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A Lesson with Laura – Why do dogs…

By Ash Tree Vets | 3rd December 2019


This month we will be looking at the canine super power of scent. A common complaint I receive from dog owners is that they struggle to get their dog to walk on a loose lead or to keep their focus due to the fact that their dog permanently has their nose to the ground. So why do dogs love to sniff so much?

First and foremost it is important to remember that scent is a dogs primary sense, a dog’s experience of the world around them is guided largely by what it smells. A dog’s sense of smell is far superior to that of a human and this is due to the dogs sophisticated olfactory (scent) system. Specialised cells called olfactory receptor cells are found in the skin lining the nose. Humans have approximately 5 million of these cells whereas dogs have between 200-300 million depending on the breed of dog! These cells join onto a part of the brain called the olfactory bulb. The olfactory bulb of a dog is FOUR times larger than the equivalent part of the human brain! To put it simply, scent is a canine super power!

So why all the sniffing? Dogs work actively to gather scents, unlike people where the scents just waft into our noses. The process of sniffing briefly stores the air in the chambers of a dog’s nose so that it can be interpreted by them.

Allowing your dog to sniff on walks is vitally important for their mental wellbeing as it allows them to take in and process information about the world around them. Sniffing can be a great stress buster for dogs and can help anxious dogs to relax. If you are worried about your dog pulling on the lead in order to sniff there are a couple of things you could try; 1. Teach your dog a verbal cue that lets them know it is ok to stop and sniff, this way your dog still gets to do plenty of sniffing but you can control the extent of it a little. 2. Your dog can learn to differentiate between wearing a lead and collar or a lead and harness i.e. when you need your dog to be walking on a loose lead use a collar but when you are happy for them to be sniffing and perhaps pulling a little use a harness. 3. Take your dog (or rather let your dog take you!) on a sniffari; if you’re not in a hurry and it’s safe to do so let your dog follow their nose and walk wherever it takes them.

You can hone your dog’s super scent power by participating in some scent work activities with them at home. Teaching your dog to find items you have hidden or setting up a scent trail can be a great game for a wet cold evening and will provide your dog with important mental stimulation.  I use a few empty (washed well) chocolate tubs (the kind you get at Christmas) and drill some holes in the top of the tubs. I then hide a smelly treat or a toy in one of the tubs and send my dog to go and find the tub it is hidden in. Make it easy for your dog to start with by using only one or two tubs and something super smelly. Over time you can make this exercise more difficult and add to the number of tubs in the line-up.  I always have two snoozing dogs after a few repetitions of this game!

The advanced scent system of the dog has been put to good use by humans as dogs now do a number of jobs for us including Bomb detection, and search a rescue. Medical detection dogs are taught to detect the early stages of some cancers in urine and tissue samples; it is incredible to think that in spite of all of our technology we still haven’t found a machine to replace the dog’s nose!

I’d love to see some photos of your dog using their nose – post your picture to our facebook page and tell us what your dog loves to sniff!

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