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The Importance of Letting Your Dog Sniff

This post was contributed by Melissa McCue-McGrath, CPDT-KA. Melissa is a dog trainer in Boston, Massachusetts and has a special interest in dogs living in urban environments with their owners. She is the author of Considerations for the City Dog which is available on Kindle and on Amazon.

“Rex, we’re late. We have to walk fast; I don’t have time for you to sniff. Let’s GO!”

Does this sound like your typical morning walk? You’re hustling to clock the requisite route with your dog, and all he wants to do is sniff. While it may slow you down, it turns out that your dog might get more out of “reading” the morning pee-mail than from walking a longer distance without stopping to sniff.

According to Dr. Alexandra Horowicz, canine researcher and author of Being a Dog: Following a Dog into the World of Smell, dogs have 50 times as many scent receptors as humans. They have approximately 300 million scent receptors in their noses, and an additional organ called the vemoronasal organ above the roof of their mouths and under their noses. So while your dog is licking the ground and tasting the air, he is acquiring extremely detailed information through his superior olfactory organ.

In comparison, humans only have a measly six million scent receptors and no additional scent trapping organs. Aside from the brachycephalic brethren (think: dogs with squished faces like Boston terriers and pugs), most dogs have longer snouts which they use to process all of the information coming into their nasal passages. They see the world through their noses, which is why your pup might miss the tennis ball you just threw for him but will sniff the ground and “look” for it with his nose later.

We credentialed, science-based dog trainers recommend giving dogs more opportunities to sniff on walks and explore their natural worlds in a way that makes sense to them. This ensures that they get more mental stimulation and are generally happier.

I tested this with my previous dog, Sadie-Jane. Sadie was a Border Collie who, for better or worse, lived in an urban environment. Buses, neighbors, and police cars whizzed by at all hours of the night, and she struggled to cope with city life. To keep her healthy and calm, I incorporated daily runs and aerobic activity into her days and scheduled rounds of competitive canine disc on weekends. While her aerobic and agility exercises built her physical endurance, the only activity that kept her truly calm was scent work. Letting her sniff on walks and giving her permission to use her nose in a good scent work class was the best thing I ever did for her.

Kate Bigger, President of Performance Scent Dogs Inc., says this about dogs who are allowed to use their noses: “In a good scent work class, we become teammates with our dog in a game they are so much better at than us, and we become participants in a game they love! It’s the ultimate test of our willingness to suspend our need to control [our dog’s actions] and help our dogs be successful as they navigate the invisible world of scent.”

Dogs still need daily aerobic activity, impulse control training, and to work for their treats in training in order to keep their brains active. But dogs also need to use what their mommas gave ‘em. They have noses that are as important to them as our eyes are to us. And every time they’re on a really good scent, it’s like they are seeing the lights of Times Square on New Year’s Eve.

So to your dog, that morning walk is actually going something like this:

You: We’re late.
Rex: Hey, this is some great info!
You: Let’s GO.
Rex: But, you have no idea! The Shih Tzu from down the street is expecting a litter! I read it in the daily!

While we certainly reap the health benefits of walking with our pups, we also have a lot we can learn from them when we let them stop and sniff the roses. Let your dog linger in the morning for a few extra seconds, or try scent work classes for new search and scenting activities that will keep your dog focused and mentally fit. Just make sure your pup is sticking to sniffing —not eating— those uncovered sidewalk treasures.

Image: @duckytheyorkie

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