For humans, walkable neighborhoods and commercial hubs reward strolling with varied architecture, safe street crossings, and a mix of things to do and see on foot. For dogs, there is a much larger world of scent. Can our canine companions guide us to a richer walking experience?
By Frank Edgerton Martin
Dogs and other animals understand sidewalks and parks not as visually ordered settings but as shifting islands and drifts of smells. When we humans step out the door, it’s basically the same outdoors we left behind. But for the dog with us on a leash, a street is like a flowing stream filled with the scent trails of passing people and dogs. It’s an ever-changing place.
In 2003, I adopted a yellow Labrador named Samson from the Hennepin County Humane Society. When I first saw him, he struck me as quiet and observant as he sat there upright, regarding the other dogs as they barked and whimpered. For years, Samson spent his days sitting Sphinx-like on the front steps, left paw crossed on right, surveying passersby. He became famous among the neighbors for wanting to sit outside even on the coldest January days.
Samson loved meeting people and other dogs. He was a natural greeter, but we found little social life along the roads and subdivisions of our Lake Minnetonka neighborhood. And because I myself was more interested in architecture than in exercise, I often found our walks boring. But Samson and I both needed exercise and to get outside for strolls. Over the years we developed a set of alternative suburban environments that made sense for both of us.
Instead of walking by lawns and large houses, we got in the car (a thrill for Samson) and drove to denser places where we could do the things we liked, such as: smelling other dogs, visiting antique shops, sniffing sidewalk trees, and sitting in outdoor cafés while greeting people and watching traffic. We often went to downtown Excelsior, a 19th-century town where we could do all of these things. But we also made new discoveries. For some reason, Samson loved outlet malls, perhaps because the long sidewalks afforded him the chance to meet a lot of people.
I took him to Tonkadale Greenhouse and other nurseries where we could walk among the plants in winter, admiring shoppers could pet him, and we could take in the fragrances and humidity. In summer, we went to public docks on Lake Minnetonka, where Samson greeted those departing from the tour boats. Seniors and teenage girls particularly loved him.
In her collection of essays On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes, Alexandra Horowitz takes us along on eleven treks, mostly in Manhattan, with experts in a variety of different fields—graphic design, geology, entomology, and so on. Another one of the experts is her dog Flip, who reminds me of a more citified version of Samson.
Horowitz is a cognitive psychologist who writes extensively on dogs and how they perceive the world. In describing her walk with Flip, she notes that “smell, like memory, is entirely personal. It cannot be shared with the ease that an image, rendered in ink or oils, can be experienced by hundreds of millions of viewers.”
Smells are not easily communicated in words; we humans have only vague olfactory classifications such as “sweet,” “earthy,” or “pungent.” But dogs like Flip and Samson experience nuanced smells in thousands of variations. They may not have a word for each, but they have recognition all the same. For dogs, smells form an unfolding map of information about specific places and other animals and people. “Their world has a topography wrought of odors . . . the landscape is brightly colored with aromas,” writes Horowitz.
When touring a neighborhood, we humans use visual classifications such as “late Victorian” or “New Urbanist.” Dogs, of course, could care less. From my walks with Samson, I learned more about the experiences that mattered to him, and, in doing so, I began to appreciate suburban landscapes in a different way.
I learned that busy places like Main Streets and public parks have a smell history. Huge parking lots can be bleak for all. Samson and I agreed that big-box stores and malls were the worst—visual and olfactory deserts unsuitable for a hike. But a parking lot at Arby’s could be a sacred place.
At least it was for Samson, who generally refused to leave after we sat on the grassy suburban berm and shared a bag of curly fries. After snacks, I would walk with him around the building—along the lane leading to the drive-thru, past the drive-thru window (with faster sniffing because much is dropped there), and around to the back where the exhaust fans are (a kind of climax). This circuit never tired him, and he would tug billy-goat-like on the leash when I tried to get him back into the car. Inevitably, I would have to pick him up, all 75 pounds, and dump him in the backseat.
A dog can sniff fast when there is much to take in, like at a drive-thru window—up to seven times per second. Humans can only take in a new scent about once every two seconds. We have about five million olfactory sense receptors; a bloodhound can have 300 million. A dog can gauge a smell’s strength by its variance between nostrils.
Samson and I had many kinds of walks, the hardest being the “process of elimination” at 7:00 on January mornings. When it was 20 degrees below zero, he always sniffed too long. But sometimes we both liked to linger in a place. We might sit in a park, Samson sniffing with darting nose the scents of other dogs flowing from upwind. With my eyes and ears, I observed things too—where people gathered, the shouts of children, and impromptu soccer games on an open patch of grass.
TAKING THE TIME
In an interview with the National Canine Research Council, Horowitz put into words what I intuited from Samson: We need to value our dogs’ “dogness.” This “means appreciating that they get bored, and working to give them things to do; it means celebrating their perceptual abilities, and letting them smell the well-marked spots at length,” she explained.
By following our canine companion’s lead, we two-legged animals can rediscover important things—the fragrances of childhood, so deeply implanted that they seem like they occurred only yesterday. From my walks with Samson, I recalled the smell of leaves burning on an October afternoon; the peonies in June that my mother floated in a crystal bowl; what a pumpkin smells like when you carve it. No matter how boring a place may seem, a dog can open up a new journey. If I’d never had my walks with Samson, I may never have lingered, pausing to discover scents and other creatures hidden in a world we mostly see.