Imagine it’s completely dark and you’re trying to find your way to the kitchen for a midnight snack. You’d stick your hands out and feel for the walls. You’d probably also stick a foot out to search for steps or anything that might hurt to step on. Now imagine how a dog might look doing this. It looks ridiculous because they don’t feel their way around the same way we do. Oftentimes, we can’t even tell they’re feeling for anything.
Nearly 40 percent of the dog’s brain that is responsible for sensing touch is dedicated to the face, or more specifically, to the vibrissae or whiskers. Because dogs don’t see nearby objects very clearly and their large snouts often block their downward view, these “feelers” protect the face and eyes from possible damage.
Try gently tapping on your dog’s vibrissae. He will likely protectively blink the eye on the same side of the tap. He may also move his head in the opposite direction of the tap. If contact persists in this highly sensitive area, he may even lift his lip or growl in response to communicate his discomfort.
Vibrissae are more stiff than the typical hairs of your dog and run deeper into the skin. At their base is a high concentration of touch neurons, sensitive enough to detect slight changes in air currents, allowing them to perceive a nearby object before actually coming into contact with it. This further enables them to “see” in the dark (in addition to their visual adaptations, such as the tapetum and abundance of rods, previously discussed). This is also why we often can’t tell when dogs are using this sense. They don’t have to actually come into contact with the object.
Many people, including groomers, are unaware of vibrissae’s role as a sensor, and consider them a purely cosmetic feature. Trimming these feelers can be uncomfortable and stressful for a dog, and can also hinder their ability to sense closer objects, especially in the dark. Your dog may move more slowly and cautiously because he is now semi-blind to his immediate surroundings.
Now that we are knowledgable of how our dogs perceive their worlds, we can more effectively communicate with them and cater to their needs. We can also dive into more specific and interesting dog behavior questions. Thanks for reading and stay tuned!