How Your Dog Makes Sense Of Scents

What does your dog have in common with Jennifer Lopez? Perhaps an awful lot.

Lopez once said “I judge people by how they smell, not by how they look.” I’m not saying Lopez is a dog, but she certainly shares this attitude with them. And this gift of smell may account for why we sometimes see our pals as disobedient, inattentive, and well let’s face it, sometimes just downright rude!

How Do They Do That?

So what makes them such superb sniffers? They have excellent, top of the line equipment. Just look at it closely and you’ll be amazed. A dogs nose leather is covered with tiny ridges and dips. They are unique to each dog in much the same way fingerprints are to humans. You can even have a sterling silver charm made of it, and in their own strange way I find these beautiful. They are actually quite adept at both gathering and storing scents for analysis all this information in amazing ways. When you see that nose wiggle, you are seeing a very sophisticated and refined system at work. The wiggling of their nostrils facilitates the gathering of a scent and then for a brief moment their breathing is halted to hold and analyze the odor. They can even wiggle one nostril at a time which makes me laugh when I see it. Within their nasal cavities are specialized cells. Depending on the dog, there are estimated to at least 125 million of these sensory cells in a dog’s nose whereas the human nose contains only a measly 5-10 million.  Perhaps as much as 1/3 of a dog’s brain is concerned with smell and their ability to distinguish scents is  at least 1000 times greater than ours.

Try to imagine our dominant sense, which is sight, being 1000 times greater than it is. This gives us some perspective on how overwhelming the world of scents may be for your dog.  And it helps explain why we are sometimes completely ignored or tuned out when we are in an area that is particularly rife with odor. With that heightened sense of smell, this pretty much includes everywhere.

From your dog’s point of view a walk around the block is scent heaven.  Nearly every upright surface has been scented by some dog at some time and begs to be investigated.  A lot of information can be gathered from both urine and feces   such as sex, age, status, where they are in their breeding cycle, and when they were there. General body odors are also emitted from areas that have an abundance of glands: head, anus and the area right above the tail. Even dogs that are just shown a life size photo will go to these areas first to investigate. And when you see a dog scratching the ground he is not just trying to clean his feet off as we might hoping. There are sweat glands on the pads of his feet and other glands between the toes.  By scratching he is managing to throw his scent all around, a bit like giving a shout out.

The Government’s Noses Know

Many Federal, state and local government agencies take advantage of this ability.

Local and state law enforcement use dogs to track and locate people, locate cadavers, and detect drugs. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has dog and handler teams ready at all times to respond to disasters. Customs and Border Protection and Department of Homeland Security have teams to detect drugs, combat terrorism, detect explosives, find currency that has been concealed and not reported, and locate smuggled humans and agricultural products.

Other Nose Work

Dogs have also long been helpful to hunters because of their scenting abilities. Perhaps most notorious are Coonhounds, Basset Hounds. Dachshunds, Cocker Spaniels, and Beagles. In England truffle hunting dogs have been used to find this $2,200 a pound delicacy.

And if that wasn’t enough, this remarkable ability of dogs is now being used to detect cancer, impending seizures and fluctuations in blood sugar in diabetic patients. Interestingly, in a recent study using dogs to detect prostate cancer the dogs correctly identified 63 out 66 samples correctly.

So unless you are a fugitive, a terrorist, or a smuggler snuggle up and try to enjoy your dog’s scent as much as he is enjoying yours.

And in a future post I am going to share some “nose games” I have played with my dogs and my students.

And what does this have to do with a dog’s nose? Absolutely nothing!

Photo Credits: Douglas Brown and law keven on flickr

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12 Responses to “How Your Dog Makes Sense Of Scents”

  1. Ken 09. Jul, 2010 at 9:56 pm #

    Elizabeth – as always you continue to entertain and inform. I always learn a little more about my dog and our relationship from your blogs. KEEP ‘EM COMING!

  2. Michelle 09. Jul, 2010 at 10:09 pm #

    Oh yes, I agree with this! Tank is almost deaf, but I can open the top of the vanilla ice cream tub and he is right under foot from across the room!

  3. Amy@GoPetFriendly 10. Jul, 2010 at 4:05 am #

    I can’t wait for you to write about the nose games. I think Ty will love that – smelling is something that he does better than Buster, and everything in our house is a competition! =)

  4. Elizabeth Deitz 10. Jul, 2010 at 11:24 am #

    Thanks for the kind words! And please feel free to chime in with any questions, suggestions, insights, etc., I am always interested in hearing from people about there own experiences. There are always new approaches and I am constantly amazed at how inventive people can be. Thanks again!

  5. Elizabeth Deitz 10. Jul, 2010 at 11:29 am #

    Your comment makes me think about another related issue. Do you think that dogs can deceive and/or lie? Clearly they can ignore us,but can they plan to deceive?

  6. Elizabeth Deitz 10. Jul, 2010 at 11:33 am #

    Hi Amy. Have you ever used “sniffing” as a reward for Ty? Just curious. I have used it as the reward for loose leash walking with dogs that are scent driven. I am thinking here especially about a Bloodhound that I was working with. He was extremely driven to move forward ONLY when his nose was on the ground. When I began using that as the reward for taking just one step with his head up we began to make progress.

  7. Ruth 10. Jul, 2010 at 1:48 pm #

    Facinating! I find it really interesting to read all about how dogs can smell things – it is truly amazing… then again, they probably think that of our opposable thumbs and eyesight! Thanks for the comment and I’m really glad you love my blog.

  8. Kira 10. Jul, 2010 at 9:51 pm #

    I’m glad you stopped by and left a comment – I am really enjoying your blog too! Can’t wait to read more about your scent games. Murphy was evaluated by the leader of the local dog SAR team right before I got hurt. We were going to start training with them but unfortunately my getting hurt kind of put a damper on that.

    I hope your knee recovers quickly!


  9. Elizabeth Deitz 12. Jul, 2010 at 11:46 pm #

    Hi Kira. The nose games post will run on Friday, Do you do any nose work with Murphy? I like to use them for very active dogs as it seems to help them settle down and focus. Have you ever looked into the Nina Ottosen higher level brain games for dogs? Pretty interesting.
    Loved your Saturday photo essay!


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