Okay… I want to start this post off by saying that I’m absolutely obsessed with my Chihuahua’s whiskers. Just check them out in the photo above—there the long, coarse hairs that protrude from his muzzle, jawline, and above his eyes. Aren’t they adorable? Well turns out, they’re way more than something to make us humans go, “Awwweeee.”
Dog whiskers—technically called vibrissae—help our dogs navigate and feel their way through the world.
Think Of Whiskers As Feelers
When compared to the fur or hair that covers your dog’s body, whiskers are embedded much deeper into the skin. Plus, the follicles are loaded with nerves that send sensory messages to your dog’s brain, alerting him/her when something is nearby. Experts say even the slightest pressure applied to whiskers will trigger a neural response so your pooch can get an idea of the size, shape, and speed of nearby objects.
But your dog doesn’t actually have to touch an object for these sensitive hairs to alert him. According to the AKC:
“With intact vibrissae, the dog actually does not have to make physical contact with a surface to know it is there. These special hairs are so sensitive that they also register slight changes in air currents. As a dog approaches an object like a wall, some of the air that he stirs up by moving bounces back from surfaces, bending the vibrissae slightly. The resulting neural response is enough to inform him that something is near well before he touches it.”
This is one reason dogs can maneuver well in a dark space.
They Have Their Own Body Language
Along with the tactile benefits, whiskers are also believed to show off how a dog is feeling. For example, whiskers flare and point forward when a dog feels threatened.
Do You Shave Your Dog’s Whiskers?
If you’re a poodle or cocker spaniel parent then chances are you’re used to taking trips to the groomer and shaving off that excess face hair. I get my poodle’s face shaved too. While shaving off a dog’s whiskers won’t cause any pain, it reduces their spatial awareness and can cause them some confusion. Dogs whose whiskers have been removed tend to move slower and tread cautiously when moving around in dark environments (because they no longer have those little sensors to alert them of nearby objects). For that reason, experts recommend leaving your dog’s whiskers intact.