As sight-centred humans, it’s easy to forget how nose-centred our dogs’ existences are. I’m always encouraging clients to allow their dogs the opportunity to use their snouts more, and preaching the benefits of olfactory enrichment!
The human nose is actually much better than most people think it is, and humans can distinguish thousands of different smells even in minute quantities. But dogs’ noses are truly incredible, and our sense of smell almost pales to insignificance in comparison. To put the difference in context, we have 5-6 million odour receptors, while dogs have 220 million. The olfactory epithelium of humans is about 5cm², while in dogs, it’s up to 150cm². It is perhaps no surprise then, that dogs can detect substances at concentrations of up to a million times lower than humans can perceive them.
Here are a few interesting facts about a dog’s sense of smell:
- When tracking, dogs can make 6 inhalations per second;
- Sniffing leads to an increase of energy needed for inspiration and expiration, making it a tiring activity;
- Despite having such an amazing sense of smell, dogs will default to their sense of sight or hearing first, as it uses less energy than scenting;
- Dogs can sniff out cancer cells;
- Dogs trained to find land mines can identify mines planted 10 years ago, 15 inches under the ground;
- Dogs smell in stereo; that is, they can individually process information from each nostril, allowing them to determine the direction from whence a scent is coming.
Reasons to give your dog plenty of outlets for using their noses:
- Doing 20 minutes of intense scent-work leaves a dog pretty exhausted- a 20 minute walk certainly won’t have this impact on most dogs!;
- Sniffing causes a dog’s pulse rate to drop, making it a nice calming activity;
- Sniffing provides great mental stimulation for dogs, something dogs I meet are often lacking;
- Playing nose games with your dog is a great way to positively interact with your dog, and to increase your value on walks- who wants to go too far from the human who may at any moment toss a handful of treats into the grass for them to find!
Some ways to provide olfactory enrichment:
- First and foremost, let your dog sniff on walks. Your dog’s walk is probably one of the highlights of their day. Frog-marching them on an hour-long trek, when they’re pulled along every time they try to stop and sniff is akin to somebody bringing you on a tour of a city blindfolded, or bringing you to a museum and covering your eyes every time you tried to look at something! The sniffing will tire them out as much as the walking will, so my advice is to worry less about space covered, and more about the quality of the walk;
- Do a simple treat search- you can use the grass in your garden, a thick piled rug, or a specially made snuffle matt (I usually have some of these for sale- get in touch for more information);
- Put treats/pate/fish paste on various objects on walks, and let your dog investigate- try trees, fallen logs, along low walls;
- Blanket games- find a really useful video by another PDTE member illustrating this here.
Of course, you could also come along to some of my puppy classes or to the social walks I run with Harriet, where we do some scent games most weeks! Combine nose work with sensible interaction with other dogs, and you’ll have one sleepy dog on your hands for the rest of the weekend!
If you’d like to read more about scenting, try Anne Lil Kvam’s book, The Canine Kingdom of Scent.