Whiskers Are The Way Dogs Touch Their World

Dogs “touch” their world in a way that is much different from the way humans do. We use our fingers. Dogs use their whiskers…or vibrissae (say “vie-BRISS-e”) These are the long, rather coarse hairs that have their roots in a dog’s muzzle, their jaw and even above their eyes.

At the base of the hairs are follicles and they are jam packed with nerves that send sensory information straight into the dog’s brain. While most dogs don’t use their whiskers to actually touch objects, they do use very subtle changes in air currents to detect information about nearby objects, including shape, size and even speed. They can “see” objects this way, even in the dark and their whiskers help them size up what might be an approaching danger.

Some canine researchers speculate that a dog’s whiskers can send messages about the dog’s emotional state. For example, if a dog feels threatened, the whiskers will reflexively spread out and point forward, leading some scientists to believe that the whiskers have a role in the dog’s defense strategy, both with predators and with other dogs.

Unfortunately, some dog owners, especially of show dogs, will have their dog’s whiskers trimmed, plucked or worse, surgically removed, possibly leading to a decrease in spatial awareness and to confusion. 

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By Ellen Britt

Dr. Ellen Britt has loved dogs since she was a child. She is particularly fond of the Northern breeds, especially Alaskan Malamutes. Ellen worked as a PA in Emergency and Occupational Medicine for two decades and holds a doctorate (Ed.D.) in biology.

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