To a dog [a well-sprayed lamp-post] is The Times hot off the presses; latest news, social column, gossip….We smell in black and white, while a dog smells in eternal rainbows of subtle and delicate nuances. (Simon Barnes – Bird watching with your eyes closed)
For the first few months of our dog’s life with us, ‘up’ didn’t exist. He lived his life at nose level and below. Sometimes, he was puzzled at the noises he heard, such as the gulls above us, because he hadn’t yet realised there was another dimension to the world. But already, there were things he knew that I could never know.
When I walk with my dog, we’re each having the same experience in a different way. In sensory terms, I can only ever experience the walk in the present moment. Though I bring to it memories, local knowledge and history, that walk will always be what is happening now. I can see events as they unfold; I can interpret noises; I can smell strong odours; but experiencing that present moment is all that is available to me.
My dog knows things I can’t know. He knows which dogs and people have been here before us. He knows which way they walked. He knows if they were friends or strangers. A dog’s need to sniff has been likened to reading the daily newspaper. When my dog sniffs a tree or a patch of ground and feels the need to mark it, that’s because of something he’s read in the newspaper. When he picks up a scent and follows it, that’s because he can ‘see’ a trail that is invisible to me.
His nose can identify if a dog is male or female, what it has eaten, if it is in season and a myriad other factors. Recent research has shown that dogs are able to smell disease. Their nostrils work independently so that they can tell which direction a scent is coming from. And my dog is always sniffing. His nose rarely stops twitching, whether he’s awake or asleep, whether he is sitting before an open window at home, or walking outside. I may believe that nothing much is occurring, but to him, there are all sorts of things going on.
A writer’s brain is like a dog’s nose. It’s our job to see in a different way. We can use all of our senses to experience and describe a location. But we also have to see the things that aren’t there. We go beyond the limits of our senses. We people the world with imaginary characters. We imagine events we haven’t physically seen or experienced. We build up the layers of place, people, events until they can be experienced in a rush of sensation. As a dog’s nose is always ‘on’, so is a writer’s brain – always observing, always sifting ideas through the ‘nose’ of our creativity. And, just like a dog, we will suddenly pick up a scent and we’ll be away, following the idea hungrily to see where it will lead us.
Dog scenting is usually seen as a way of asserting dominance, by marking territory, but it could also be viewed as a huge effort of co-operation. Each dog is a canine reporter, contributing his smell, his story, his ‘news’ to the doggy newspaper, so that other dogs can make better sense of the world. And in this way we, as writers, do the same. We don’t usually write for status, but only to interpret the world in our own unique way, which will hopefully contribute to the world’s understanding of itself.
As a lesson for living, my dog’s nose reminds me that life is lived in the present moment and that is the best way to be content. As a lesson for writing, it reminds me that there is so much more to imagine and ‘see’ than what is in front of me.