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  • Dogs have a much more powerful sense of smell than humans, and they use scent to transmit information.
  • Humans have only around 5 million scent receptors in our noses, but some breeds have over 100 million.
  • AKC Scent Work, Barn Hunt, and Tracking are all great ways to channel your dog’s urges to sniff.

When you’re shopping in the grocery store, do you look at different packages to decide what to buy? Or do you smell the cans and boxes? If you were a dog, you would definitely be sniffing. But we humans use our eyes to make sense of the world around us. It’s helpful for owners to get a sense of why your dog seeks to sniff everything in sight.

A Dog’s Primary Sense

Just as we use vision as our main sense for understanding our environment, dogs use their noses. The way something smells gives dogs more information than the way something looks, feels, sounds, or tastes. Think about how dogs greet each other. Information is transmitted via noses rather than barks or paw shakes. In fact, dogs obtain more detailed information from scent than we can even imagine. Human noses and brains simply aren’t wired that way.

“What the dog sees and knows comes through his nose,” affirms Barnard College professor Alexandra Horowitz in her book Being a Dog: Following the Dog Into a World of Smell. “The information that every dog — the tracking dog, of course, but also the dog lying next to you, snoring, on the couch — has about the world based on smell is unthinkably rich.”

The Nose Knows

What makes a dog’s sense of smell so effective? First, their noses are far more powerful than ours. Humans have only 5–6 million scent receptors in our noses. Depending on the breed, dogs have up 100 million or more scent receptors in their noses. And those terrific trackers we know as Bloodhounds have 300 million!

A group of Bloodhounds sniffing while on the trail.

Dogs can detect some smells in parts per trillion. However, extra scent receptors don’t just mean dogs can sniff subtle odors we would miss. They also allow dogs to detect a complexity in odors that humans can’t. You might smell chocolate chip cookies, but your dog can smell the chocolate chips, flour, eggs, and other ingredients. And when dogs sniff another dog, they smell more than doggy odor. They can detect the gender of the other dog, as well as clues to that dog’s age and health status. No wonder dogs find “pee-mail” on the fire hydrant so fascinating. They’re getting all the neighborhood gossip in one big whiff.

Dogs also have a special scent organ called the vomeronasal organ, located between the roof of the mouth and the bottom of the nasal passage. Also called the Jacobson’s organ and found in other animals like snakes, cats, and horses, it has specialized receptors that focus on detecting pheromones. Humans may possess the organ as well, but it’s unlikely we use pheromones to communicate the way dogs do.

Wired For Smell

With all these scent signals traveling from the nose, it’s no wonder dogs’ brains have a larger olfactory cortex than humans. Just like with humans, different sections of a dogs’ brains specialize in different things.

Indeed, the smelling section of a dog brain is 40 times larger than ours. In fact, one-eighth of a dog’s brain is dedicated to interpreting odor. That’s even bigger than the section of our brain dedicated to interpreting sight. So, it’s not hyperbole to suggest that a dog’s sense of smell may be even more powerful than a human’s sense of sight.

Meet Your Dog’s Need To Sniff

Preventing your dog from experiencing the world through scent is like putting a blindfold on a human. The chance to smell provides your dog with important information and essential mental stimulation. So, now that you appreciate your dog’s need to sniff, how can you better meet your pet’s needs and positively channel those urges?

First, make your dog’s walks enjoyable by allowing ample chances to sniff. Hydrants and tree trunks aren’t something to rush past or avoid. They are important sources of information for your dog. However, you don’t want to spend your entire walk sniffing the same tree. Use your “leave it” cue to tell your dog when it’s time to move on. Better yet, reward short stretches of loose-leash walking or heeling with frequent sniff breaks. Teach a “go sniff” cue when it’s time for the break, so your dog knows it’s okay to relax and catch some odors.

Another great way to foster your dog’s love of smells is to take up a dog sport that uses the nose. AKC Scent Work is a great choice. Dogs hunt for hidden cotton swabs scented with essential oils and must tell their handler when they have made the discovery. As the handler has no idea where the swab is located, the dog takes the lead and lets their nose lead the way.

Scent Work is a relatively easy sport to train at home. Besides, it can boost your dog’s performance in other nose work activities too. Tracking, Barn Hunt, and Earthdog are all wonderful ways to celebrate your dog’s nose.

The key thing to remember is that sniffing is one of the most important things to a pup and is part of what keeps them happy in life. So let them sniff away!

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