There was no way I was going to miss something called a ‘Smellwalk.’ A social dilettante at heart, I revel in time spent in the mind of others — especially those who add an entirely different color to the palate of my worldview. While I think loads about the olfactory experiences of dogs, I give little consideration to my own. A meeting with Kate McLean changed all that.

McLean is a graphic designer and PhD candidate who highlights “the multi-sensory nature of human understanding.” Design, she argues, does not have to be uni-sensory, catering solely to the eyes. We all know that senses operate in unison — I see the taco truck but I also smell it — so why not embrace more than one sense? “Smells form part of our knowing,” she explains, “but are elusive, disappearing before they can be fixed in place.” I want a taste of McLean’s smelly world.

A group of smellmappers set out this past Wednesday to cover four blocks in Williamsburg, Brooklyn with our noses. Equipped with a buddy, we stopped at smell stations to explore, acknowledge and assess odors. I paired with Alexandra Horowitz (Twitter), Inside of a Dog author and quite the thoughtful smeller, with whom I’ve had the pleasure of studying the canine mind since 2010. We followed the lead of McLean around the block, listening with our noses as we went. Here’s what I learned on my nose-travels:

I have no idea what you’re talking about

Being paired with a buddy taught me that I will not always smell what you smell. Sometimes that’s because the odor is moving, like the passing of cigarette smoke or recently made pad thai — the smell is intense when fresh, but you might miss it if you walk over even a minute or two later.

Then there are the smells that I was sure we’d both get but didn’t. In the The New York Times coverage of our Brooklyn Smellwalk, journalist Vivian Yee notes that I crouched “next to a trash can full of discarded coffee cups, a retro soda bottle and a cortisone cream package” only to find… nothing. But Horowitz, just moments before, detected recently chewed minty gum. It felt odd to be in exactly the same place and have your nose come back with nothing. “Deficient nose?” I thought. Nope. Because of the way scents travel and move, McLean describes olfactory perception as “highly nuanced, highly personal.” No. I don’t smell the gum. But the trash on the other hand…

I know exactly what you’re talking about

Other smells hit a consensus. Trash that’s recently discarded — or has had some intermingling with the warm air — is a bit rancid. It hits you in the back of the mouth, almost like you just swallowed some of it. You want to get it out but can’t because it’s not in. Miriam Songster, another smellwalker describes it, “Like when they put trash out and the liquid drips out.”

Later, when sniffing the grill of a car, we reach a different type of consensus. We don’t use the same words to describe the warm air emitting from the recently used car, but we do agree that the smell is best defined by the color ‘gray.’ Earlier, we agreed that rosemary, if it were to have a shape, would be jaggedy.

Your dog, the smeller

Walking home from the Smellwalk, I was tired. Apparently, focused attention on smelling takes a lot out of you. I saw a woman with a white, terrier-like dog; the calf-high dog was sniffing the base of a skinny tree for what evidently was too long for the woman’s liking. “Come,” she barked, and followed with a swift kick to the side of the dog’s head and a jerk on the leash. The dog broke from the smell to trot along beside her.

Where to start.

Just as we do not pay homage to our own sense of smell, it can be hard for dog owners to appreciate how much the dog experience relies on smell. But while you might take your sense of smell for granted, smell in dogs is not to be taken lightly. Olfaction is complex. For example, dogs will sometimes bypass things that we would assume their nose would zero in on, but that doesn't mean dogs aren't interested in using their noses. Like us, dogs can shift and prioritize different sensory modalities at different times. And while dog scent detection can be affected by a number of factors, such as the temperature outside and hydration levels, engaging in olfactory experiences is not something dogs want less of.

Let me put it another way. To live with a dog is to enter into an agreement:

Dear dog,

Just as I see the the world, you, dog, smell the world. As we spend time together, I will learn more about your nose. I know that some dogs are more into getting their sniff on than others, and I will get to know what 'smelling' means for you. I will pay attention to your sniffer. But most importantly, if we're outside and I want you to move along — break from that tree, that dog’s butt, that spot on the ground where I can’t see what you’re investigating but you can’t seem to get enough — I know that there are many many many ways to make that happen other than kicking you in the head and jerking the leash.

Yours truly,

Person with great-smelling shoes

Let's make it practical. How do you balance embracing your dog's sniffer and moving along? How have you taught your dog that it’s time to move along?


Photo: Wally Gobetz Brooklyn - Williamsburg: Squirrel by Roa, Flickr creative commons; Contestation & color in the smellscape, ©Kate McLean 2014.

Related and referenced

Julie Hecht. Make sense of scents: How to make your dog happy.

Vivian Yee. Data for a New York ‘Smellmap,’ Collected Sniff by Sniff. The New York Times. Featuring an eight-image slide show of the Smellwalk in action.

Kate McLean. Sensory Maps.