Years ago I met the kindest octogenarian in a park near my home. While I was walking my dog Jambo, this man stopped to say howdy and give Jambo plentiful ear rubs and head pats. His voice was soft and his smiles quick. He shared wisdom without judgement. (I later found out he was a retired judge). He and I met often and enjoyed quick chats about the weather and local news, but he seemed to most enjoy time with Jambo. He’d take a knee to get nose to nose with my dog and rub his ears and tell him what a good boy he was.
One morning I complained about Jambo getting out of the back yard AGAIN. Our mixed breed was an escape artist – squeezing between the fence and its gate, digging beneath the gate after a rain, and even twisting the gate’s chain link with his mouth to make a hole and head for open spaces. We were lucky that we always got Jambo home – even once going to the animal shelter to pick him up after the 4th of July fireworks.
Judge told me, “Oh Jambo must have needed a walkabout, that’s all.” And then my dog got a second helping of ear rubs.
Another time I said, “Jambo would be perfect if he didn’t need to sniff every tree, bush, and fallen branch we pass.”
“Oh, he just has a lot of pee-mail some days,” said Judge.
I laughed and said, “I hadn’t thought of that.”
Now that I’ve downsized to a smaller home and a larger dog, I believe the judge’s explanation was right-on! Our dog Millie smells tree trunks and fallen leaves with serious concentration before squatting to leave her own pee-mail. And she sniffs all angles of a fire hydrant, utility pole, or on-street mailbox. These manmade objects hold as much information as as a clump of dead grass does. Pee-mail comes in various lengths.
After I read Sigrid Nunez’s wonderful novel The Friend, which featured a remarkable Great Dane as a main character, I saw how dogs’ noses are their favorite way to interact with the world. Millie not only recognizes my scent from many yards away, but up close she smells what I had for breakfast AND what I had for supper three days before. A dog’s nose is at least 10,000 times more sensitive than a human’s, and it has about 225 million scent receptors compared to a human’s mere five million.
So Millie’s walks must include frequent stops so she can read all of her pee-mail. While she will stick her nose deep into a pile of leaves or sometimes a drain ditch, she does not always answer every pee-mail. After several seconds of aggressive sniffing, Millie may just walk on. Every third or forth “no response” is followed by a squat and release of her own pee-mail. I wonder if she smells something interesting (or perhaps confrontational) that requires leaving a reply. Is she “marking her territory” or telling a canine friend, “What’s up, dawg?! Long time no smell.” I’ve gotten used to the stop-and-sniff rhythm of dog-walking. I give Millie time to read all her pee-mail and to reply when necessary. I get concerned only when her sniffs become frantic as if she’s searching for a small bit of very old cheese or a broken piece of a chicken bone. Then I must pull her nose up and hurry away from something she considers delectable but I know is dangerous.
I could take lessons from Millie. She reads all her pee-mail but only answers the important correspondences. And none of her responses are too long. She says just enough before she’s on to the next piece of pee-mail. Also, if we approach a dog walking towards us, she ignores the smells on the ground and greets her potential friend with good eye contact and a quick bark. Then the two dogs can give each other the ultimate compliment – some serious butt sniffing.
As interesting as an electronic piece of mail may be, it’s no comparison to face-to-face conversation. I strengthen my human bonds when I share ideas, stories, and even worries with others in person. We may offer one another advice or laugh about life’s crazy twists and silly slip-ups that remind us that comedy connects us, especially when we share our embarrassing moments or weird observations. We don’t need to smell each other’s britches to understand the crazy all around us. I suppose we humans rely on our ears and eyes more than our noses. E-mail is ok, phone calls are better, and face-to-face/in-person is the best kind of connection.