Dog Spies

Dog Spies

Explore the science behind the dog in your bed

6 things dogs have in common with Susan Sontag


Since I’m still working out the difference between “procrastination” and “following leads,” I’ll tell you about a recent encounter with Susan Sontag and dogs.

As a frequenter of Brain Pickings, an “online discovery engine... bringing you things you didn’t know you were interested in — until you are" -- I read Susan Sontag on Why Lists Appeal to Us, Plus Her Listed Likes and Dislikes. Who doesn’t enjoy peering into other peoples’ worlds, whether they be desks or lists of likes and dislikes?

Reading Sontag’s “like list,” I couldn’t help but think a dog might have written it. Sontag likes: the smell of newly mown grass, drinking water, large windows, dancing, hands and of course, socks.

If a dog were to make his own “like list,” it’s possible some of the above items would make the cut. But not every dog’s “like list” would be identical. Each dog develops its own preferences over the course of its lifetime -- even starting in utero.

A recent study investigated whether dogs are learning olfactory information even before birth, specifically through their mother’s diet. In this study, a group of pregnant dogs was exposed to a novel flavor and odor, aniseed-flavored food. A control group of pregnant dogs received normal food not flavored with aniseed.

About 24 hours after birth, both groups of pups were exposed to swabs with aniseed and water. Pups exposed to aniseed during gestation preferred aniseed more than those who had not been exposed to the novel odor.

And it wasn’t just that pups exposed to aniseed were into novelty. Pups were also exposed to vanilla (a new novel odor) and water and showed no preference, suggesting that preference was unique to the odor presented in utero.

So maybe your dog likes to chase the mailman because its mother ate a mailman. Susan Sontag would approve.


Wells D.L. & Hepper P.G. (2006). Prenatal olfactory learning in the domestic dog, Animal Behaviour, 72 (3) 681-686. DOI:

Image: Flicker/Stu-bear

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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