5 min read


What Can Dogs Smell?



5 min read


What Can Dogs Smell?


Whether it's a police K9 sniffing out narcotics or a family pet hunting down that tasty treat you thought was safely hidden in your pocket, dogs are famous for their remarkable sense of smell! With noses that are potentially up to 100,000 times more powerful than our own, dogs have an amazing ability to sniff out even the faintest of odors.

So, what can dogs smell, why are their noses so powerful, and how can you put your furry companion's impressive schnoz to good use? Read on to find out.


Signs Your Dog has Picked up a Scent

Have you ever watched your pooch with their nose to the ground, working furiously, attention focused on tracking down an elusive and enticing scent? Detecting an interesting smell can have a powerful effect on any dog and, depending on the breed and the situation, see them abandon whatever it is they're doing to simply follow their nose.

Remember, sniffing and following scents are two ways that your dog explores the world around them. When on a walk, expect them to want to stop and smell the roses. Let them, rather than making every walk into a bathroom break or exercise session only.  Your dog wants to sniff and then pee, so that they can put their name on the doggy roster of those who tread the path before them. Allowing them to do things in the order they want for as long as they want is a reward in itself. Treat your canine companion to a relaxed promenade often.

You'll often notice the telltale signs your dog has detected a scent, such as a head held high and a nose thrust into the air as your pooch tries to locate the source. Your little tracker might then turn their head to follow the source and, if they find it, give it a detailed follow-up sniff, rapidly inhaling and exhaling as their extraordinary olfactory receptors investigate and explore this new odor. 

Other signs may vary from breed to breed. For example, dogs with a history of being bred for hunting and retrieving purposes, such as the Bloodhound or Labrador Retriever, may stand stock still in preparation of sneaking up on their prey, while Pointer breeds will raise a paw off the ground to quite literally "point" you in the direction of the smell.

Body Language

When your dog has detected a scent that they want to follow, we have to remember the sheer wonder and amazement of this innate skill. After all, your dog not only smells one specific scent but also others that can mask the goal smell. Yet, they can distinguish the odor and follow it as far as it goes. Body language signs that your furry friend has detected an interesting smell include:<br/>

  • Staring
  • Alert
  • Barking
  • Head Tilting
  • Sniffing

Other Signs

The sense of smell is your dog's most dominant sense and that is one reason why they enjoy using it so much. Have you ever met a dog who didn't like to roll in a stinky smelling spot in the backyard? Other signs that indicate your pooch is on a smell seeking mission include <br/>

  • Head Held High
  • Nose In The Air
  • Turning Head To Follow The Scent
  • Ignoring Your Commands
  • Rapid Inhaling And Exhaling
  • Pointing, Barking Or Pawing At The Source Of The Smell

History of Dogs' Amazing Sense of Smell


The wolf ancestors of our canine companions relied extensively on their impressive sense of smell in order to flourish in the wild. From tracking down prey and communicating with other pack members to sniffing out any potential danger or threats, the ability to detect and identify scents from a long way away was crucial to the wolf's ability to adapt and survive.

Humans have also played a role in enhancing the dog's sense of smell. For thousands of years we've selectively bred dogs to work alongside us, primarily as hunters but also as guardians, and a strong sense of smell has been critical for dogs to perform those roles. Whether helping us find and track game or acting as an early warning system to alert us to any potential dangers, the dog's nose has played a key role in the close relationship between our two species.

In more recent years, humans have trained dogs to use their noses to do some pretty amazing things. Police and law enforcement agencies use sniffer dogs such as Beagles to detect narcotics, explosives, and other illegal goods, while Bloodhounds and German Shepherds are well known for their ability to track criminals on the run.

Our furry friends can also be used to sniff out cancer in humans, or delicious truffles hidden beneath the ground. One famous Labrador cross, Tucker, even uses his snout to detect the smell of whale poop from a mile away, helping biologists understand the reasons behind the falling killer whale population in the Puget Sound.

We've put dogs' noses to some pretty amazing uses over the years, and there's sure to be plenty of other incredible applications for K9 nose-power that we've yet to discover!

The Science of a Dog's Sense of Smell


Why are dogs such spectacular sniffers? It all comes down to biology. This remarkable smelling ability all starts with the wet, spongy exterior of a dog's nose that is ideal for capturing scents in the air. Your pooch's nostrils can also operate independently of one another, allowing them to detect where a particular smell is coming from. Air is also exhaled through slits at the side of the nose, actually helping circulate new air into the nostrils. Some breeds, like Bloodhounds and Basset Hounds, even have long, heavy ears designed to sweep smells upwards from the ground and into their nose.

But it's inside your dog's nose where things really start to get interesting. While humans only have around 5 or 6 million olfactory receptors in our noses, dogs have up to 300 million. The part of a dog's brain devoted to analyzing smells is also, proportionally speaking at least, 40 times bigger than a human's. There's even a fold of tissue just inside the nostril that directs inhaled air along two paths — one for breathing and the other for analyzing scent. 

Dogs can do incredible things with their noses. Did you know that a dog can sense fear or anxiety in humans? Variations in your heart rate and blood flow lead to chemical changes on the skin's surface. Your dog can read the emotions based on the skin's odor. 

On another note, a dog who typically has an anxious, timid or fearful personality can be helped to lessen these traits by allowing them to go on scent walks often. Honing in on your pup's sniffing skills, such as in nose work training, aids them in confidence building and can increase their ability to branch out in the world.  

All of this means dogs have a truly remarkable sense of smell, and it's a critical tool for your pet to use to interact with and understand the world around them, allowing them to thrive and grow.

Training Your Dog's Sense of Smell


Do you want to encourage your canine companion to put this remarkable sense of smell to good use? There are plenty of ways you can harness your dog's natural scenting ability, and the best part is you can get started in your own backyard!

An easy way to begin is to teach your dog to search for their favorite treat. Start by simply encouraging your pet to find a tasty (and particularly smelly) treat you've concealed in an easy hiding place, and gradually step up the level of difficulty as they get the hang of what's going on. 

If your pet isn't particularly food-motivated, try using their favorite toy as the item they need to find on your little treasure hunts. You could even play a game of hide-and-seek, effectively using yourself as the treat or toy your pooch needs to find. This provides wonderful mental stimulation for your pet and is a paw-some way for the two of you to have fun together.

If your best buddy loves scent work, you might want to consider introducing them to the sports of K9 Nose Work, Earthdog, or Tracking; all of which will provide a fantastic workout for their sense of smell!

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Scent Work Training Tips

  1. Keep it fun. If you're starting out at scent work, remember to keep your training sessions short and sweet. This will ensure that things stay fun and your dog doesn't get bored.
  2. End on a high. Make sure you end each session on a high note — you may need to give your dog an "easy win" to do this and ensure that they want to give it another go next session.
  3. Stay patient. Getting frustrated or angry will only slow your dog's progress, so stay calm and patient at all times. Make sure your eager tracker gets plenty of rewards along the way.

By a Labrador Retriever lover Tim Falk

Published: 01/29/2018, edited: 04/06/2020

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