Importance of allowing your dog to sniff

August 13, 2019

Importance of allowing your dog to sniff

I peek out the front door to check on my dog, who is sunning himself in his favourite spot in the sun. He is lying on an old moving trolley, since repurposed to give him a boost up to the sunrays, which don’t reach the ground at this time of morning. As I stick my head out the door, he lifts his nose, and I can see his nostrils gently flare in and out as he recognizes I am close. He does not see me with his eyes, as they are squinted shut due to the sun, but he sees me with his nose.

There are many more examples of my dog using his nose to see. When I return from the shops, and we greet enthusiastically, my human tendency is to reach out and touch to say hello, but he ducks away, preferring to sniff my hands first to see where I have been. (If you have not already read about the human as opposed to canine perspective of greeting, it is worth reading ‘How do you greet a dog politely’). When I return from volunteering at the dog shelter, he sniffs my shoes and clothes carefully. I get the full pat down with the nose. If I offer him something, whether it is an object or food, he does not use his eyes to examine the item further; he sniffs it.

On one occasion, when out on a walk with my dog, he stopped, hesitant to go further. I surveyed the pavement ahead. It seemed clear. I thought he was being overly sensitive and encouraged him to continue. As we passed the parked cars ahead, hiding behind the wheel of the last car was a cat. I felt very foolish. My dog was right – there was something ahead! He had seen it with his nose. I should have listened. Being human, I had immediately dismissed what I could not see with my eyes. On another occasion, he started sniffing the ground very attentively, seemingly following a trail back and forth, as he narrowed in on the direction of the scent trail. Looking ahead to see what had taken his interest, it was easy for me to quickly spot a scattering of nacho chips that had been discarded on the pavement. This time my eyesight won out against my dog’s nose, and I was able to divert him away.

Even with these simple observations, it is apparent how often my dog uses his nose and scent to make sense of and navigate his environment.

It is understandable why the use of olfaction may be the predominant sense for dogs. It is estimated that dogs have 300 million olfactory receptor cells; in comparison humans have about 5 million. Dogs have the ability of smelling with each nostril on an individual basis, allowing them to distinguish the direction of the scent. The slits on the side of the nose allow for the old air to exit at the same time as the dog is breathing in new air through the nostrils, allowing the dog to take in scent continuously. The air is separated and passes through an area at the back of the nose that has a labyrinth of scroll-like bony structures called turbinates. The air is filtered through the turbinates for olfaction, while some of the air follows a separate route down the pharynx for respiration. The air that humans take in for respiration and scent is not separated, going in and out with the air that we smell. Additionally, dogs have a secondary olfactory organ called the vomeronasal organ that allows dogs to detect pheromones and non-volatile chemicals. There are times where you can spot the dog using his vomeronasal organ, as he will display a tonguing response. The dog may chatter his teeth or drool a bit at the mouth as he deciphers the components of the scent. To interpret all this information, a larger percentage of the dog’s brain is used to process scent, with the olfactory bulb taking up more area of the brain than it does in humans. The dog can detect smells at concentrations of 100 million times less than our noses can detect....

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