“Dog is man’s best friend.” But did people pick the pooch? Or did the hound hunt out the human? The California Science Center spent the past five years sniffing out answers to hundreds of vexing canine questions. Finally, the dog is getting its day: The center revealed its conclusions with an ambitious but lighthearted exhibition called “Dogs! A Science Tail.”
The exhibit isn’t just a collection of images and artifacts. Real dogs interact with visitors, showing off their uniquely canine preferences, instincts, and abilities.
“It’s really not about just dogs and science. It’s really about how dogs and humans are both social animals,” says Jeffrey Rudolph, the center’s president and a dog lover.
One of the grosser but fascinating exhibits is a fire hydrant replica. You can smell what a dog smells there . . . sort of. It turns out, a dog’s smeller collects an array of information far beyond scent. That’s because God put 300 million receptors into a dog’s nose. He gave us only about six million.
“We just smell pee,” Rudolph explains, laughing. “A dog can tell what dog was there, what time they were there, and actually which direction they were going.”
That complex olfactory sense helps canines evaluate safety and mark time without a watch.
While a dog’s color vision is limited, dogs see motion more readily than humans. As for hearing? Fido’s ears are sharp and keen. According to Rudolph, a dog can hear a termite scratching inside a wall.
Skills like that equip avalanche rescue dogs to find a snow-covered person in a life-saving minute’s time. Dogs sniff out bombs people wouldn’t know about until after the explosion. The center shows a film called “Superpower Dogs.” In it, prepared pooches save the day in various disaster scenarios.
The center hosts therapy dogs, rescue dogs, drug-sniffing dogs, and others. For those more interested in mutts like the family pet, there’s a gallery of dog paintings by American artist Norman Rockwell. Rockwell’s dogs play with kids and comfort owners.
But do those dogs really love us? Or are they just instinctively wheedling treats with their big, black, soulful eyes?
Make eye contact with a dog and “you will produce oxytocin,” says Diane Perlov, the center’s senior vice president for exhibitions. Oxytocin is a chemical God designed into our bodies. It gives us feelings of love, safety, and contentment.
Perlov adds, “The dog will produce oxytocin in his own body from looking back at you. It’s a mutual affection.”
Scientists still can’t say who launched this love affair. But with doggy residents in more than 60 million American households, it’s clear as the nose on your face: This is more than just puppy love.