Umwelt…. more like Um-what? LOLOLOL

By Adam Romsdahl CPDT-KA

There is a concept that many dog people, even dog professionals, skip over. It’s a concept that is absolutely valuable in understanding how a dog’s brain works; or any creature for that matter. This concept is known as Umwelt (as you more than likely gathered from the title of this post.)

Umwelt simplified is best described as “self-centered world”. In German, it translates to “surroundings.” Or rather, what are the things that define something’s visceral environment. What things are important to them. It was once described roughly as “what does a tick care about birthday cake?”

Humans have a tendency to inject superfluous meanings into objects. A rose isn’t just a flower, but if handed to someone, it’s a sign of affection. It can be a sign of spring, the love of gardening to some and signify/encompass “freshness” and a beautiful scent to others. But to a bee, they see it as a source of food. A tick might see it as a hiding place to wait to attach to their next meal. More than likely no bee or tick has ever written a prose about the beauty of a flower. And if “Honey I Shrunk the Kids” has taught us anything, it’s that flowers rely on bees to pollinate. Yet to a human, knowing that they help propagate these beautiful meaningful flowers, bees are still just scary little needle-devil bugs.

Understanding the term umwelt helps us to realize that a creature’s motivation has to do with how they perceive their environment. Realizing that a dog has no clue what a hammer is used for, means that more than likely they’ll skip right over it in a pile of toys. But a ball… they look at that like a kid looks at a video game. It signifies potential hours of play.

From a training point of view, understanding umwelt will hopefully help owners realize that things like guilt, jealousy, vindictiveness are all human concepts. If dogs do feel jealous, it’s not the same way we do. Even if it looks like they’re “getting back at you,” it is very unlikely that their exhibited behavior is rooted in revenge. There are some basic crossover emotions of course: Happiness, loneliness, anxiety are all within the capabilities of their mind, but again…. Different than ours. One would set themselves back immensely by assuming their dog is capable of exhibiting the same thoughts and emotions as humans. It’s only a recipe for frustration and can handicap any forward momentum one might have communicating with their furry friends.

Umwelt isn’t just cross species, it is down to the individual level. Personally, I am not interested in fashion. I wear the same thing every day. Every morning I put on my blue jeans and a white v-neck. Done. Whereas another person may spend hours finding and matching the perfect outfit for that day. Something that they haven’t worn in a while and certainly can’t be matched with the same accessories. This is not within my umwelt. This can get a lot of men in trouble for not noticing their lady’s new shoes. It’s not their fault ladies. They simply don’t care notice.

To delve into a dog’s umwelt, at least in the general sense, you have to understand how they physically perceive their environment. They don’t see, hear, smell or touch the same way we do. Their sight is limited in some ways. They don’t have the range of color that we do (though a lot of people think they see in black and white and this is not true. It’s more muted tones of blue and yellow.) Also, dogs don’t have a fovea, so we know they can’t focus on one point like we do. Instead, they have an area centralis which creates a broader field of vision, catching movement more efficiently than us. They have a “tapetum lucidum” which is a pigment in their eye that reflects light, allowing them to see better in lower light, but in doing so tends to blur their initial vision. Fun fact: The tapetum lucidum is the reason their eyes shine at night.

They can hear higher frequencies and farther distances than us. Their nose is 10,000 to 100,000 times more powerful than ours and can gauge the direction of scents. They even have a second smelling organ called the vomeronasal organ…. More on that later.

The point being, they do not experience the world in the same way that we do. They don’t look at objects the same way we do. Their brains have a smaller cerebral cortex than ours, though comparatively larger than most mammals they still can’t write poetry or dwell in the past the way we do. Understanding this helps to understand how they perceive the world, their umwelt, which hopefully will guide you in your journey to communicating with them.

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