projects, Macaulay Shrewsday.

A walk with this small disheveled terrier – a dog with his own dust cloud –  is an education. We mourn that luxuriant moustache as it is trawls through hedgerow and leaf mould, deer droppings and fox poo.

While we wince and shudder, making mental notes not to let Macaulay near any of the children later, he appears to be sifting and evaluating with the gravity of a master chef testing the soup which is about to make its way out to a Michelin judge.

He seems to play that snout like a virtuoso violin, with all the accompanying non-verbal language.

But just how much do a dog’s status updates really say about him?

Opinions are divided. Mainly because you can’t ask the dog to tell you. You’re stuck, obsessing and hypothesising and surmising why your dog sniffs other dogs’ bottoms with such unsettling application.

The dog’s superior sniffing-power is beyond dispute. Humans have five million scent receptors, and even the most lowly dog has 125 million. The teeming microscopic world of bacterial life is open to their noses when we can’t smell a thing.

Dogs can smell what bacteria are doing a great deal better than we can. Seattle Police Department produced a report which says we are covered in bacteria and so is everything else. As the bacteria eat things they produce bacteria-gas. Flatulent bacteria is what the dog smells through that extraordinary purpose-built nose of his.

Every dog, goes the common theory, has its own signature, much like a fingerprint. The dog leaves messages for its contemporaries, just as if it were using a bulletin board.

But Psychology Today writer Lee Charles Kelly disputes this. He says the dog’s psychological makeup just doesn’t match up to the theory. These are not status updates: they are just attempts to mask stressful smells.

“It doesn’t make sense that any dog would have the intelligence necessary to leave messages for other dogs in this manner…” he writes.

And he goes on to put words into the dog’s mouth:”If I mark this fence (propositional thinking),Spike will come along some time in the future (directed fantasy, hypothetical thinking, mental time travel), sniff it (more fantasy, more hypothetical thinking), and know he’s in my territory (theory of mind, abstract and conceptual thinking) and start to feel nervous about being here (more theory of mind).”

“That’s pretty complicated thinking for a dog, ” he adds.

Instead, he says, it could be all down to vasopressin: a hormone which controls water retention. Low levels in humans result in bed wetting; and stress hormones work hand in hand with it. Maybe, says Kelly, the dog covers a stressful smell with urine to relieve stress; and having achieved this release he repeats it as faithfully as any of Pavlov’s dogs.

But watching Macaulay Shrewsday, the maestro at his smelly work, I am not convinced. Such pleasure, he gains from trawling the world for smells that I feel sure this is more than just stress relieving.

Every gesture he makes leads me to believe that he is indulging in a time-honoured gossip exchange, in this most sophisticated form of social media.

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50 thoughts on “Social Media For Dogs

  1. That psychologist surely never had the responsibility of walking a beloved canine. Imagine! I’d like to link him to a CBC interview “The Intelligence of Bees”. It may trigger a realization that he needs to re-calculate the coefficient of correlation of his research!

    Your proposition sounds much more plausible, Kate.

  2. Interesting.
    I always thought the canine thought process was more along the lines of,
    pee, pee, “This is mine!” Pee pee, “And that.” Pee pee, “I’m the boss here.” Sniff sniff, “Can I eat that?” sniff sniff . “or roll in it?” Sniff sniff, ” I’m hungry.”

  3. Since dogs are sophisticated enough to be eyes for the blind; to be ears for the deaf; and to communicate with an entirely separate species on such an intimate level, I have no doubt they have a very sophisticated social network!

  4. The ages old “marking territory” behavior, common in many species, has always been explanation enough for me. But who can say whether such a message simply says “Mine” or says something more along the lines of “I know you were here but I’m here now and everything within a hundred yards of this spot is mine, mine, mine, so you best not come around here again or else!” After all, there can’t be that many dogs in the world with bladder problems!

  5. Absolutely with you Kate! That ecstatic snuffling cannot just be a way of stress relieving. HAS to be canine networking 🙂 What stories they could tell!

  6. That guy from Psychology Today needs a good kick up the butt 😉 What about marking your territory and finding out who has been in your territory – all great fun things most of the time. ‘his own cloud of dust’ – hahahaha

  7. Have you read The Art of Dancing in the Rain? You must. Or listen to it on audio. It’s wonderful story told through the perspective of a dog and is about the world of car racing – and life.

    Loved this post, Kate.

  8. My small dog also approaches smells with a sense of glee, the nastier the better. I’m fairly certain he’s not fussed, just expressing himself.

  9. I do believe these canine matters are more intelligently placed than we probably understand, but after spending the day yesterday with my son’s dog I would say we are well-marked! I hope it works against raccoons getting into the fish pond! Otherwise it really was more of a nuisance! I loved the idea of trying to keep Mac out of the childrens’ faces after a forage in the forest or “close encounter” with another canine friend! Isn’t that the truth! And it’s nearly impossible! 🙂 Debra

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