Sniffing Around

Dogs enjoy walks; perhaps the one universal truth. Often, for dogs and their human friends, companions, partners, walks are the highlight of the day. However, many of us with two legs and visual based pattern seeking brains tend to neglect a crucial part of the walk that our canine companions enjoy the most: smells. Smells and sniffing! My name is Demon, I am a soon to be (testing windows suck) CPDT certified dog trainer (instructor or teacher are better terms I feel) and behaviorist, and it is my goal to help dogs navigate and feel more comfortable, more confident, more enriched, and more happy in a human centric world that is often not very considerate of them. So let’s spend some time understanding our canine companion’s biggest navigator, their nose. Through understanding this beautiful feature, we can make one of our dog’s favorite activities even more enjoyable. And hey, in doing so maybe you’ll find a new way to connect with your furry loved ones on a level you hadn’t before!

First, eyeballs! We all know em, we all drew them in the corner of our notebook at some point in high school. For most humans the eyes, or rather, the visual sense, tends to be the primary way of experiencing the world. This importance placed on visuals can be seen throughout human language. Phrases like, “I see what you mean,” “picture this,” “point of view,” and many more, speak to this learned importance of using visuals as a means of understanding what’s around us.

For dogs, however, much of the world is filtered in through their nose. Dogs approach pretty much every situation nose first. If something is stinky, you better believe a dog is going to be there to smell that stink! And more power to them! Scents impart dogs with immense amounts of knowledge and pleasure. Where humans would watch tv or read an online article posted on to stay entertained, dogs smell! They smell bushes, they smell each other, they smell you and me. And sometimes, they smell seemingly nothing at all. Or at least, what may appear as nothing to the naked eye and untrained nose.

It is practically a ritual that when I come home from a day working at the shelter, my mate takes his time poking and prodding my clothes. Sniffing here and there and there and here, booping his nose all around! (Usually this happens after some excited jumping and petting and me telling him how much I love him and missed him.) To me, those clothes might look dirty and maybe even smell a bit funky, but to my mate, they are a library of information! There are tells of what animals I’ve met, where I’ve walked, what I’ve eaten, what treats I’ve given out. All this and so much more fills his nose and mind like pollen on a spring day. In those moments, he’s no longer really even paying attention to me, he’s exploring the world at large, like watching a movie.

It’s pretty common knowledge that the canine nose is built a lot differently than the human nose, and allows canines a much larger scope of scent detection. While the ability of the human nose to detect specific smells is nothing to sneeze at, dogs can learn so much from a simple whiff. Through scent, dogs recall the past and predict the future. A simple fire hydrant can tell a dog who visited recently, their sex, their health, and even how they were feeling. A dog’s nose can also notify them of events to come. Someone who will be arriving soon. A loved one perhaps, or maybe someone they should be cautious of. Someone they know or someone they’ve never met. It can sound nearly extrasensory, but for dogs it’s just the norm!

Even when a dog is lounging around, seemingly just taking in the calm vibes, their nose is working overtime to process the world around them. And this should be celebrated! I often tell people that the best way they can help their dog companions get the most out of walks, the best way to help them decompress, to ensure they’re engaged, to help tire them out (we all know a tired dog is a happy dog) is to encourage their desire to sniff. A walk filled with crisscrossing the street, stopping at every hydrant, looping back and forth to spots they’ve just visited? Those are the most enriching types of walks for a dog, and can oftentimes be more beneficial to their mental health than a one hour unbroken jog where they’re not able to engage with the environment in a meaningful way. Studies by Professor Alexandra Horowitz, an expert of dog olfaction, even show that dogs who frequently engage with their surroundings in an olfactory way (“by smell”), tend to have a more positive and optimistic outlook on life. A happy dog is a sniffy dog!

So, next time you’re on an outing with your canine partner, try and imagine the world from their perspective, their point of view, or rather, their point of smell. What may seem like a mundane spot off the corner of a dirt path could carry a myriad of prismatic smells that enlarge a dog’s world to points far beyond what their eyes could do. Also, on that out and about, (or perhaps in the comfort of your home if you’re a bit more shy), why not take some time to get down and smell alongside them. Show your dog friend that you’re interested in what they’re interested in, that you care about what they find important, and let them know that how they experience the world is valuable. And hey, the nose can always be trained, so who knows, you might just be able to catch up on all that scent training you might have missed growing up, and even find a new way to appreciate the world. And yes, I absolutely do this with my mate from time to time. It’s fun!

Side note, this article is heavily inspired by “An Immense World” by Ed Yong, an incredible read about understanding and valuing the ways that non-human animals experience, interpret, and understand the world, and works by the aforementioned Professor Alexandra Horowitz. This article’s author absolutely recommends any zoo or non zoo with an interest in understanding animal cognition check them out!

Article written by demondog (October 2023)

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