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Friday, January 2, 2009

Dogs and their Memory for Location

by John Jeanneney
from Full Cry 2003

A dog’s brain is different than ours, and in some ways the dog’s brain is a good deal better. Of course, it effectively processes the complexities oft the world of scent on a level that we cannot comprehend. Less frequently recognized by humans is the dog’s ability to remember where things are located. I’m not writing about “incredible journeys” across a continent and other Disney-type fiction. I’m thinking rather about how dogs, especially dachshunds keep track of things in their everyday world.

When you are tracking a wounded deer in a big thicket, you gain a lot of respect for what a good dachshund can do. The dog is on a long tracking leash so the handler is aware of exactly what the dog is doing. When a dog is having trouble in a big thicket or cutover, he seems to know exactly where he is at all times. He can get out a hundred yards from the last scent found, and then return unerringly to this point of loss by a different route. Everything looks pretty much the same to the handler, but the dog knows. Here is an example.

I had a call from a bowhunter in a nearby township, who needed help in finding his deer. It was hit right down through the chest, he said, and he had the complete arrow. I did not know that the arrow had actually entered about six inches behind the head, had passed over the spinal column in the neck to come out along the deer’s jaw on the other side.

Shortly after being hit, the eight pointer had gone into a 10 acre dry swamp with lots of high hummocks of swamp grass hanging out and over to conceal a dead deer. There was plenty of blood, and Sabina, my tracking dachshund, went round and round through the swamp, following the scent line where it had looped back and forth. Apparently, the deer had been moving around as the hunters pushed back and forth through the grass looking for it. Tracking this maze of blood trails had us all confused. The only creature there who had any idea of what was going on was Sabina. Finally, she tracked out on the same trail that the buck had originally taken into the swamp. The hunter pointed this out to me. Then Sabina veered off in another direction and tracked about 200 yards up into the open hardwoods. There lay the dead deer.

The hunter and his friends had all been sure that the buck was still in the swamp, but Sabina said “no”. She had plenty of blood scent to work with but she sensed that it just led her around in circles. After she had checked everything in the swamp, she followed the only blood scent trail out of the swamp onto higher ground where the deer lay. Sabina knew what was going on and where things were. It was Sabina’s brain, more than her nose, which found the dead deer.

Dogs and other canines have a remarkable sense of spatial relationships. They can keep track of where things are, return hundred of yards at night to a point of loss, or sort out a confusing maze of tracks. In this particular respect, I think the dog’s ability to grasp the situation is better than our own.

The deer in the swamp story could be luck or “anecdotal evidence” as the scientists call it. Scientists are not too impressed by isolated stories of this kind. But something happened before I retired that I never forgot; even a tough-minded animal psychologist would have taken notes.

Where I used to work we had a big suite of offices and a pretty laid back atmosphere. I was allowed to bring a dachshund to work if she behaved herself and stayed in my personal office. This was convenient because after work I could take her out to undeveloped land on Long Island and run rabbits. In this way I kept my dogs in shape for the tracking season, and also prepared them to do well in field trials.

One year I frequently took Eda to the office. She was a wirehaired dachshund who belonged to my young son. She was a smart girl, often times too smart, but that’s another story.

When Eda came through the main door of the office suite she always trotted down the corridor and into my private office. There is nothing surprising about all this. Later, after I stopped taking Eda to the office she suddenly went blind. The vets could never figure out what the trouble was, but Eda got around amazingly well. We figured that her nose led her where she wanted to go.

Several years after her last visit to the office, I took Eda down there again. She had now been blind for several years. Eda came in through the main door of the office suite, and I unhooked her leash to see what she would do. With no hesitation she rounded the corner and trotted down the corridor to my old office. She did not go to my new office, which opened off another corridor.

What amazed me was that I had moved out of that old office two years before. There couldn’t have been any of my scent left in my former office, which was now occupied by a woman. Eda just knew, out of a sense of distance and space, where she had been going to my private office room long before. Scent had nothing to do with it. It was pure spatial memory.

There has been research done on how various mammals can learn to run a maze, but this experience is a little different. I think Eda’s memory operated on a higher level in this kind of a situation. I doubt that a blindfolded human being could have done as well after several years.
If a tracking dachshund has to pick a tough line from point to point, the value of this ability is pretty clear. When hunters track a wounded deer they use toilet paper or surveyors’ tape to keep track of where they have been and where they are going. A good dog doesn’t need toilet paper to find his way back to the last trace of scent.

I came across a book that tested this kind of ability in red foxes in England. David Macdonald is a wildlife biologist at Oxford University who studied how foxes live and hunt in Oxfordshire. The title of his book is Running with the Fox. He found in foxes the same uncanny sense of location that we find in dogs. Macdonald conducted some experiments, which involved working semi-tame foxes, which he had raised from before their eyes were open. He worked them in the fields on a long, light check cord, and because they were completely familiar with him they hunted mice pretty much as if they were off lead. When their bellies were full of the mice that they had caught, they would keep right on hunting. Then they would dig individual little holes, hide the extra mice in them and scratch the ground cover back into place.

Then what happened was almost as amazing as Eda’s tricks and Macdonald documented them better. Even in a 35-acre stubble field the vixen Niff would go back almost every time to where she had cached the mouse up to two weeks earlier. Again, as in Eda’s case, nose had little to do with her sense of where things were. She could not do much of a job finding mice hidden by other foxes or mice hidden by Macdonald. This would have required her to use her nose. The vixen could find a few (every fox trapper knows that), but she clearly preferred to rely on her memory
This ability to memorize location, which we humans don’t have to the same degree, may be genetically programmed into the brains of all smart canines. Don’t underestimate your dog. In blood tracking, don’t think that you can train your dog by working him over the same blood line every week.

We don't have too many pictures of Eda, but this one shows her at a field trial being handled by Paul Jeanneney, John's son. The picture must have been taken around 30 years ago.

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