A Practical, Close-Up Look At What a Dog Is Like

By Michele Welton

A dog's eyes

What does the world look like to him?

Looking through a dog's eyes is like looking through the eyes of a nearsighted person without glasses. The world looks fuzzy and vague.

If you crouch down to his eye level, you'll get an idea of his perspective on the world. Things look towering, don't you think. Especially consider the perspective of a very small dog.

Can your dog see details? Although his vision is fuzzy, he may wag his tail when you smile and drop his tail when you frown, because most dogs are very observant at picking out details in your expression. You may think he is slinking away from your shredded slipper because he feels guilty, but usually he's reacting to your outraged expression and threatening body posture. He knows from past experience, not from any sense of guilt, that this particular facial expression and body posture don't bode well to him.

A dog's eyes

Your dog's peripheral, sudden-movement vision is far better than yours. Even when he's looking in another direction, he'll suddenly spy the wriggle of a mouse in the grass.

His night vision is better than yours because he can dilate his pupils more, and widening his pupils lets in whatever little light can be found.

Can he see color or just shades of gray? This is still being debated, but many dogs seem to prefer rubber balls that are red, and many dogs are suspicious of black clothing.

What does the world smell like to him?

Just as your world is full of sights, his world is full of scents. He relies upon his nose as you rely upon your eyes. He can pick out, from a dozen articles, the single one touched by his owner, just as easily as you can pick out a green ball from a pile of blue ones.

A dog's nose

He actually creates mental pictures based on smells. When the family car pulls into a campground where he has been before, he will get excited. He can't read the campground sign, but he recognizes the tree and wildlife scents, and from past experience he associates these with a fun-filled time: Oh, boy!

But when you lead him toward the veterinarian's front door, he may balk. He can't read the veterinary sign, but he recognizes the medicinal scents, and from past experience he associates these with cold examining tables and probing fingers: Oh, no!

He also recognizes and reacts to your happy "campground" attitude and your nervous "veterinary" attitude.

A dog's ears

What does the world sound like to him?

He hears much better than you do – softer sounds over greater distances at higher frequencies. Some dogs burrow under the blankets long before you hear the faint roll of thunder.

Some dogs appear to hear (or otherwise sense) imminent avalanches and earthquakes. Perhaps the moving earth is perceptible to their sensitive paws.

Does your dog understand your words?

Not unless you link them to the appropriate object or action. Dogs learn language just as babies do; by your saying "toy" over and over while holding up a toy. Until you connect a word with the correct object or action, words are only meaningless sounds.

When you listen to a conversation in a foreign language, the words are not connected to anything concrete and you have no idea what they might mean. But if a Frenchman repeats "pomme" while showing you an apple, you get it. You may not know how to spell it, but you understand that the SOUND pomme refers to the red fruit.

In the same way, when you're teaching your dog what words mean, you need to use short, simple words (sounds) and consistently connect them to the appropriate object or action.

Your dog's most important instinct: the pack instinct.

This is instrumental in making your dog a full-fledged member of your family. Dogs are sociable animals who like to live with other sociable animals in a group or pack.

Puppies have pack instincts

Dogs like hierarchies

Within the pack, there is a hierarchy. At the top is the most dominant animal, the leader, who makes the rules, enforces the rules, carries out discipline, and makes decisions.

As for the rest of the pack, they might arrange themselves in a sort of equal-to-each-other fashion. Or they might establish a stricter hierarchy, with a number-two animal, a number-three, and so on, right down to the most submissive one of all.

Pack animals are not unhappy with this structure. On the contrary. Knowing exactly where they stand with one another and exactly what the rules are makes for a strong feeling of security and fellowship. Each member of the pack needs to be able to handle his respective position.

The pack instinct is the main reason dogs wedge themselves into our families. Dogs are born to belong to a pack. When a dog joins your family, even if your family is only yourself, a pack is formed.

Doberman and his new owner

Oh yes, in his mind, it certainly is, and his instincts compel him to seek out its structure. Who is the leader? Who is the follower?

If you don't establish yourself as the leader, he may take the position himself, because most dogs are not comfortable in a leaderless world.

When the dog is the leader

When a dog assumes the dominant role, this is an unpleasant state of affairs that can actually jeopardize the dog's safety. There are many times in a dog's life when you need to do things with him that he may not enjoy, such as examining his teeth. You must be the leader so that he will allow you to do anything with him. He must accept your judgment as to what is best for him.

I can hear somebody out there wailing, "My dog would never let me touch his teeth!" What are you going to say when he chokes because he wouldn't "let" you pull a piece of a stick out of his throat.

And how are you going to train him?

"Oh but he loves me!" you protest. "Dogs want to please the people they love."

Don't all behavioral consultants wish! Dogs want to please the people they respect: leaders. Dogs will co-exist with, ignore, or challenge, followers.

They will love you either way, for dogs don't equate love with respect. They love blindly; they respect only those who have earned it. So teaching them to respect you will in no way diminish their love for you, and teaching them to respect you is mandatory if you are to take proper care of them.

Dogs listen to people they respect

Multi-owner households

In a multi-owner household, even if one person establishes himself as the leader, the dog may test another person. He may respect the person he recognizes as being above himself on the ladder, but not the person he places below himself.

Obedience instructors often hear, "Duke listens to me, but not to my wife." Or vice versa.

Dogs often seem to pester guests who don't like them, or who are afraid of them. Dogs pick up on the guest's uncertain body language and test to see if they can dominate. Now, it's usually done playfully, not seriously. Dogs do have a sense of humor!

And yet it demonstrates that in a dog's mind, life is filled with leaders and followers, and he likes to find out who's who.

Dog with child

Children and dogs

Dogs usually consider children below themselves in pack position. A child should never try to boss a dog who considers that child a subordinate, because the dog may defend against what he sees as a threat to his pack position.

A child should gradually be moved up the ladder above the dog by feeding the dog, holding the leash, and enforcing simple commands while the parent supervises and makes sure the dog is behaving properly.

Young children should never be allowed to wrestle with a dog or play tug-of-war. A child should not be allowed to run away from a dog, or chase after a dog. These games only reinforce the dog's speed and strength compared to the child's.

Multi-dog households

In a multi-dog household, if an unruly dog dominates an obedient dog, the obedient dog is likely to follow the unruly one into bad behavior. It's important that both dogs see you as a strong authority figure so that they don't ignore you to follow each other.

Establishing yourself as the leader

So how do you establish yourself as an authority figure, as a leader? With most dogs, it's very easy. Most dogs are happy to be followers if you are willing and able to be the leader.

You demonstrate your leadership by interacting with your dog in specific ways – small actions that equal authority and direction from a dog's perspective.

Whenever you do anything with your dog, even just walking through the kitchen, or petting him, or speaking to him.... he is busy judging your tone of voice, your facial expression, your body language, how you're touching him, how you're responding when he does X or Y.

Beagle and owner

All of these seemingly little things are very important to your dog. They're the clues he uses to draw conclusions about you and to decide whether you're worthy of respect or not.

I cover all the right ways to interact with your dog – and the wrong ways that you should avoid – in my training books. If you have a puppy 2-18 months old, the book you want is Respect Training for Puppies: 30 Seconds to a Calm, Polite, Well-Behaved Puppy. If you have an adult dog, check out Teach Your Dog 100 English Words.

I've also written articles on what might happen if you give up the leadership position to your dog.

Michele Welton with BuffyMichele Welton has over 40 years of experience as a Dog Trainer, Dog Breed Consultant, and founder of three Dog Training Centers. An expert researcher and author of 15 books about dogs, she loves helping people choose, train, and care for their dogs.