Owners who take their dog on a walk and march them briskly around the block in order for them to do their business are depriving their hound of so many exciting opportunities to explore the world. We’re not talking about an off-lead run here – although that can be fun too – but much more importantly, the slow and considered art of sniffing!
If you get pulled towards a bush or tree, resist the urge to drag your dog away; instead stop and watch the world go by and let her sniff to her heart’s content. Because a scent to a dog is so much more than just a smell, it can literally tell them a whole story. Let’s look at how a dog’s nose knows.
A dog’s nose
A dog’s nose is designed quite differently to a human’s, it is a complex organ with multiple functions. We use our nose to breathe, and in the process we can also detect some odours. When a dog breathes, a fold of tissue inside the nostril directs the air so that the majority goes to the lungs for respiration, while a small amount is filtered into a recessed area to be used for olfaction – the sense of smell.
Furthermore, when humans breathe out through the nose, they exhale the smell as well as the air. A dog, on the other hand, uses specially designed slits in the sides of the nose to exhale so that it does not interrupt the intake. The exhale is also done in such a manner that it actually helps push more scent back into the nose. As dogs don’t dispel any odours on exhalation, they can intensify the scent of even the faintest smell. The fact that they can breathe and smell simultaneously means that they can sniff almost continuously.
As well as honing in on the slightest whiff of something, smells can get caught in a dog’s long ears or face creases to aid the process, and mucus on the nose helps capture scent particles, so a dog will lick its nose to promote this receptor.
The inhaled air is filtered through bony structures called turbinates which are lined with olfactory receptors and it is here that your dog starts to identify individual molecules based on chemical properties. This information is then sent to the brain, of which around a whopping 30% is dedicated to analysing the different smells.
What’s more, each nostril can move and act independently and, combined with the ability to continuously draw in more scent, enables a dog to establish the direction of travel. This is why your dog will weave back and forth when hunting an invisible trail, and how dogs are able to find lost items or hiding prey.
On top of all this amazing physiology, dogs also have a whole other sense of smell dedicated to social contact! Dogs have something called a Jacobson’s organ which is purely designed to pick up pheromones to enable them to make a social assessment of other dogs, including sexual readiness.
By using this separate sensory organ, dogs are able to keep social awareness isolated from smell detection, and use the right side of the brain which is associated with intense feelings such as fear or aggression, for analysis.
While all this sniffing is satisfying for dogs, we have also benefited as we’ve trained dogs to help out their nasally-challenged human owners. There are many different jobs for dogs using their noses including searching for missing people, finding criminals, searching out illegal substances, locating explosives, detecting medical changes in a person and identifying cancerous cells.
Of course, you don’t have to put your dog on the payroll to make his nose work, tasty treats are reward enough for a good sniffing session. You can find any number of brain games in our shops or make your own.
It’s no wonder dogs love to sniff as they get so much information from their noses – it is literally what they are designed to do! So next time you think about a walk round the block, why not consider a scent work session instead?
Written by: Lucy Ellis
Photos: Rose Nightingale,Lucy Ellis