Scratch and sniff?

When you take your dog out for a walk, do you allow them time to follow their nose and enjoy lots of sniffing activity? Find out why having a good sniff is super important to your canine pal – and how it can even help address behaviour issues and improve recall...

Posted: 06 July 2018

Scratch and sniff?

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With busy lives, daily dog walks can sometimes be a bit of a route march, with no time for an olfactory detour. However, not letting your FBFF (furry best friend forever) stop for a sniff or two means the walk will most definitely lack the wow factor – for your dog at least. This is because smelling stuff is a really important part of being a dog. 

Sniffing for dogs is an activity like no other. Quite simply, dogs are born to sniff – it’s how they interpret the world around them and doing it makes them feel good. Canine charity Dogs for Good, which trains assistance dogs to support adults and children with disabilities and autism, states: “Allowing a dog to sniff on a walk means it does take you longer, but the dog is taking in more information from the environment. Using their nose on familiar routes is also important, investigating who has passed through that area. All this information the dog is gathering could add to feelings of familiarity and security.”

Smell you later

Author of How Dogs Think: Understanding the Canine Mind, Dr Stanley Coren says: “Dogs are living in a totally different world than we are, filled with much, much more information than we can possibly process about smell.” He adds: “A dog relies on her sense of smell to interpret her world, in much the same way as people depend on their sight. Your dog interprets as much information as you do. However, she does much of this by smelling an object or animal, not by staring at it.”


Did you know?

Your dog’s nose has a pattern of ridges and dimples that, in combination with the outline of its nostril openings, make up a nose print that’s believed to be as individual and unique as a human fingerprint. In North America, some organisations even register nose prints as a way of identifying and helping to locate lost dogs.


And, of course, there’s the obligatory sniffing of all the ‘messages’ left by other dogs, which is baffling to us humans. Perhaps we should think of it as ‘pee-mail’. Dr Coren says information such as age, gender, mood and even health lingers long after the dog who left the message has gone: “The smell goes away for humans because it becomes less strong when it dries. Smell has to be carried to a human nose through moisture, but it sticks around for quite a long while for dogs.” Unsurprisingly, dogs like to refresh their personal signature, which is why they will stop to mark a favourite tree or lamppost. 


A dog nose best

  • By using their incredible sense of smell – scientists suggest it’s 10,000 to 100,000 times as acute as a human’s – dogs can find out lots of information. The area of the canine brain devoted to analysing scent is 40 times greater than that of the human and dogs can identify smells at least 1,000 times better than we can. 
  • Unlike humans, dogs smell ‘in stereo’ – that is, they smell separately with each nostril, which helps them work out exactly where interesting whiffs are coming from. 
  • Dogs have around 220 million olfactory receptors in their nose, while humans have only a measly 5 million.
  • Bloodhounds have up to 300 million receptors and, for these dogs, an ‘odour image’ is far more detailed than a photograph is for a human. Once a bloodhound identifies a trail, it will not divert its attention until it finds the source of the scent. They have even been known to stick to a trail for more than 130 miles.

An outlet for natural behaviour

As dogs see the world through their noses, canine experts recommend giving them more opportunities to sniff on walks and explore the world in a way that makes sense to them, providing valuable mental stimulation and an enriched, happier life. Dogs for Good states: “When a dog is on the scent of something it becomes totally engrossed in the activity. When teaching scent work you are not teaching a dog to use their nose but it is an outlet for their natural behaviour that leads to something rewarding. Dogs that may be showing undesirable behaviours are often very intelligent and have a higher drive to work than other pet dogs. Nose work can increase the dog’s focus and reduce reactivity and frustration.” 

The charity advocates introducing scenting games and nose training because it:

  • Builds a strong relationship
  • Can improve recall
  • Can be used as enrichment at any age
  • Helps manage intelligence, anxiety and frustration 
  • Improves confidence and self-control

Let your dog follow their nose with these scent games

Food chase and hunt

The simplest way to introduce nose work and a quick way to improve recall and keep the dog focused on you:

  1. Show the dog a treat then throw it a short distance. The dog then has to use its nose to find it.
  2. With practice, the dog should be able to start to find it in harder situations such as in long grass or further away.
  3. As soon as the dog finds the food, excitedly call the dog and show them the next treat. Then, as the dog approaches throw the food, and so on.

Search and rescue

This is a great family game as you need at least two people.

  1. One person holds the dog. With the dog watching, the other person goes off and hides, then calls the dog.
  2. When the dog finds the person, praise and reward with treats or a game.
  3. Gradually increase the time or distance the person hides. When the dog gets really skilled at finding them, they can start to hide without the dog seeing where they’ve gone.
  4. The dog will then rely on both tracking the ground and air scenting – and will feel doubly good about their success.

Go find!

A good way to mentally and physically tire boisterous dogs who can be easily distracted. Teaching a release word such as ‘go find’ also puts the activity on cue and can help gain control over unwanted behaviour, providing a signal to the dog to focus as something exciting is about to happen. 

  1. Start with a treat in front of the dog, say excitedly ‘go find’, encourage the dog to eat it. Repeat this several times over three days.
  2. For the next three days, continue to do this, but put it behind a chair or other nearby object. Do this in front of the dog and again say ‘go find’.
  3. The following three days, make it steadily harder for the dog – hiding treats in another room, or out in the garden. If the dog is confidently finding these when they have seen you hiding food, you can progress to the next step.
  4. Place treats around the garden and kitchen without the dog being able to see. Put a couple of titbits in places where they can easily be found, so it encourages the dog to search. This should gradually increase the dog’s determination and stamina to start tracking. Then you can try it outside the home. 
  5. Find an area such as a park. Start as you did in the home, with the treat right in front of the dog, using the same cue. Gradually increase to hiding in long grass, behind trees etc, so it becomes more challenging. Go around together and occasionally help out by pointing to food and calling your dog over. This will increase their focus on you and improve recall as they realise it pays to keep an eye on you!

For more scent training advice and games ideas, download a PDF from Dogs for Good.

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Sources: dogsforgood.org, pbs.org, dummies.com, digest.thefarmersdog.com, rover.com

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