Help, my dog sniffs everything
One of the daily pleasures of having a dog is walking. Not only is it good for you, but it’s one of the highlights of your dog’s day.
Often, however, we are in a rush while our dogs seem intent on stopping at every lamppost, blade of grass and pavement crack for a good sniff.
While it can be frustrating to wait for your dog or to chivvy them along frequently, your dog is exploring their neighbourhood in their own unique way.
Although we share the same walk with our dog, we experience it very differently. Whereas we may notice the things that we can see or hear, and use visual cues to find our way around our dogs are mapping their route with their nose.
Born to sniff
It’s well known that our dog’s sense of smell is vastly more sensitive than our own. While our puny human nose has an estimated 5 million olfactory receptors, our dogs have significantly more ranging from 125 million up to over 300 million.
What’s more, our dogs can separate a smell into its component parts. While we may smell freshly baked bread, for example, our dog is sniffing, yeast, flour, salt, and oil and more than likely the previous contents of the oven.
In fact, our dog’s brains are uniquely designed for the job. The area of our dog’s brain dedicated to scent analysis is 40 times larger than our own.
Given that there are so many components in each smell. Our dogs spend a lot of time sniffing to understand the scent fully. While we may see the world through our eyes, our dogs see the world through their nose.
How does a dog smell?
It may sound like the beginning of a bad joke. But understanding how dogs pick up scent enables us to fully appreciate just how important sniffing is to our canine counterparts.
While human noses have a basic in and out air flow system, our dog’s nose is a sophisticated and complex piece of kit.
When we detect a scent, to experience it fully, we have to inhale through our nose. The scent travels along our nasal passages to two small odour detecting areas located on the roof of our nasal cavity.
However, because our sense of smell uses the same nasal channels as our respiratory system as soon as we breathe out, we also exhale the scent.
In contrast, when our dogs breathe in a fold of tissue inside their nostrils separates the air and diverts it along two different paths.
The first route takes around twelve percent of the air to a distinct olfactory area. While the second path takes the rest of the air through to the lungs.
Once the air has reached the olfactory recess, its filtered via a maze of bony structures called turbinates.
Within the turbinates specific olfactory receptors sort and identify smells by their chemical properties. The brain then receives signals as to the source of the smell, food, friend or foe for example.
As our dogs use different nasal channels for smell and respiratory function, they can retain the odour even once they have exhaled.
In fact, the way that our dogs breathe out enables more scents to come in. When our dogs expel air, they do so via slits in the sides of the nose. This air swirls out causing new scents to be disturbed and inhaled.
The moisture on our dog’s nose also helps to trap scent particles. And enables your dog to ‘taste’ the scent as they run their tongue over their nose.
Not one but two ways to smell
Our dog’s ability to breathe in this way enables an almost constant sniffing action. Not only that but our dog’s nostrils can sample smells independently from each other.
Because their nostrils can move separately, it enables our dogs to tell which nostril detected the odour. As a result your dog is able to determine the location of the source of the scent.
If that wasn’t enough our dogs also have a second olfactory system. A pouch called the Jacobson’s organ, or Vomeronasal organ is located just above the roof of the mouth. Rather than detecting common odours it specialises in sampling pheromones.
The Jacobson’s organ plays a significant role in the life of our dogs as it carries messages relevant to reproduction and survival.
Using this particular scent detector, our dogs can collect information regarding the emotional state of other dogs. As well as the readiness of a bitch to mate and the emotional state of other dogs travelling in their territory.
The two systems, although distinct from each other pool information to provide our dogs with a full and rich view of their environment.
Let’s be clear. There is no such thing as inappropriate sniffing to your dog. Although you may find your dog’s need to stick its nose in places that would otherwise be considered private, embarrassing. To your dog it’s just their way of picking up useful information.
Our dogs are attracted to a particular type of sweat gland found in specific regions of the body. These Apocrine glands produce pheromones that provide social information such as the sex, age, health and mood of an individual. And our dogs find this information invaluable.
In dogs, these glands are found all over the body, with a higher concentration in the anal and genital region. Whereas in humans the glands are predominately in the armpits and groin.
Not surprisingly, our dogs are drawn to these areas. Because the higher intensity of scent enables your dog to get information quickly.
In spite of this, if you are embarrassed by your dog’s need to stick its nose where it’s not wanted you can encourage it to sniff your visitor’s hand instead.
As already mentioned, our dog’s noses are extremely sensitive. They don’t need to get that close to pick up the information they require.
Instead of a walk, take your dog for a sniff
Imagine going to your favourite museum, art gallery or shopping centre and instead of being able to browse at your leisure your companion insists that you continually move on.
While we predominately use our eyes to explore our world, our dogs use their nose. Our constant desire to move forward and finish our walk quickly does not keep our dogs happy.
This is particularly the case for lead walked dogs who don’t get the freedom to choose where they sniff. Although you may find it frustrating to frequently stop and start, your dog will thank you for taking the time to pause. What’s more, if you allow your dog to follow a scent you will benefit from a tired dog.
It’s a little like a busy day at the office. When you have to process lots of new information, it’s mentally challenging. And it’s no different for our dogs, lots of sniffing means a sleepy pup.
Since it may be impractical to allow your dog to smell what they want on the whole walk, why not compromise?
Set aside a part of the walk when you let them indulge their nose. You can even add a cue word like ‘go sniff’ so that your dog learns that this is the time they can browse.
Help, my dog sniffs everything
Great! Our dogs get an enormous amount out of sniffing. Not only are they gathering vital information about their environment and the other inhabitants within it, but they are uniquely designed to do it.
Scent work, whether through sports or just as a part of their daily routine provides our dogs with mental stimulation and involves them in a natural behaviour that they love.
Giving your dog ample opportunity to explore their world with their nose contributes to a healthy and happy dog. So next time you put on your dog on the lead instead of going for walkies, why not go for sniffies instead?