Monday, October 26, 2009

Dogs and (Pole)cats

According to what I could learn during ten hard minutes of internet research, a dog has a sense of smell anywhere between one hundred and one million times greater than that of a human.  Perhaps a few more minutes of research could have narrowed that range a touch, but one of the things I like best about the internet is the vast number of alternative realities it can offer the earnest seeker of truth. In this instance, though, we can ignore the vast disparity between 100 and 1,000,000, if we can all agree that a dog’s sense of smell is way better than ours.

I’ve often read that dogs experience the world through smells much more directly than they do through their other senses.

I’ve seen blind dogs who remain almost perfectly independent (though a minority of them will use a Seeing Eye cat), a feat they manage entirely through their olfactory superiority. They can smell their way around with nary a problem.

Everyone knows about bloodhounds tracking criminals, and all manner of dogs being used as drug-sniffing, bomb-sniffing, cancer-sniffing, and just about any other kind of sniffing dog imaginable. They may not always smell good, but they most certainly always smell well, which brings me to the unfortunate relationship that exists between the dog (but not their wild brethren, the wolf and the coyote) and Mephitis mephitis, the common striped skunk.

The nauseating smell of the oily aerosol substrate sprayed from the skunk’s anal glands is something that, once smelled, can never be forgotten. It’s been described as a combination of garlic, rotten eggs and burnt rubber, but to me that description omits the overwhelming and pervasively objectionable muskiness of the stink. Even with that addition, this description still fails to capture the existential awfulness of skunk juice. 

Nature recognizes the perverse power of the skunk. Bears, wolves, coyotes and other predators steer clear of them, even in times of food shortage. The distinctive black-and-white markings of the skunk serve as a reminder of the chemical nightmare this small, slow moving, target is capable of bringing upon a potential diner.

So, I’m forced to wonder, what the hell is the matter with dogs on the skunk front!? In thirty years, I’ve never known a dog to avoid a skunk, even after having been repeatedly sprayed in the past. I've heard stories, or seen them on TV, in which a chagrined dog runs, horrified, from its black-and-white assailant, hiding in shame and covering his face with his paws. As far as I know, this is fiction.

There was one particularly horrible summer in the 1980s, in Bloomington, Illinois, when our first pack of dogs were Lyric, the incredibly smart Seeing Eye dog, Chelsea, another smart shepherd, and Holden, a beagle mix, who was, frankly speaking, a box of rocks. He made Rocky look smart. But Lyric and Chelsea were two smart girls who were in charge during our off-leash time at the park, and still, approximately three times a week, for most of the season, the three of them would pursue, and then all be thoroughly sprayed, by skunks.

I’m not an unreasonable man. I understand that dogs need to learn about certain dangers before they are wise enough to avoid them. The problem was, Lyric, Chelsea, and Holden never considered getting skunked to be a bad thing. After the spraying, the three would emerge from the brush, stinking of skunk, not only not minding, but, apparently, quite pleased with themselves. 

Initially we thought we might have misinterpreted their expressions and attitude, chagrin masquerading as merriment, but after a few encounters, the truth became too clear to deny: The dogs liked getting skunked, or, at very least, didn’t consider it offensive in the least.

Again, dogs’ sense of smell is 100 to 1,000,000 times more attuned then is ours. Given that the smell of three dogs skunked is enough to make me dry heave and almost pass out, it staggers me that any dog can not only survive a skunk assault, which is 100 to 1,000,000 times more pungent to him, but then go on to wear that vile anal juice as a badge of honor, or, more aptly, an eau de toilette. How is this possible? Why don't skunked dogs just keel over from sensory overload?

Of course dogs love certain stinks. Rolling in dead, decomposed, goo, makes some sense. It’s a way of broadcasting, “Hey, I’m such a successful dog that I not only eat my kill, but have enough to roll around in afterwards. Maybe I have some left. You hungry?” I’d much rather they didn’t want to disseminate that information so eagerly, but I nevertheless understand it.

But nothing eats skunks, except, apparently, certain owls with little or no sense of smell. Dogs’ wild brethren, who would certainly roll in decomposition, wisely avoid skunks. So what is up with the dogs?

I understand that, as prey, the skunk seems attractive to because it looks like a ploddingly slow, possibly drunk, cat. That explains the first encounter an animal might have with one. But how can a dog, especially one smart enough to be trained to guide the blind and be responsible for their very lives, go back, again and again, towards that decidedly noxious Trojan Horse? The only answer I can come up with is, they think skunk smells good.

The summer of the skunk we spent hundreds of dollars on tomato juice. At the time, it was considered the best way to de-skunk a dog. We’d get back from the park (in a now thoroughly skunked-up car), and wash 200 pounds of dog with canned, generic, tomato juice in a blue, plastic, kiddy wading pool we had. Tomato juice might help a little, in this way. Somehow, skunk plus tomato doesn’t smell quite as nauseating as skunk alone. 

Tomato juice isn’t an answer. It did, though provide an appropriate visual counterpart to the grotesque smell of horror that enveloped us. There we’d be, at one in the morning, in our driveway, with three stinking dogs, now dripping with blood-red tomato juice, eerily lit by street lights and our porch light, making shadows enormous and distorted. And, as dogs will do when wet, they would shake themselves, leaving splatters on our garage that looked like they could keep a criminal forensics team busy for months. Luckily, those were more innocent times, so the Bloomington Serial Killer Task Force never knocked on our door.

Twenty-five years later, Levi follows in the footsteps of his predecessors. Fortunately, skunks are scarce in the Phoenix area, but a couple of years ago we lived in a Chicago suburb for a while. Levi wasn’t let off leash, but I’d walk him every night, and a few times, in a sudden jerk of wild determination, he’d wrest himself free from me. Three out of five times that happened, he’d run off and, immediately, get himself skunked. 

When I would catch him and grab his leash again, his expression was always the same. Sorry to be in some trouble for running off, but happy, invigorated, and, mainly, proud of his new, nauseating, smell. Like his predecessors a quarter century earlier, he’d walk home as jauntily as a horny high school senior who has just found the exact right scent to drive the young girls wild. 

I guess that's the answer, and it suddenly makes sense to me; skunk is the Axe Body spray of dogs.

But perhaps I write in haste. Skunk isn't as awful as that.

© 2009, All Rights Reserved, Rich Sands
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Rev. Mark said...

Good piece! Dogs are certainly fascinating that way, aren't they? We had a dog once who wanted SO bad to chase a skunk who turned out to be rabid. The imagine I have is my dad trying to shoot the skunk while IT chased the DOG. (Ironically, I have a "skunk" story in the hopper for my blog. I think I'll put near the back for a while!)

a. bendelow said...

For the record, i "l-o-l ed" three times in the reading of this piece. keep it up!

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