The Dog’s Nose

A bull terrier and English bulldog, by Louis Agassiz Fuertes

Snippets 118.  I hope everyone in the UK has been enjoying their bank holiday. I expect a lot of people chose to spend some of their time walking a dog, just like Dr. G. J. Romanes in the quote below from a 1902 edition of The Gentleman’s Magazine. The difference was that Romanes was taking the opportunity to conduct an experiment on his faithful friend’s sense of smell.

Few observers are not struck with the acutenes of the sense of smell in some dogs. They will follow the trail of a rabbit or hare for a considerable distance; by pure perseverence the harrier will by the scent hunt down a hare, and the bloodhound, a slave. For miles a keen-nosed terrier or retriever will follow up a well-known horse’s hoof-scent. The pointer’s marvellous powers are familiar to all sportmen.

Now wherein lies this wonderful faculty? What is scent? These are questions which meet us at the very threshold of the inquiry. We do not intend to nauseate our readers with a scientific disquisition; yet such questions attract the attention of all intelligent dog fanciers. Everyone is quite familiar with many curious instance of the remarkable scent shown by some dogs. But, perhaps, no one has given more particular attention to this subject than Dr. G. J. Romanes, one of the foremost biologists of this country. He had a remarkable terrier which showed the almost supernatural capabilities of the scent of dogs. On a bank holiday, when Regent’s Park Walk, London, was literally swarming with pedestrians, who walked in all directions or lounged in conversation, Dr. Romanes took his favourite terrier along the densely-crowded walk. When the terrier’s attention was taken up with a strange dog – and deplorably irritating is that continual “forgaitherin’” – Dr. Romanes suddely “made tracks” in zigzag directions across the walk and stood upon a seat to watch his four-footed friend’s conduct. Leaving the strange dog from whom he had got the news, the terrier found that his master had not continued in the direction he was going when the stolen interview commenced. Accordingly he went to the place where he had last seen his master, and then, picking up the scent, he tracked his master’s footsteps over all the zigzags until he reached the seat, and looked up in penitance at his master standing on it. Now, in order to do this, the terrier had to distinguish his master’s trail from at least a hundred others quite as fresh, and many thousands of others not so fresh, crossing it at all angles.

The Gentleman’s Magazine ran from 1731 to 1922, and was the first to use the term “magazine”. The quote above is from an article contributed by J. G. McPherson. Dr. G. J Romanes was in fact George John Romanes (1848-1894), an evolutionary biologist and friend of Darwin. His Experiments on the Sense of Smell in Dogs was published in the Zoological Journal in June 1887, and McPherson’s article basically paraphrases it, but the end result makes for rather more entertaining reading.

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