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Make sense of scents: How to make your dog happy

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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I have good news for all of us who don’t look like Ryan Gosling or Gisele Bundchen: your dog doesn’t care. Dogs are much more interested in our smells than our looks. Just watch a dog with his head out a car window — nose forging ahead. Wind brings innumerable scent molecules directly to the dog’s face, which in the dog’s world, makes for a pretty good day. * You might look like a one-eyed pig, but to your dog, it’s your bouquet that makes you beautiful.

A Beautiful Sight to Sniff
Unlike us humans who preoccupy ourselves with visual landscapes, dogs smell their vistas. Maybe you’ve had the experience of walking a dog when all of a sudden the dog gets hooked on something. Even though that something is completely out of range and invisible to you, the dog’s behavior indicates, “What I’m checking out is really interesting. We are not going anywhere, buster.”

To get inside your dog’s world, you need to pick his brain—and his nose. Dogs have much more nose than us humans. Their extensive olfactory epithelium allows them to trap and assess odor molecules at concentrations of up to parts per trillion, while we are more in the range of parts per million. Yep. I said trillion. Their noses are about a million times more sensitive than our noses. Often, our brains can’t register what they whiff.

On top of that, dogs’ noses come equipped with a vomeronasal organ (unfortunately, it’s not a musical instrument). The vomeronasal organ has tons of receptor cells that take sniffing to the next level. It is thought to be important in detecting species-specific information such as pheromones. While our understanding of dog olfaction still has a long way to go, we do know that yes, your dog is getting quality information from that other dog’s behind, face and urine.

Smell Games
If you’re starting to look at your dog as one big nose, you’re in good company. Many of the folks working with dogs or researching dog behavior and cognition remind dog owners that smelly (or smelling) experiences are integral to a dog’s “good life.” In the spirit of picking your dog’s nose, here are four ways to give your dog the gift of smell:

1. Take your dog on smell walks
In Inside of A Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know, cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz recommends accompanying dogs on smell walks. She explains:

“[Dog]-walks are often not done with the dog’s sake in mind, but strangely playing out a very human definition of a walk. We want to make good time; to keep a brisk pace; to get to the post office and back.”

Dogs don’t care about “making time.” While walking with the dog’s nose in mind might alter total distance traveled, you and Bucky can bond over quality olfactory experiences. In a smell walk, Bucky might sniff as he likes, choose the direction of the walk or linger to get to the bottom of a particular smell. What else might you provide on a smell walk?

2. Consider smelling sports
Taking a cue from drug sniffing dogs, K9 Nose Work has recently become a formalized fun activity and a favorite of many companion dogs and owners alike.

You don’t have to turn your dog into a narc to get into smelling sports. It’s about “getting your dog excited about using his nose to seek out a favorite toy or treat reward hidden in one of several boxes.” (K9 Nose Work)

The game can then be expanded to include entire rooms, exterior areas and even vehicles. Of course, scent work can be conducted in less formalized ways. Don’t be afraid to get creative with smelling sports. One man’s narc is another man’s truffle pig.

3. Make up your own smell(y) games
Have you ever put your dog’s olfaction to the test? After being out of the country for a year, my friend and I wanted to see whether her dog would remember me. Our sneaky setup was unscientific and simple: Millie and her owner would walk down the street, and I would walk past them, coming up from behind and not interacting in any way, to see whether Millie paid me any mind. As I walked past, Millie turned toward what could have just been another stranger in NYC, and gave one of those glorious welcomes that says, in not so many words, “YOU ARE HERE! YOU ARE HERE! IT’S YOU!! YAYAYAYAYAY!!”

It’s possible this is more of a game for my friend and me than Millie. Still, it’s a reminder to us humans – who often need reminders – that the nose is a great way to connect with a dog.

4. Make your reunion smelly
Try making “smell” a priority when greeting dogs. While most people don’t overtly sniff and greet, we need to keep in mind that Scruffy’s schnozzle is her window to the world. You want to keep that window wide open, not close it.

It goes back to our different biologies. When we people walk into a party, most of us look around, see who’s there and then make the next move (either toward a friend or toward the bar). For dogs, “looking around the room” is easier done with the help of olfactory investigation because visual cues could be misleading. Who hasn’t been confused when meeting a friend with a new haircut/glasses/facial hair/gorilla suit?

With dogs and their wonderful snouts, they don’t have to worry about mistaken identities. Sight can be confusing, but a smell check can set things straight! That’s the way you’d do it too, if your nose were a million times more powerful than it is.

Take a look at a reunion between a dog and a member of U.S. military returning from deployment:

When the dog initially sees the owner, we don’t see a “YOU ARE HERE!! EXCELLENT!” response. With only visual cues readily available, the dog doesn’t seem to “see” his owner. Instead, the dog shows:

  • Tail low and tucked
  • Low posture
  • Moving toward yet away
  • Barks more in line with “stranger” than “happy”

The owner then provides the dog a hand for sniffing, and after olfactory investigation, the dog shows a proper display of, “IT’S YOU!! IT’S YOU!! YAYAYAYA!”

Does this video surprise you? And just as important, do you give your dog opportunities for olfactory exploration during greetings?

Sniff Time
There are things out there in the world that you might not notice and can’t understand but that your dog is very in tune with and would like a closer look (oh please!). And these things have nothing to do with whether you are Ryan Gosling (but if you are Ryan Gosling, feel free to give me a call).

Photos: She nose you know photographed by Mark Kelly, Dog smelling sunflowers by Dylan, both used under Creative Commons license

References
Horowitz. 2009. Inside of a Dog What Dogs See, Smell, and Know. Scribner
Wells & Hepper. 2003. Directional tracking in the domestic dog, Canis familiaris. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 84, 297-305.

* Wind can play a part in scent detection. A recent paper exploring directional tracking in dogs notes that the researchers laid trails at a “ninety degree angle to the direction of the oncoming wind to reduce the possibility of the dogs using airborne scent to determine directionality.” It’s easier to attend to a scent if airborne scent molecules are flying directly into your face, like a car ride.

Julie Hecht About the Author: Julie Hecht is a canine behavioral researcher and science writer in New York City. She would really like to meet your dog. Follow on Twitter @DogSpies.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. dobbie 4:33 pm 06/17/2013

    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/nature/dogs-sense-of-smell.html

    Link to this
  2. 2. Pamela112358 11:49 am 06/19/2013

    Abby is blind, so smell is very important to her, but ALL the dogs enjoy exploring the smells of our walks and following the scent trails they come across. I love that I can have them off-leash so that they can follow where their noses takes ‘em!!

    Link to this
  3. 3. j9lazur 2:22 pm 06/19/2013

    I try to do Smell Walk Sundays with my dogs. It’s nice not to have a destination and see where we end up.

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  4. 4. GivePaw 4:53 pm 06/19/2013

    Garbage day is the happiest day for my dog. She enjoys sniffing so much, I actually use it as a reward when training outdoors. She performs a behavior I’ve requested and the reward is that I send her out to sniff whatever she wants. We also do a lot of “Find It” games. It’s helped her with her dog-to-dog reactivity. The act of seeking relaxes her in the presence of other dogs. It’s also a great indoor rainy day game!

    Link to this
  5. 5. CodeBon 11:33 am 06/20/2013

    Great reminder that a dog’s experience of the world is much different than ours.

    My dog relies heavily on his nose. When I come home, even though he has seen me approach the door from his perch in the front window, he doesn’t commence the Dance of Joy until he smells me to make absolutely certain it’s me.

    Link to this
  6. 6. Rucacao 12:20 pm 06/14/2014

    I wrote a blog post a while back about how dogs smell colour. You can have a look here: http://dog-earedjournals.blogspot.ca/2011/06/dogs-smell-colour-people-dont-how-crazy.html

    Link to this

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