Seeing the glory of God in the nose of a puppy
After thinking about it seriously for at least a couple of years, our family finally decided to get a dog. And so last Saturday a 12 week old Cocker Spaniel/Collie cross was added to our home, named Archie and in real danger of being smothered with outpourings of affection from our four daughters. Yes, okay—from my wife and me as well! The last week has been a steep learning curve as we’ve dealt with night-long howling (thankfully stopped after the third night), mercifully occasional toilet accidents on the floor, and navigating our way through the vast range of stuff available to buy for dogs at every stage of their development. We’ve also experienced the joys of proudly walking what is inarguably (as the photo above bears witness) the cutest and sweetest-natured puppy in canine history. It has been a revelation to discover how friendly and talkative total strangers become when you have a puppy on the end of a leash! Hopefully this will provide opportunities for evangelistic conversations in the coming months and years.
Anyway, since my mind has been preoccupied this week with dog-related matters, I thought I would write something on the subject today. Watching this piece of God’s handiwork up close this past week has also helped me to put into practice something Mark Loughridge exhorted our congregation to do a few weeks ago when he preached to us about seeing the glory of God in the natural world. Just as he waxed lyrical on the incredible design of the dragonfly and the butterfly, so I want to take a moment to marvel at Archie’s nose.
While we were out walking Archie and we watched him sniffing constantly I remembered reading some incredible facts about dogs’ noses, but they were so astonishing that I thought I must have got them wrong so I went to check. I had got them wrong—they were far more mind-bogglingly amazing than I had thought!
The average dog’s sense of smell is tens of thousands of times more powerful than a human’s. It could be as much as a hundred thousand times more powerful, but let’s take the most conservative estimate—let’s suppose Archie’s nose is just 10,000 times better at smelling than mine. James Walker, former director of the Sensory Research Institute at Florida State University, describes what that looks like (or rather, smells like) in this way: ‘If you make the analogy to vision, what you and I can see at a third of a mile, a dog could see more than 3,000 miles away and still see as well.’ Dogs can detect some odours in parts per trillion. Alexandra Horowitz, in her book Inside of a Dog, writes that while we might notice if our coffee has had a teaspoon of sugar added to it, a dog could detect a teaspoon of sugar in a million gallons of water, or two Olympic-sized pools worth! Dog book author Stanley Coren used this example, ‘Let’s say you have a gram of a component of human sweat known as butyric acid. Humans are quite good at smelling this. If you let it evaporate in the space of a 10-storey building, many of us would still be able to detect a faint scent upon entering the building. But consider this: if you put the 135-square-mile city of Philadelphia under a 300-foot-high enclosure, evaporated the gram of butyric acid and let a dog in, the average dog would still be able to detect the odor.’
The stories about the prodigious powers of a pooch’s proboscis are endless: there’s the drug-sniffing dog that found a plastic container containing 35 pounds of marijuana submerged in petrol inside a petrol tank. Or the black labrador stray from the streets of Seattle who can detect floating orca scat from a mile away across the choppy waters of the Puget Sound. Or the cancer-sniffing dog who ‘insisted’ on melanoma in a spot on a patient’s skin that doctors had pronounced cancer-free; a biopsy confirmed melanoma in a small fraction of the cells. Think of how dogs are able to track missing persons. Walker again, ‘They’re able to come to a branch point in the woods and say, “Okay, I think little Sally ran this way… That’s pretty amazing if you think about it from an engineering standpoint, because little Sally’s odours aren’t the only thing there. There’s changing wind, changing humidity. There are other odours—a deer defecated over here, and over here there’s some urine from a rabbit. And somehow that dog is able to say, “Yeah, but I’m focusing on little Sally.”’
The reason? Dogs have up to 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses, compared to our not-to-be-sniffed-at 6 million. The part of a dog’s brain that analyzes smells is, proportionally speaking, 40 times greater than ours. Dogs also breathe differently from humans in a way that maximizes their ability to detect different odours. As if all this weren’t enough, they have an extra organ we don’t have—the vomeronasal organ—which picks up pheromones in the air. This is why when we take Archie out for a walk he isn't admiring the view - instead his nose is constantly inches from the ground as he soaks up the 'panorama' of scents on offer. Where I can only smell one or two odours in that spot he's stopped at, he can discern countless aromas in the grass, on the fence, on the rock.
All of which leaves me giving praise to God for the wonder of his creative genius and power. Just one small part of just one species in this vast planet that is crammed with life forms of all kinds. ‘O LORD, how manifold are your works! In wisdom have you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.’ (Psalm 104.24) The psalmist goes on to pray in v31 ‘May the glory of the LORD endure for ever; may the LORD rejoice in his works…’ The Lord rejoices in his works! He looked at what he made in the beginning and said ‘That’s good’. He looks at Archie’s nose and rejoices in its design and function. It fills him with joy and delight. And it should have that same effect on us too. That was what we prayed together on the day we brought Archie home: ‘Thank-you Lord for this amazing creature you have made. Thank-you for entrusting him to our care. Thank-you for this opportunity to see a piece of your handiwork up close over these years—may we rejoice in him and praise you for all he shows us about you.’
(Most of the facts and illustrations were found in this great article at pbs.org).