Many active dogs love nothing better than a walk in woods. It's a great source of pleasure for their owner to see a happy dog nose-down in the leaf litter, zig-zagging backward and forwards as if following a scent. Then there's that exhilarating moment when the dog takes off and you belatedly spot the white flash of a bunny tail as the dog sets off in hot pursuit.
Perhaps your dog isn't what you'd consider a classic hunting or tracking type. In which case, you may be wondering if the dog happened on the rabbit by accident or they smelt and tracked the fluffy bunny down? So is it true: Can dogs smell rabbits?
Signs of a Dog Smelling a Rabbit
Some dog breeds are classed as scent hounds and have an especially astute sense of smell. These dogs can be trained to pick up and follow a scent, including that of a rabbit. Such breeds include English Springer Spaniels, Pointers, Bassett Hounds, Beagles, and Bloodhounds.
All dogs have a strong sense of smell and their ability to detect scents is far more developed than that of people. However, for some dogs, this ability is more highly tuned than others. Whilst it would be no surprise to see a Beagle with their nose glued to the ground, a Sighthound such as a Greyhound or Whippet, is more likely to stand head in the air and use their eyes.
Dogs don't sniff in the same way all the time. When hunting a rabbit, the dog will first scent the air to pick up a general indication of where a rabbit may be. As the dog moves closer, they move quickly, often moving from side to side as they go. This allows the dog to localize where the scent is strongest and, hence, move toward it.
Then, once the scent is stronger, this indicates the rabbit is close, so the dog slows.
They take deeper breaths, which passes more air over the scent-sentisitive areas of the nose. This allows the dog to savor the full subtlities of the aroma, taking in information such as how long ago the rabbit was there and how fresh teh scent is.
History of Dogs Smelling Rabbits
Many dog breeds came into existence because man had need of a working dog with a certain trait or quality. Amongst working dogs, some were required to herd or guard, whilst others needed to track down prey, such as rabbits. Dogs with especially sensitive noses that could follow a scent and lead a hunter to rabbits, deer, or other prey, could be a valuable asset.
This relationship between man and dog is an old one. Indeed, the earliest men were hunter-gatherer's rather than farmers. This meant anything that enabled them to find prey more effectively could give them a big advantage. With wild dogs attracted to their campfires to scavenge for scraps, so an enduring relationship was born.
Of these dogs, early man would highly prize those with the best track record and breed from them. Over successive generations, this led to dogs with a finely honed nose capable of tracking faint smells for several miles. It is thought that intentional selective breeding for traits such as hunting, herding, tracking, and guarding started around 9,000 years ago.
This selective breeding continues in the present day, although the emphasis is now more likely to be on looks or size, rather than on working characteristics such as the ability to smell and track rabbits.
The Science of Dogs Smelling Rabbits
Dogs have an amazing sense of smell, which is far superior to that of humans. This is down to a number of factors including the anatomy of a dog's nose (it has roughly four times the surface area internally of the human nose). Indeed, the dog has around 200 million olfactory (scent) cells, as compared with a mere 5 million in people. Added to that is a larger part of the canine brain that is dedicated to decoding those smells, and dogs start to have something approaching a super sense.
But the perfect design of the canine for scenting doesn't stop there. Even that black, leathery nose helps maximize the dog's ability to smell. That traditionally wet nose helps capture and then dissolve scent particles, making them available to the olfactory cells and then, ultimately, the brain.
The rabbit scent that the dog tracks is down to tiny amounts of chemicals which are deposited on the ground from the rabbit's paws. A dog's sense of smell is so sensitive that it can distinguish different rabbit scents rising up off the ground.
And finally, an interesting twist is that a scared rabbit gives off less scent, as does a pregnant rabbit. These are both adaptations to make the rabbit harder to track when being pursued by a predator, such as a dog sniffing out rabbits.
Training a Dog to Smell Rabbits
All training starts with basic obedience training. Used reward-based methods to teach your dog to sit, stay, and a rock solid recall. This allows you to keep the dog under control and out of danger in a range of situations.
To train a dog to smell rabbits, purchase some hunter's training scent (rabbit). Have a toy rabbit and daub it with the synthetic rabbit odor. Place the toy on the floor and praise the dog when they approach it. When the dog goes to the toy, say "Yes" in an excited voice, praise and reward them.
Repeat this many times during different training sessions. Soon, the dog will start moving toward the toy as soon as they see it, in expectation of getting a reward. Once you notice the dog doing this, you can label the behavior and put it on cue. Say "Track" in an excited voice, then praise and reward when the dog gets the toy bunny.
When the dog has mastered this, start making the toy less obvious to spot. Place it a few feet away and encourage the dog to go to it on the "Track" cue. Then, drag the toy across the ground and partially conceal it. The dog can then start to use their sense of smell, rather than vision, to find it.
Once the dog is starting to use smell to locate the toy, make the hiding place more elaborate. Always drag the toy to the concealed spot, so there is a scent trail for the dog to follow.
Bear in mind you may need to use a different room or different location, depending on how many times you have placed a scent trail in the past as the dog's nose may become confused.
With time and practice, you can increase the distance the dog has to track the toy by scent, in order to find it.
By Pippa Elliott
Published: 04/23/2018, edited: 04/06/2020