The Eyes Have It!

The picture below is of my two greyhounds trying to sniff out just what the deal is with that oddly stiff dark-haired guy who won’t meet our gaze, pretends not to hear or notice us, and frankly smells a little weird. (Well, he doesn’t smell like very much of anything at all; but that’s what’s weird!)

“Yo, dude. You alright? You look a little tense.”

The statue, named “Rover”, has stood (or lain, I suppose) outside of Hartford Hospital in Hartford, Connecticut. The story goes that a man who made frequent visits to the hospital would leave his dog waiting outside while he received his treatments. One day the man died during his treatment, and in the following days no matter how the staff tried to convince the dog, he wouldn’t budge. Rover loyally and patiently waited in front of the hospital for his master to emerge, allegedly through the cold and the rain, through several seasons, until he, too, eventually died, never having given up.

It’s a poignant story, beautifully encapsulating the superhumanly egoless devotion that has earned the canine the title “man’s best friend”. But I wanted to point out something about the picture that’s a little less on the inspirational side:  the greyhounds can tell it isn’t a brother of theirs only after getting right up close enough to give it a good long sniff – and even then they remain a bit wary. The reason is that they are sighthounds – dogs bred for keen vision, the ability to see long distances, discriminate fine visual details, and notice the slightest and tiniest movement in their visual field. Their noses are still 100x better than yours and mine (thus they can, unlike us, tell the thing is metal by smelling it up close; I’d like to see you try that blindfolded!); but compared to other breeds of dog they are more human-like in being visually focused.

My last dog – Racer, a lurcher, also a sighthound and an English descendent of the greyhound – was similarly visually-oriented, to the point that I once saw him charge full speed toward a fire hydrant at dusk, obviously thinking it looked like a crouching cat in the dim light. He obviously expected it to skedaddle, but when it didn’t budge he had to veer off at the very last moment to avoid a serious collision.  (And don’t think goofy uncoordinated mistakes like collisions are out of the question for purebred athletic dogs: Racer knocked himself unconscious twice running full-speed at twilight into a fence-post. Hmm, this isn’t painting a picture of me as the most responsible dog owner…)

Another one of my rescues, a chow/lab mix, was exactly the opposite: in the prime of her health, with what counted for her as perfect vision, you could yell to her from twenty yards down the sidewalk and she’d gaze around blankly. Only after trotting up to you and sniffing, would she wag knowing it was you. She eventually went blind and spent the last three years of her life sightless, but it was far less sad to me (and less debilitating to her) than a lurcher or other sighthound who goes blind.

All of this is important to realize when training or dealing with dogs of various breeds. Different breeds don’t only have different typical temperaments, they have different abilities, mindsets, outlooks on the world, and sensory strengths and weaknesses. When training a sighthound, visual communication is key; for instance in the form of body language and eye contact. For an olfactorily-centered breed – like a bloodhound, basset hound, beagle (so many “B”-hounds! What’s the deal with that, Elaine?), or even a dalmation – smell, touch, sound, and energy become more important.

Dogs might all be created equal, but they aren’t all the same.


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