Understanding the Canine Cosmos a.k.a.

How Your Dog Perceives the World


18 Jun, 2023

6 minutes

Ever wonder how your dog experiences the world? Why he or she sniffs everything, everywhere? Or why your dog barks at some dogs but not at others? If you have, you’re not alone. In fact, over the last 20 years, many researchers have turned their attention to studying the canine cosmos – how their vision works, their hearing, the way they respond to our voices and process new things, and the way they love their humans. This wave of new research is shedding light on some really mind-blowing information that might even make you appreciate your furry friend a little more (if that’s possible!).

Canine Visual Cosmos a.k.a. Dog Vision

We tend to think that dogs don’t have the same visual acuity that humans do. If you measure dog vision using the same metric by which we measure human vision, with the well-known ratio of “20/20,” representing the quality of eyesight, then dogs certainly do have worse vision than humans. By this scale, it is estimated that when a human can see an object at 75 feet away, a dog can only see from 20 feet. But using this measurement alone fails to capture the larger sense of sight that our canine companions possess. It would be more accurate to say instead that dogs and humans see the world differently.

Canine vision evolved to meet dogs’ unique needs. Unlike humans, their eyes work extremely well in a range of light levels and they see better in dimmer light than humans can. This is thanks to a reflective layer inside the eye called “tapetum lucidum” (that metallic green / yellow reflection you see in your dog’s eyes when taking a photo with flash). Dog vision is far superior to ours for identifying subtle movements, especially in their peripheral vision. However, dogs are not as good as humans at perceiving detail. One reason for this may be that dogs cannot easily distinguish between the colors red and green. (You’ve heard that dogs are color-blind? They can, in fact, see some color – they just have a red-green deficit!)

Canine Auditory Cosmos a.k.a. Dog Hearing

Dogs’ ears come in many shapes and sizes and they are distinctively mobile. There are more than 18 muscles that control the earflap (the pinna), which allows for the movements that make dogs’ ears so good at picking up sounds. Dogs move their ears to help them hear, such as the “pricked ears” your dog displays when suddenly attentive to a sound. The ear muscles also enable dogs to turn their ears to follow the direction of a sound. 

Dogs have much more sensitive hearing than humans and can hear much quieter sounds. Their sense of hearing is about four times as sensitive as ours and they can hear things that are farther away than humans can. They can also hear higher-frequency sounds, meaning that some sounds that are inaudible to us are quite distinct to your dog. 

Can you imagine what it would be like to hear so many sounds all at once? To adapt to living among us, dogs must learn to ignore many noises to avoid stress. Those pooches that cannot learn to do this are usually more excitable and often quite anxious.

Canine Olfactory Cosmos a.k.a. Dog Smelling

Dogs use both sight and smell to assess their surroundings, while humans primarily use sight. In fact, dogs have more than 100 million sensory receptor sites in their nasal cavities, as compared to humans, who have 6 million. The area of the canine brain that is devoted to analyzing odours is about 40 times larger than the comparable part of the human brain and it has been estimated that dogs can smell anywhere from 1,000 to 10,000 times better than we can.

Have you seen your dog sniff another dog’s private parts? Don’t be embarrassed, this is how they get to know each other! With a single sniff, your dog can interpret an entire story about a new friend by using amines and acids emitted by the other dog. These chemical aromas communicate to your dog if the new dog is male or female, happy or aggressive, healthy or ill. Dogs also have good scent memory that can not only help them identify other dogs they haven’t seen for years, but also remind them which of them was dominant. Moreover, in a new territory, dogs can sniff a tree and determine what other dogs live in the neighbourhood.

Dogs also use their ability to smell as a homing device. Since dogs move their nostrils independently, they can fix on the direction of an odour and use their sense of smell like a compass.  

Dogs also use scent to tell one human from another and can sense fear and anxiety in people via their noses by sniffing out specific hormones. 

Your dog’s wet nose actually helps him or her smell. The damp outer nose and mucus-covered nasal canal actually capture scent particles so he or she can really get a good whiff of the environment!

Canine Cognition Cosmos a.k.a. Dog Emotions

Researchers believe that the mind of an adult dog is roughly the equivalent to that of a 2 year old child. Keeping this in mind, so much of their behaviour makes sense in the way that it resembles the behaviour of a young child.

Like children, dogs love our attention. You may already know this but researchers recently conducted studies using MRI to see how much of impact human interaction has on our canine companions. The results showed that when a human was present, the dogs experienced physiological responses including increased blood flow to the eyes, ears and paw pads, indicated states of excitement. Another study showed that humans petting dogs in a shelter for even 15 minutes helped to lower dogs’ heart rates and make them less anxious. 

Did you think it was weird when your dog tried to eat a rock? Dogs are also similar to little kids who are in the oral fixation stage – they want to taste everything! Our pooches also experience anxiety like humans do and they might try to cope with it, for example, by chewing on a rock (rather than a box of doughnuts!).

Because the mind of a dog is believed to be equivalent to that of a human toddler, evidence suggests that canines do experience feelings of joy, fear, anger, disgust and love, although they unlikely have emotions more complex than these. Nonetheless, it is believed that our beloved four-legged friends do have a rich emotional life that affects them profoundly.

There is still so much more to learn about how dogs sense the world and the great canine cosmos, and the more we can learn, the more we can do to give them the best lives possible.



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