A recent TikTok trend shows owners joking that their dog stopping to sniff is their version of social media, which changes owners’ perspective of allowing their dog to abruptly stop the stroll and actually allow them to “see what’s up.” While sniffing a tree isn’t the same as reading a tweet, sensory walks do offer dogs many benefits without the online pressure of putting your best life on display.
Benefits of Sniff Time for Dogs
You might find it frustrating when your dog wants to stop and sniff every landmark while going for a walk. However, when dogs sniff, they are gathering vital intel about their territory and four-legged neighbors. Whether it’s discerning the scent of a male rival, a notification that a bitch is in heat, or that a critter they’d like to chase took a pause in that spot, sniffing offers a wealth of enriching information.
Staci Lemke, CPDT-KA, RVT explains that sniffing is how dogs gather and process information to interpret the world. “Imagine someone taking you to an art gallery, then blindfolding you. You wouldn’t get much out of it, would you? I imagine that’s how it is for dogs that are rushed along on walks without the opportunity to stop and sniff,” she says.
When you look at the science, it’s no surprise dogs love to sniff everything. Dogs’ noses have more than 200 million scent receptors—compared to a measly six million in humans. Plus, dogs sniff five to 10 times a second, which we only do once every 1.5 seconds.
Studies even suggest sniffing makes dogs feel more optimistic. Sniffing offers your pet the chance to make more of their own choices and engage in naturally enriching behaviors.
What Makes a Sniff Walk Different?
Penny Leigh, CPDT-KA, is a certified dog trainer and director of the AKC GoodDog! Helpline. She explains that “sniff walks are especially important for urban-dwelling dogs that do not have yards or opportunities to be loose in a safe, fenced environment where they can sniff and meander at their pleasure.”
When Lemke takes her dogs on a sniff-centric walk, she lets them choose where they want to go and how long they’ll linger at each smell, covering very little distance slowly. She reminds us that “humans are more about the destination, dogs more about the journey.” Rather than planning to reach a particular place in a set time while on a sniff walk, pick a safe, peaceful spot and allow your dog to take the lead and explore at their own pace.
All you need is a well-fitting harness and a long line (rather than a retractable leash) measuring between 10 and 15 feet. “Putting your dog in a harness and on a long line will enable your dog to not feel pressure on their neck and also get ahead of you and set the pace—just take care to keep your dog out of harm’s way and be ready to reel in the long line,” says Leigh. “The best locations offer a lot of grass, trees, bushes, and natural terrain.”
Why Sniffing Supports Anxious Dogs
“Dogs’ lives are nearly completely dictated by their owners—when they eat, when they go out, whether or not they are crated. Then they are taken on a quick walk to eliminate and hustled back inside. This can lead to growing anxiety,” says Leigh.
Fast-paced walks through hectic surroundings can pile on added pressure for fearful dogs. In contrast, meandering sniff sessions on a long leash can lower a dog’s pulse rate and release the mood-boosting chemical dopamine. “If we can find a safe place where these dogs can let their guard down and explore using their noses, it can greatly reduce the amount of stress in their lives,” says Lemke.
Just watch out for nervous energy being channeled into frantic sniffing. It’s all about ensuring their sniffing is calm and methodical, which you can do by reading your dog’s body language and behavior. A relaxed and happy dog generally has an open countenance and no stress line around their face, and their body won’t be carrying any tension.
How Long Is Too Long for a Sniffy Walk?
Even though a sniffing session is slower than the average dog walk, it’s about quality, not quantity. Dogs sniffing is a great form of canine mental stimulation, and it increases their respiration rate, so it’s a tiring activity. “I don’t think the length of time is as important as the quality of the walk. Dogs can get a whole lot of sniffing done in 20 to 30 minutes and be just as tired as an hour walk without sniffing,” says Lemke.
So instead of always going out with the goal to walk for as long and as briskly as you can with your dog to heel, next time, remind yourself who the walk is for. Slow things down and let them stop and smell the roses—or that irresistible patch of fox poop-covered grass! You’ll likely have a happier, more relaxed dog.