From a simple biological perspective Kota’s sense of smell is much more honed than mine, but humans possess a remarkably broader range of sensory perception than most of us are aware. Throughout the twelve years of hiking and camping across the United States, Kota has helped me develop a sense of smell for signs present in those types of natural environments. For instance, it isn’t simply the ability to identify the presence and difference between carnivores and herbivores on the wind from the smell of urine and feces, I can smell changing weather, fire, moss (and hence dampness), vegetation shifts (identify old growth vs. new growth without seeing), and even the presence of dens or caves. Of all the senses smell is Kota’s strength, some animals are first signaled through sound, sight, or feeling, but that dog can retrace my daily movements by smelling the bottom of my shoes. Mine is obviously sight, which is why her placing her nose in the air and breathing in short intervals signals to me to do the same.
Returning to our hike, she stops and points her nose in the air signaling to me she has caught a smell. I stop. We both take short breaths (like smelling wine) which helps to isolate and filter out all the smells in the wind. There are no words for the symphony of smells that include musk, moss, wet stone, cedar, sycamore, pine, dirt, and…something tangy, sweet, musky, and there is a presence of fur and dried grass. It is a deer. Once the odor is identified, I close my eyes and breathe a little deeper. The touch of the wind on my face changes, and from the slight bursts and shifts I can identify a general direction from which the smell is originating. It is behind us; Lakota also signals and we both turn to scan the scene visually seeking what we know is there. Within this cold windy environment my sight is much better than Lakota’s senses and I find the large buck quicker than she does. Through experience, I know she needs there to be movement (audibly or visually) in order to identify the animal’s antlers from the trees. I on the other hand can see a face staring straight back at us from behind a few leafless trees approximately 12 feet west of our location.
We had walked passed the deer before the wind brought the smell to us (upwind and downwind are very important directions and orientations), so it naturally smelled us first. It stood completely frozen, waiting for danger to pass. There would be no surprise attack. I could see the scene play out in my head, and we honestly stood no chance in even coming close to the buck. However, one still has to try, who knows maybe the deer is injured or trips and we get lucky. I drop my pack and move as stealthily as possible circling the deer downwind. Lakota sees me move and knows I have identified the animal before she has, so she moves with me, looking in the direction I position myself against. Mimicking my movements and looking in the direction from which there is a reaction allows her to triangulate the position of the buck that she has yet to see.
The snow crunches beneath my feet; I am clunky, loud, slow, and awkward. The deer reacts to this by the slightest movement and Lakota locks in on him. Her dependence on my signals cease immediately upon identification of the buck and she moves away from me in the opposite direction. She jets strait and to the left, I sprint out and to the right, the deer turns in a third direction and bolts. We both run after it from complimentary angles, but it quickly sprints uphill to safety. We all freeze, Lakota the last to stop running. I can tell she wants to continue the chase, but even she realizes it is a lost cause. I call her back and she returns to my side quickly, something that would not happen if there was still a chance in her mind. Looks are exchanged, and we leave the deer behind us alert and watching, motionless.
All animals are capable of complex modes of communication, all with their own strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps I am a slow, clunky and awkward huntress, but through this type of play I have learned to pick up on various things of significance and meanings of which I was previously unaware even existed. I would have never been able to physically catch the deer with my bare hands, but learning how to move as one has saved me and Lakota many times when we have been attacked in the dog park. We trust each other. Lakota is overwhelmed in some urban environments and as a result becomes a creature of habit in the city. She likes routines in the city, to a neurotic (and unnatural) degree. She will only go to the bathroom at particular places, she will fight to avoid particular intersections and streets, and she becomes suddenly aware of the minute. Busy streets freak her out the most. After 12 years she still does not understand how streets, people, and cars move. When crossing the street she does not see the signal placed specifically within the range of normal human standing height. She does not observe the icon of a palm facing us and blinking. What she sees are cars stop and I move us across the road. She has thus come to read a car stopping as time to go, only sometimes that is completely wrong and it is a taxi just pulling over. This misreading might get her killed someday, but I am sure she thinks the same thing about my reactions to the deer.