Responding to Undetectable Signals in the Environment

Walking is my favorite exercise and preferred means of conveyance. I love experiencing places from the pedestrian’s perspective and at the pedestrian’s pace: thoughtfully, consciously. I have a fast gait, much to the annoyance of my friends and loved ones. This also annoys me in two situations: when I’m walking in a crowded sidewalk and when I’m walking my dog, Bumpkin.

The issue with Bumpkin is that he wants to stop every few paces to sniff around. He sniffs electricity poles, fire hydrants, bushes, fences, trees — any surface in his immediate vicinity. Well, not just any surface; he takes particular interest in vertical surfaces that have little puddles on the ground below. In other words, he likes to sniff where other dogs have peed.

Dogs use urine to send various signals to each other; they can detect territorial markers, hierarchy, and sexual availability. Of course, I can tell no such things from the little puddles — I’m just annoyed at being slowed down. But for Bumpkin, these spots provide information. His interpretation of these signifiers affects my behavior too, since I must slow down.

Some front yards in our neighborhood have little signs on them that say “no dog pooping.” I’m always on the lookout for these signs when I’m walking Bumpkin because I don’t want to deal with an irate homeowner. If Bumpkin indicates that he wants to poop in a yard with a sign on it, I pull on his leash to get him to another, unrestricted yard. Of course, Bumpkin cannot read these “no poop” signs — not even the ones that use obvious graphics. Still, his behavior is modified indirectly by another entity (me) who can derive meaning from them.

So Bumpkin and I traverse our neighborhood as a unit composed of two organisms with different sensory systems and cognitive abilities, our joint behavior influenced by signs one or the other can’t understand or even perceive. When I’m part of this unit, I must adjust my pace in the expectation that my counterpart is deriving information from the environment that is useful to him, even though I’m oblivious to its meaning.