Dogs love to sniff; hardly a revelation I know but just think about it for a moment. Dogs really really love to sniff. It’s compulsive, it’s innate, it’s part of what they are, they’re furry, sniffy, wagging machines. They sniff anything and everything. Sniffing is largely how they evaluate the world around them. They sniff pee and poo and grass and trees and people and novel things and each other and just about everything else on the planet. They are genetically programmed to sniff. They’re so good at sniffing, they can detect odours in at least ten thousand times lower concentrations than humans can (Walker et al. 2006). We’ve frequently employed this amazing ability for explosive detection, fire-scene investigation, detection of illegal drugs, tracking criminal suspects, finding human remains, discovering trapped people in earthquake disasters, identifying wood rot, seizure alerts and even identifying cancer in human urine.
This video shows just how important the sense of smell is to dogs. It’s not unique, I’ve seen many similar videos where dogs rely on their olfactory ability to remember/recognise their human companion after a period of absence.
That sniffing is a major part of being a dog, is indisputable. Why, then, do we humans constantly drag them away every time they stop to sniff? Largely, I think it’s because we simply don’t share their superb sense of smell and so often don’t have an appreciation of its importance to the dog. How things smell doesn’t play a major role in our lives. Sure, we like the smell of baking bread and hate the smell of poo, but we don’t sniff everyone we meet and we don’t notice the millions of different scents as we walk our dogs down the street.
Zoos around the world are going to great lengths to provide suitable enrichment to prevent boredom and behaviour problems. In a comprehensive literature review of enrichment for captive animals, Wells (2009), found enrichment of an animal’s dominant sense to be the most beneficial to the their welfare. For dogs (and many other mammals), this means providing opportunities for them to use their magnificent sense of smell. I argue that dogs are jut as likely to suffer boredom and behavioural problems as zoo kept animals if they don’t receive appropriate mental stimulation.
So rather than pulling dogs away when they’re sniffing, we should be actively encouraging such behaviour. We should be proving ample enrichment at home, for example, hiding food for a treasure hunt, using snuffle mats and Pickpockets or teaching them to find a scent
Above all else, we need to at least try to comprehend life from the dogs point of view and allow them to behave as dogs, not four legged humans. Try to enjoy letting them sniff, it’s fantastic mental stimulation and it’s going someway to fulfilling their needs. So maybe stop calling it going for a walk and start calling it going for a sniff.
Just as us humans are obsessed with how everything looks, dogs are obsessed with how everything smells. To prevent dogs from sniffing is to prevent them from being dogs.
Shay Kelly is the author of Dog training and behavor: a guide for everyone and Canine Enrichment: the book your dog needs you to read
Walker, D., Walker, J., Cavnar, P., Taylor, J., Pickel, J., Hall, F. and Suarez, J. (2006) ‘Naturalistic quantification of canine olfactory sensitivity’ Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 97 (2-4) pp. 241-254
Wells, D. (2009) ‘Sensory stimulation as environmental enrichment for captive animals: A review’ Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 118 (1-2) pp. 1-11