The Power Of A Dog’s Nose

Maya enjoys the morning smells of grass and flowers

Can A dog sniff too much?  Hands up if when you set off on a dog walk your main priorities are exercising your dog, socialising them and letting them do their ‘business’.

While these are critical to maintaining a happy and healthy dog, limiting your dog to just these three experiences during a walk leaves out an important and vital part of your dog’s experience – engaging your dog’s sense of smell.

“Our daily lives with our dogs typically don’t allow them to exploit the full abilities of their incredible noses,” says Alexandra Horowitz, author of “Being a Dog: Following the Dog Into a World of Smell.” “We hurry them along during walks, focused on the destination rather than the journey itself.”

But we can change that “hurry along” dynamic and encourage sniffing enrichment by letting our dogs’ noses lead the way. After all dogs were born to sniff!

Here are some facts about your dog’s sense of smell and how to take a “scent walk” that takes full advantage of it.

A Dog’s Primary Sense

Dogs can smell 10,000 to 100,000 times better than we can

It’s not easy to appreciate just how much information dogs can absorb through sniffing. Unfortunately this is not something we will ever be able to experience ourselves, so abstract knowledge of their superior ability to smell is all we have.

Dogs can smell 10,000 to 100,000 times better than we can. They can detect some scents in parts per trillion. In numbers, that means they can notice 1 particle in 1,000,000,000,000 other particles.

Depending on the breed, dogs have up 100 million or more scent receptors in their noses. And those terrific trackers we know as Bloodhounds have 300 million.  Extra scent receptors don’t just mean dogs can sniff subtle odours we would miss. They also allow dogs to detect a complexity in odours that humans can’t. You might smell chocolate biscuits, but your dog can smell the chocolate, the flour, the eggs, and all the other ingredients. And when dogs sniff another dog, they smell more than doggy odour. They can detect the gender of the other dog, as well as clues to that dog’s age and health status.

Dogs smell to gain context of their environment, which includes the unique signature of other beings that have traveled that route before them, as well as elements that are abstract, like the passage of time or pending weather changes.

It therefore is not surprising that dogs find lamp posts, bins and other common areas dogs like to pee so interesting and want to spend hours sniffing – so may clues about each dog have been left behind.

This means that dogs are able to understand scent in a way that’s difficult for us to comprehend. A dog’s sense of smell can be loosely compared to human sight.

A Dog’s Nose

A dog’s odour detection system has two parts, the nose and Jacobsen’s organ

Unlike humans, dogs have an additional olfactory tool that increases their ability to smell. Jacobsen’s organ is a special part of a dog’s olfactory apparatus located inside the nasal cavity and opening into the roof of the mouth behind the upper incisors.

This amazing organ serves as a secondary olfactory system designed specifically for chemical communication. The nerves from Jacobsen’s organ lead directly to the brain and are different from the other nerves in the nose, in that they do not respond to ordinary smells.  In fact, these nerve cells respond to a range of substances that often have no odour at all.

Jacobsen’s organ communicates with the part of the brain that deals with mating.  By identifying pheromones, it provides male and female dogs with the information they need to determine if a member of the opposite sex is available for breeding.   It also enhances a newborn puppy’s sense of smell so they can find their mother’s milk source, and allows a puppy to distinguish their mother from other nursing dogs.

With a quick sniff, a puppy placed between two females will move to the mother that gave birth to them! Puppies also have heat sensors in their noses that help them locate their mothers if they wander off.

The two separate parts of a dog’s odour detection system, the nose and Jacobsen’s organ, work together to provide delicate sensibilities that neither system could achieve alone. When a dog curls their lips and flares their nostrils, they open up Jacobsen’s organ which increases the exposure of the nasal cavity to aromatic molecules and essentially becomes a remarkably efficient smelling machine.

The canine nose works best when it is damp. The wet outer nose and mucus-covered nasal canal efficiently capture scent particles. Moisture is so important to the canine sense of smell, that dogs will lick their noses when they become dry. Smart canines don’t want to miss out on important information due to a dry nose!

Sniffing – A Dog’s Favourite Past Time

Sniffing is such an enjoyable past time for a dog

But sniffing is not just a dog’s greatest talent. It also is one of their most enjoyed past times.

Different breeds of dogs like or dislike different activities. A Saint Bernard may not be thrilled about daily sessions of playing frisbee and an Italian Greyhound may not like to come swimming with you.  An German Shepherd probably doesn’t need to go to the shops with you and greet dozens of people every weekend and a Belgian Malinois may not want to spend hours on your lap.

All breeds however, no matter how big, active or aloof, have one thing in common: They love to sniff!

We don’t need to train or encourage our dogs to sniff. Puppies do it as soon as they can walk, and old dogs still do it when they barely can do anything else anymore. It is as natural as walking.

Dogs rarely get tired of sniffing. They enjoy it every day, multiple times a day. The constant stream of information keeps them interested

Sniffing for Mental WellBeing

Dogs often sniff each other as a form of introduction

Sniffing is used as a calming signal between dogs.  For instance two friendly dogs that meet each other may signal their wish to not escalate the situation by spontaneous sniffing.  Or a dog that feels uncomfortable in a training situation may turn away to sniff the ground.

Dogs do not just communicate to each other that they are peaceful by sniffing, but also calm themselves down through it. A dog that feels nervous may often suddenly be extremely interested in the ground in front of him. It is an inbuilt mechanism to relax.

Already a few minutes of sniffing lowers your dog’s heart rate. It is the canine equivalent of deep breathing.

Benefits Of Allowing Your Dog To Sniff

Kai loves his walks where he can enjoy discovering new scents

For highly energetic dogs

Do you have an energetic, perhaps slightly crazy dog? Maybe a puppy or youngster or a working breed that will want to be on the go all day?

Sniffing and scent work is a great way to ‘entertain’ a dog as it requires extensive physical and mental stimulation from the dog, making it a great way to burn off excess energy and reduce behavioural problems at home. Searches can be conducted just about anywhere, which means training and learning can happen at almost anytime.

For shy and anxious dogs

Sniffing odours on a dog walk can help your dog with their confidence

Do you have an anxious or fearful dog? Do they maybe hide in their crate or try to run away?

Sniffing may help him your dog to feel more confident about their environment. Allowing nervous dogs to sniff on their walks seems to relax them, especially over time. If you consistently walk along the same paths that the dog is allowed to sniff all they want, they will become more and more comfortable in these surroundings.

Fearful dogs can feel uncertain and the more novel or unknown a situation is, the less confident they will be. By allowing them to get to know their surroundings through sniffing you will let them build up confidence and a sense of security.  Many fearful or reactive dogs who walk the same paths every day with as much sniffing as the dog wants become more confident over time.

As they grow in confidence and are not as nervous, new routes can be explored, juts a little every day.  Having 90% of a known path and 10% of a new, unknown one that a dog can also explore through their sense of smell gradually gets them used to more and more new places while feeling calm.

For dogs who are easily distracted

Letting your dog sniff can help them focus during training

If you have a dog that gets distracted during training, it can be helpful to arrive a little early at your training class and spend some time walking around and letting the dog sniff everything.  This allows your dog to not only familiarise themselves with the training area but also hopefully will enable them to focus more on the learning they are attending the class for.

Options Of Sniffing Experiences For Your Dog

Shy Mira loves discovering new smells first thing in the morning

Sniff Walks

These are slightly different from what you may call your ‘normal’ dog walk where you may let your dog off in the park or run with them and play with them.  Your dog must wear a lead and then walk along a path that many other dogs frequent so that there are lots and lots of wonderful scents to sniff!  This is a nice thing to do first thing in the morning to set you and your dog up for the day or at the end of the day, perhaps after you come home from work and want to unwind.

Scatter Feeding

If you are feeding your dog out of a bowl and have a garden, try scatter feeding instead. This will work best if you feed kibble, it is not an ideal option for wet or dehydrated food.)

Use your dog’s dry food and scatter it throughout your garden. Be generous and just put it all in one small area. Pretend to hide Easter eggs and really distribute it well!

Your dog will spend a good amount of time sniffing out their food and be relaxed and tired afterwards. If you have limited time to exercise your dog in the morning before work, this is a fantastic way to let them work for their breakfast.

If you have more than one dog, you only want to let them scatter feed together if you are extremely confident in their ability to get along.  Never let them scatter feed together unsupervised, no matter how much you trust them.

Man Trailing

This is a very fun and engaging dog sport in which the dog learns to find “lost” persons.  Man Trailing is quite popular in Europe.  Done outside, the dog not only learns to find the hidden people by their scent, but also to work among and ignore a variety of distractions right from the start.


Let your dog sniff.  Their incredibly strong and powerful sense of smell is their way of understanding and making sense of their surroundings.  A dogs sense of smell is incredibly advanced and they gain so much information via sniffing.  Sniffing is calming and your dog will feel good after a long walk where they have been allowed to stop, sniff and enjoy the experience – and they are relaxing for us humans as well. Happy Sniffing!