Can Dogs Taste Tangy Food?

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Introduction

Sometimes simple questions are the most tantalizing, such as "What makes for a tangy food?" 

Think about it. It's actually harder than you suppose to pinpoint what it is that makes food tangy or how to describe it. If our taste buds could talk, they would describe tangy as similar to sour, but with a little more zip...but what precisely is 'zip'? 

Needless to say, we tend to recognize the lipsmacking taste of tangy when we taste it. Often, it tends to be foods where opposites attract such as sweet 'n' sour, or a savory dish that has the acidic bite of lemon in it. 

If we find it so confusing to decide what is 'tangy', where does this leave our four-legged friends? Indeed, can they even distinguish between a tangy food and a different flavor such as sweet, sour, or bitter? 

As it happens, dogs probably can tell the difference, but don't have the words to tell us! 

Signs of Dogs Tasting Tangy Food

Dogs are individuals, just like people. A food that tastes pleasant to one person, may be unpleasant for another. Hence, we all have different taste - literally. 

Dogs are no different. Some dogs are so greedy that anything that fits into their mouth is swallowed in a trice and disappears without being tasted. Other dogs are fussy, and can't be tempted to eat even when the tastiest of morsels is hand-fed. 

However, take your average sensible dog. They are likely to investigate the tangy food first and decide whether or not it's safe to eat. Since the canine sense of smell is so finely tuned and so sensitive, their response in the first instance is based on smell. 

The dog will approach the food, drawn closer to the smell. Dogs have different sniffing patterns depending on whether they are at a distance or close to the object of interest. Whilst still some distance away, the dog is likely to sweep their head from side to side while taking lots of rapid, shallow breaths. This samples the air to pinpoint where the scent is strongest and thus guide the dog in towards it. 

Once close to the food, the dog will take fewer but deeper breaths. This fully explores the subtle aroma of the food and gives the dog information about what it is and it's freshness. 

Should the dog encounter a tangy food they weren't sure about, the dog will most likely lick at it tentatively. With a taste on the tongue, the dog may then lick their lips, whilst deciding if this is something they want to eat or not. 

With a decision made that this is worth eating, most dogs then chew and gulp, rather than savoring the subtle nuances of the flavor. 

Body Language

Signs that a dog is reacting to tangy food include:
  • Alert
  • Head tilting
  • Chewing
  • Wag tail
  • Sniffing
  • Raise ears

Other Signs

Other signs to watch out for include:
  • Gulping down food
  • Lip smacking
  • Guarding the food bowl
  • Circling around the food bowl

A History of the Canine Sense of Taste

Many millenia ago, the ancestors of our modern dogs lived by scavenging and hunting. The first hurdle was to track down suitable prey and follow it to make a kill or scavenge from the carcass. For this, a sensitive sense of smell was essential, and so the brain prioritized a sense of smell over that of taste. 

However, the ability to taste does have it's uses, because rancid or decaying foods often tend toward the bitter and sour side of the taste spectrum. In contrast, many of the more appealing foods such as fruit, are sweeter. Over generations, dogs learned to prefer certain sorts of tastes to other, as it meant the food was more likely to be nutritious than harmful. 

The Science of a Dog's Sense of Taste

Guess what! Dogs have taste buds, just like people! Indeed, dogs have taste buds which can detect sweet, sour, bitter, and salty, just like people can. What is different about dogs is the number of taste buds that they have. Whereas people have around 9,000 taste buds, dogs have a mere 1,700.

This paucity of taste buds in the dog is down to lack of capacity of the processing center (or brain!) With dogs having such highly developed sense of smell and hearing, much of the brain's sensory processing is given over to these senses, leaving little in reserve to process the sense of taste. 

This means that tastes pack less of a punch for a dog than for a person. Think of it as the equivalent in quality to watching an old cathode-ray television as opposed to a modern digital high-definition TV. The information is all there, it's just blurred and grainy on one and pin-sharp on the other. 

However, don't write dogs off as having a lousy sense of taste, because they actually have an additional taste receptor for water, which people lack. These special receptors are found on the tip of the tongue, indeed on the very part that the dog curls over and uses as a ladle. It's thought that these unique receptors are an evolutionary adaptation to stop dogs from drinking salty water.

Training a Dog to Taste Tangy Foods

Here's the thing; a dog's sense of taste is strongly augmented by their sense of smell. Dogs often smell and taste in parallel, and use both senses to make up their mind about whether to eat a food or not. Indeed, take away a dog's sense of smell, and their taste palate is extremely limited - to the point of not being able to tell different meats apart. 

In theory, it's perfectly possible to train a dog to taste and detect tangy foods. However, the flaw is that it might well be the dog's sense of smell which is doing the actual detecting, rather than their mouth. If the main object of the exercise is to pick out a tangy food (and you don't mind how the dog does it), then this can certainly be taught. 

To teach a dog to taste tangy foods, first invite the dog to play a game of tug with a clean, scent-free towel. Praise and reward the dog and make the game heaps of fun. Then, rub a little of the tangy food onto the towel and invite the dog to play the game again. Praise and reward them. 

Now, place the 'tangy' towel next to a clean towel. If the dog picks up the clean towel, ignore him. When he picks up the tangy towel, make a big fuss, play tug, and praise them. 

Progressively make it more challenging by placing the tangy towel amongst other clean towels and only praise them when they pick it out.