Every dog owner starts off with the same fantasy; a nice, polite, well-behaved walk with your fur baby. Maybe you expect her to be a jogging partner, maybe you would like her to catch frisbees at the park on a sunny afternoon, but in addition to that, you imagine taking a nice after-dinner stroll without having to be worried about being mugged or otherwise harassed. You know on an intellectual level that there will need to be some training. For instance, you expect that you may have to do some basic obedience training such as potty training or preventing excessive jumping. But beyond some minor training challenges, you never imagined that your long, relaxing walks would basically turn into a chance for your dog to go from one smell to another.
The Root of the Behavior
Dogs experience the world through their nose the same way that we use our eyes. When a dog sniffs, she can tell how many dogs have piddled in a certain spot, and she can tell which ones were pregnant, which ones were sick, and which ones were not actually dogs at all, but were other animals, like raccoons or cats. If your dog finds a pile of feces, she can tell what kind of animal left it, what they’ve been eating, and if there is any danger around, since the activity of a dog’s anal glands is impacted by stress or fear.
Your dog has 40 times the number of olfactory receptors in her noise compared to you. These receptors are connected to the olfactory nerve, and, ultimately, to the Jacobson’s Organ. The Jacobson’s Organ is, essentially, a large cluster of nerve cells located between the septum and the palate, sheathed in a long pouch-like structure, lined with microvilli. The Jacobson’s Organ exists to detect and process pheromones. The information they gather is then submitted to the amygdala and hypothalamus, parts of the brain that generates an emotional and behavioral response.
On a dog, pheromones are secreted by the organs of the lips, ears, anus, genitals, near the mammary glands, and between the toes. We often think of pheromones as only conveying information about sex, and while they do that, they also convey other information to our dogs. For instance, dogs that are alarmed or scared will spontaneously empty their anal glands, which will convey information about possible threats in an area to another dog that catches the scent later.
You may have noticed your dog scratching at the ground after relieving herself. It almost looks like she is washing her hands, but instead, she is literally marking her territory, letting other dogs know that she has been there. The pheromones that are secreted by her feet offer different information that the pheromones that are secreted when she urinates or defecates.
Female dogs who have given birth will release pheromones meant to calm their puppies. These pheromones have been found to work on adult dogs as well. In fact, a synthetic version of these maternal pheromones are used in pheromone plugins and collars meant to calm dogs.
Encouraging the Behavior
Dogs do not have the visual acuity that humans have. To a dog, sniffing the ground gives her as much information as we get by just looking around outside. Moreover, sniffing around can actually help a dog alleviate anxiety, much the same way that looking out a window can help a human adjust to a stressful situation.
You do not need to encourage your dog to smell the ground or sniff the air. She will do it automatically, programmed by nature. But you need to allow her a chance to do it. When you take her out for a run, be sure to give her a chance to sniff around and get a feeling of the world around her. Exercise is important for both you and your dog, but your dog also needs the mental stimulation. Your dog craves information, just as you do, but she just gets it in a different way. So take her to the dog park occasionally, let her take a nice stroll around the neighborhood, and give her the chance to really examine the canine world around her, as well as mark it for herself. Just make sure you are taking along doggie bags to clean up any of the longer messages she feels compelled to leave!
Other Solutions and Considerations
Sniffing and smelling at the ground is a normal dog trait. If your dog is not doing this, something may be wrong. Watch for other signs of illness. As you might imagine, it is possible for your dog to inhale irritants, both artificial, like chemicals, and naturally occurring, like burrs, foxtails, or the well-named puncture vine can be inhaled and lodge into a dog’s nasal passage. If you find your dog’s nose continues to be runny more than twenty minutes after a romp outside, you should go to the vet immediately. A dog’s nose is more delicate than you might think, and these weeds can really cause damage. A deep inhalation can pull the weeds so deeply into the nose that the doctor will need anesthesia to remove it.
We do not think of our nose as a complex organ. Sure, it’s right in the middle of our face and it holds up our sunglasses. It also smells pretty flowers, delicious food, and sweaty socks. Sometimes it gets stuffy, even runny. Occasionally, it bleeds. But beyond that, it is pretty much just there. For our dogs, though, the nose is their door to a larger world. So next time your dog wants to spend extra time sniffing God knows what, give her a few minutes. What isn’t obvious to you is a book to her.