Uncommon Sense

December 12, 2020

How Does He Know?

Filed under: Science — Steve Ruis @ 11:03 am
Tags: ,

We live in a high-rise condominium. There are two banks of elevators on opposite sides of the hallways that serve the entire building. Since they are two opposite two, if you go up to our floor in one set, you must turn left to get to our unit. From the other set it is a right-hand turn. I have cataloged a set of visual cues as to which way to turn when exiting the elevator, and even with those I take a wrong turn on occasion.

But this post is not about me.

When we take our dog, Jack, for a walk, we come back up the elevator. Jack does not enjoy the ride in the “shaky room,” so he is the first off when we get to our floor. When the door opens he is the first through and turning left or right before he even gets out of the door.

And he never turns the wrong way.

Does he have, like pigeons, a small set of cells in his brain that allow him to know compass directions? What?

Any ideas?

A portrait of Jack, in progress


  1. My first guess would be his sense of smell. The olfactory receptor in humans is about the size of a small postage stamp. In dogs it’s the size of a pocket handkerchief. I’ve heard of dogs who’ve been trained to detect the smell of cancer in a human as well as other amazingly subtle differences in odors. Their olfactory world is massively more nuanced and complex that ours.

    Liked by 3 people

    Comment by Jon — December 12, 2020 @ 12:05 pm | Reply

    • Yeah, I thought iof that, but the exit from the elevators is tiled and the rest is rugs, the same on both sides (regularly vacuumed and washed). We haven’t seen him mark the hallway or anything, so …

      On Sat, Dec 12, 2020 at 12:05 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:


      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by Steve Ruis — December 12, 2020 @ 12:26 pm | Reply

      • It’s not a matter of “marking” … and while the runs are regularly cleaned, you can be assured the “scent” is still there to a dog. Jon’s comment is spot-on. Take his word for it.

        Liked by 1 person

        Comment by Nan — December 12, 2020 @ 12:35 pm | Reply

        • Okay … he circles around the tiled section between the elevators so his scent is in every direction on the tiles. Are you saying that his scent/our scents are perfuming the hallway between the elevator and our unit? Many other people use that hallway.

          On Sat, Dec 12, 2020 at 12:35 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:



          Comment by Steve Ruis — December 12, 2020 @ 9:12 pm | Reply

      • That’s how it appears to you, but not to your pooch. It’s more than the surfaces, there’s air leakage from each unit thru the entry door, movement in the elevator shafts when the cars travel up & down, and many other things besides that. Also, not to gross people out, but the cleaning procedures you mention only make things less dirty, they don’t return them to “factory specs”. The other thing that occurred to me is hearing, again, much better in apex predators like canines than ours. Without knowing the inside and outside layout of your place, I can’t speculate further, but I do know that our senses are attenuated compared to many other animals. One example I still have no clue about: in a 2nd floor workshop space I once had, any and all dogs that came to visit would crouch low to the floor and nervously walk that way. It was a very old bldg. but the floor seemed solid to me, but the dogs thought otherwise. Made me quite nervous the first few times I witnessed that. Based on that & other things I’ve seen and heard about, if I’m in the company of any animal that shows any indication of something being amiss, I put my head on swivel. Be well Steve!

        Liked by 1 person

        Comment by Jon — December 12, 2020 @ 5:29 pm | Reply

        • Hi, Jon! This is fun puzzling this out. My building is designed with a positive air pressure (higher in than out) to prevent energy sucking air infiltration from outside. So air flows down the hall, under our front door and out through the vents. So, I don’t think that any scent is wafting down the hall from our unit. But there are, I am sure dead places in the corridor exist that could hold our scents which could linger and they only have to linger for the length of his walk. But, as I said, he is turning as he is exiting the elevator, so it is not the scents further down the hall. And, as you indicate, “cleaning” often means smearing the dirt around but that smearing around means that all of the patterns of scents on that floor are re-distributed.

          I am sure you and the others are right … but I sure as heck would like to know how it actually works. It could also be slight differences in appearance. There are small placards between the doors on each side. One is red and the other silver colored. My code is “red = right” and silver = not red = not right but his could be very subtle (a tiny mar in the paint, etc.). I tend to think his ability to scent is better than his vision.

          And why do people find it necessary to disparage humans’ ability to smell when describing how good dogs’ senses are? Recent research indicates it is much better than people think. :o)

          On Sat, Dec 12, 2020 at 5:29 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:



          Comment by Steve Ruis — December 12, 2020 @ 9:22 pm | Reply

          • You’re right about the human sense of smell, I remember (now!) seeing something about that, so thanks for that, and yes, it is fun. Maybe it’s as simple as him not getting lost between his own ears the way we humans often do. I’m also sure that since my sense of smell has diminished in the past decade or so that my opinions are a bit biased on the subject.


            Comment by Jon — December 12, 2020 @ 9:49 pm | Reply

            • As a retired chemist, I identify a great many more odors than the other people around me. There is some training involved.


              Comment by Steve Ruis — December 12, 2020 @ 9:56 pm | Reply

  2. Yeah, I gotta go with sense of smell too. Dogs are uncanny with their noses.

    That in progress portrait looks pretty good to me. As in framable.

    Liked by 2 people

    Comment by shelldigger — December 12, 2020 @ 12:50 pm | Reply

  3. I think smell is a viable option too. HIs sense of smell is far stronger, to the extent he can detect gradients that we primates are clueless about.

    It’s also possible Jack is just more preoccupied with the physical map than you are. He might be more aware of which side you went in upstairs and what that means on exit, while you’re distracted by all that human mental stuff going on.

    Liked by 2 people

    Comment by SelfAwarePatterns — December 12, 2020 @ 2:07 pm | Reply

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