From a dog's point of view, it's good to be nosy

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By John Kelly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 7, 2010; 10:25 PM

Dogs are good at reminding you of things, like: You left the pot roast where I could reach it. But they can remind you of other things, too, as readers of my column noted.

Last week, I wrote about my black Lab Charlie's love of autumn leaves. Carole Plato of Silver Spring also has a black Lab, Max, whose autumnal antics she occasionally finds infuriating. On a recent Sunday walk through Sligo Park, Carole could barely nudge Max along.

"Factoring in the leaf piles, deer leaping around right in front of our path and the parade of other dogs, it was mentally and physically draining to keep him walking next to me," she wrote. "I ended up getting pretty grumpy about the whole thing and cut our walk short, feeling annoyed with him for messing up my plans for a relaxing morning walk.

"After reading your column this morning, I felt as though Max were vindicated. Sniffing is in a dog's DNA, especially retrievers - that's what they do."

The mere fact that dogs must be walked forces us to stop and, if not sniff the actual leaves, at least stop and smell the metaphorical roses. Wrote Carole: "During my walks with him, I've seen more amazing sunrises and sunsets; walked through the snow flurries at night and could actually hear snow flakes fall; and ran for cover during an abrupt torrential rain but was rewarded by a beautiful rainbow afterwards."

My owl scientist friend Caldwell Hahn tried to explain the reason behind dogs' olfactory safaris.

"You and he go on parallel walks," Caldwell wrote, "and he 'smells' what other animals have been through there at night or other times of days. Most mammals scent-mark the landscape, either through urine or through rubbing their bodies against trees or branches where they have scent-glands. . . . The night creatures gambol through our neighborhoods while we are sleeping - fox, coyote, raccoon, opossum, rats, mice, cats - leaving their little marks for Charlie to check out the next day."

I wonder if the fallen leaves smell like eau de squirrel, since those critters sleep in the trees.

Caldwell said that, in addition to which species have left a mark, dogs can tell whether the depositor was male or female, old or young, aggressive or friendly, sick or healthy. "It is part of Charlie's hard-wiring to pee strategically, declaring, 'I am Charlie, and I was here.' When he stops doing that, the end is near."

Hagerstown's Kim Tantillo lives with Petey, a 17-pound mixed breed, mostly Schipperke, from the Humane Society of Washington County. "I have always felt that Petey is happiest when our front door opens for the morning walk, and he finds a Winnie-the-Pooh kind of blustery day," Kim wrote. "The weather has turned, the leaves are falling, and the air is crisp."

Kim said that she sometimes wishes she had a dog's sense of smell, "even if just for a half hour. Then I decided, I wouldn't be able to handle it!"

Cat Sanchez's son Rob moved back to the area from Arizona recently with his two big dogs, an English mastiff named Bluto and a great Dane named Dutch. The other morning, Cat saw Dutch look out into the back yard and give a single bark.

"Then he barked again," wrote Cat of Ellicott City. "He kept this up, and after a while, I realized that he was barking at each falling leaf. I guess growing up in Arizona, he never saw leaves fall from the trees. It frightened him."

Finally, Marcy Lott of Manassas wrote that her dog Otter, a blend of Irish setter and golden retriever, didn't seem to care much about the autumn leaves, but he loved last winter's snows.

"Peeing in the snow became his favorite thing to do," Marcy wrote. "As the snow melted and the white patches got smaller and smaller, he would get frantic and run around in circles, like 'I gotta go! Where do I go?' "

I guess we'll know soon enough what this winter has in store - for dogs and for humans.

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