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Tag: senses

Montana: The love affair continues

John Steinbeck and I — in addition to traveling with our dogs, being about the same age when we set forth on our journeys, having the same first names, and a lot of the same letters in our last ones — share something else as well.

A mistress.

I have trysted with her three times — as a reporter in the early 1990′s, as a visiting professor in 2007, and as whatever it is I am now. She’s as beautiful and inviting as she was the first time we met — and, I’m sure, as she was 50 years ago, when she seduced John Steinbeck.

“I am in love with Montana,” Steinbeck wrote in Travels with Charley. It was his first trip to the state. “For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection, but with Montana it is love, and it’s difficult to analyze love when you’re in it.”

He babbled on, as people in love do: “…the mountains are the kind I would create if mountains were ever put on my agenda … the calm of the mountains and the rolling grasslands had got into the inhabitants … the towns were places to live in rather than nervous hives. People had time to pause in their occupations to undertake the passing art of neighborliness.”

“Of all the states it is my favorite and my love.”

Steinbeck — apparently getting into being “out west” — stopped in Billings and bought a cowboy hat. In Butte, he bought a rifle. He dipped down into Yellowstone National Park, but after seeing Charley’s reaction to bears that approached his car — “He became a primitive killer lusting for the blood of his enemy” — he turned around and spent night in Livingston.

Ace and I stopped in Billings, in Bozeman, in Butte, and have arrived in Missoula — with no new hats and no sidearms. I am considering investing in a pair of gloves though. Winter is clearly on the way. People are stacking their wood, squirrels are hoarding their nuts, and the sky is taking on that steelier glow it does here in winter.

Once again, the return to a place I briefly called home has triggered memories. The closer I got to Missoula — winding through the hills alongside the Clark Fork River — the more of them resurfaced, leading me to wonder how I could have temporarily misplaced them, especially those that were only three years old.

I guess, they go into deep storage, like the earliest nuts the squirrels gather — pushed to the back to make room for new ones. But I don’t think I get a vote in the matter; it just happens. Returning to a place seems to make them accessible again; I can — with a little help from a familiar sight, sound, or smell — pull them out of the disorganized file cabinet that is my mind, open them up and say, “Oh, yeah, I remember that now.”

It could be something as simple as the lay of the land — they way grassy golden hills climb up into the big blue sky, a sharp curve in crystal clear river, the golden outline of Tamaracks among evergreen. Just seeing the general scale and expanse of it all triggers Montana memories — even memories that have nothing to do with the scale and expanse of it all.

Nearing Missoula — and (after North Dakota turned bleak) getting to experience fall all over again — I was surprised how the yellows were popping on the trees, and by how many things were popping into my head.

Some of them were from nearly 20 years ago — visiting the Unabomber’s former, still forlorn, shack in the woods; hanging out in radon mines, where people soak in radioactivity to heal what ails them; documenting the influx of celebrities to the state, which back then were becoming as common, and unloved, as deer.

Some of them — memories, I mean, not celebrities — were only three years old, and less dusty: long hikes in the mountains; the little house we rented, dubbed the “shack-teau,” while I was a visiting journalism professor at the University of Montana; the peaceful (mostly) campus; my earnest (mostly) students; and how we chased the muck train — as it began transferring mining waste that had collected in the river outside Missoula 100 miles back east to a little town called Opportunity — for our class project.

Memories that had faded like ghost signs kept returning — of fellow professors; of time spent at the student newspaper, The Kaimin; of a party, or two, or three, or four; and how I didn’t (really, really didn’t) want to leave when the semester was over. Because I flat out loved it.

And therein — on top of returning to a place, seeing and smelling it — is one of the keys to recalling times past, at least for me. Your brain alone can’t always take you back there; sometimes, it needs an assist from the heart.

Video: Dog senses quake long before humans

It’s no secret that animals seem to sense earthquakes before they hit, but here’s some video proof.

A 6.5 magnitude earthquake that caused millions of dollars of property damage in Humboldt County, California, Saturday was sensed by a Labrador named Sophie well before humans started reacting, according to this video, from surveillance cameras in the offices of the Times-Standard in Eureka.

Sophie bolts from the room several seconds before the room starts visibly shaking and workers can be seen fleeing.

Yet more proof that dogs have more sense than humans — or at least humans who work for newspapers.

Smarty pants … and drools … and sheds

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It’s official: We humans, according to the New York Times, have underestimated the intelligence of dogs (which, of course, was exactly their plan.)

“…(O)ver the last several years a growing body of evidence, culled from small scientific studies of dogs’ abilities to do things like detect cancer or seizures, solve complex problems … and learn language suggests that they may know more than we thought they did,” the article in Sunday’s “Week in Review” section noted. 

“Their apparent ability to tune in to the needs of psychiatric patients, turning on lights for trauma victims afraid of the dark, reminding their owners to take medication and interrupting behaviors like suicide attempts and self-mutilation, for example, has lately attracted the attention of researchers.”

While we humans still don’t understand exactly how they do it, dogs have proven they can detect not just our behavioral changes, not just pending seizures and diabetic attacks, but several types of cancer. (We, on the other hand, must rely on expensive doctors, intrusive tests and tight-fisted insurance companies to get our diseases diagnosed.)

In 2004, German researchers reported that a border collie named Rico could recognize  200 objects by name and remembered them all a month later. (I’m guessing that Rico’s vocabulary list was kept on one of those thingamajigs that have a clip to hold the papers in place.)

Dogs, with their incredible sensory powers, can recognize things in the distance. (We rely on the New York Times, sometimes mistakenly, to tell us what’s staring us in the face.) Dogs pretty much have us humans  pegged. (Most of us don’t begin to understand them.) At least now though, we’re trying a little harder.

“I believe that so much research has come out lately suggesting that we may have underestimated certain aspects of the mental ability of dogs that even the most hardened cynic has to think twice before rejecting the possibilities,” said Stanley Coren, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia and an author of several dog books.

Dr. Coren’s work on intelligence, along with other research suggesting that the canine brain processes information something like the way people do, has drawn criticism from those arguing that dogs are merely mimicking, or manipulating people into believing that they in fact grasped human concepts.

Clive D. L. Wynne, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Florida who specializes in canine cognition, argues that it is dogs’ deep sensitivity to the humans around them, their obedience under rigorous training, and their desire to please that can explain most of these capabilities, the Times article notes.

“I take the view that dogs have their own unique way of thinking,” Dr. Wynne said. “…We shouldn’t kid ourselves that dogs are viewing the world the way we do.”

Thank God, and dog, for that.

The inner workings of a cold slimy nose

Many a dog owner has wondered what’s going on in their pooch’s head — but even more fascinating may be what’s going on in his nose.

A team of Pennsylvania State University researchers, led by Brent Craven, say that the layer of mucus in a dog’s nose helps it pick up and sort scents as they travel to receptors.

Or, as New Scientist magazine put it, “Dogs extraordinary ability to sniff out anything from cocaine to cancer turns out to owe much to the gunk inside their nose.”

Dogs have many more nerve cells in their nasal cavities — and a complex network of snot-coated tubes that also “pre-sorts” smells, which may make it easier for the brain to identify them.

Craven and his colleagues used MRI images of a dog’s nasal airways to develop computer models of how air travels thorugh them. The researchers observed that different molecules were picked up by nerve cells at different points along the nasal passages.

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