Many pet parents don’t realize that when they take their canine BFF out for a walk, it’s likely their expectations are somewhat different than their dog’s.
While we humans typically view the primary purpose of these outings as opportunities for our pets to pee and/or poop and/or get some exercise (all of which are important, of course), our furry friends are looking for another, equally important experience: the chance to satisfy their desire to sniff the always-fascinating world outside their home.
It’s important to realize that your dog doesn’t immediately begin sniffing things as soon as she’s outdoors to be annoying — she does it because it’s an essential element of being canine. Whereas humans tend to focus first on what can be seen and/or heard, for dogs, it’s often what they smell that grabs their attention first and helps them process their immediate environment.
If you can imagine how it would feel to take walks outdoors with your eyes half-closed, then you can empathize with how it feels to your dog to be prevented from stopping to sniff things: it’s unnatural, slightly intimidating, and ultimately, boring. Dogs need lots of outdoor sniffing opportunities to help them learn about the world around them and stimulate their minds.
Unfortunately, our hectic daily schedules often don’t afford our dogs the chance to exercise their unparalleled scenting abilities. However, once we accept how essential the experience is to them, we can begin to make more of an effort to set time aside to allow them to “lead with their noses” in the great outdoors.
The Canine Nose: A Scientific Wonder
The human nose contains about 6 million olfactory receptors that allow us to recognize thousands of different smells.1 It sounds like a lot, until you realize that inside your dog’s nose there are up to 300 million such receptors.
Humans can detect certain odors in parts per billion, but dogs detect them in parts per trillion. Plus, your dog has a part of her brain devoted to analyzing smells that’s about 40 times larger, proportionally, than the same area in your brain.2
This explains why a dog’s sense of smell is anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000 times more acute than your own, and also why the canine nose can be described as nothing short of amazing. According to NOVA:
“… in her book Inside of a Dog, Alexandra Horowitz, a dog-cognition researcher at Barnard College, writes that while we might notice if our coffee has had a teaspoon of sugar added to it, a dog could detect a teaspoon of sugar in a million gallons of water, or two Olympic-sized pools worth.
Another dog scientist likened their ability to catching a whiff of one rotten apple in two million barrels.”3
As certified professional dog trainer Victoria Schade notes in an article for PetMD:
“Not only do dogs have hundreds of millions of scent receptors as compared our six million, but they also devote approximately 40 times more brain volume to decoding smells than we do.
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.
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.”4
Why It’s Crucial That Dogs Go on Regular ‘Sniffaris’
As I touched on earlier, try to imagine going for a stroll but not being able to take in the sights and sounds along the way. We can assume this is the feeling your dog has when you’re pulling him along on your walk, rushing him past intriguing scents. Dogs explore the world with their noses, using scents to paint a vivid picture that humans cannot see.
When you walk by a tree, your dog can smell it — along with the birds and insects in it and even which direction they’re moving in. Dogs also have a vomeronasal organ that allows them to smell things that can’t be seen, namely hormones that animals release. This not only helps them attract mates and distinguish friends from foes, but also gives them insights into human emotional states and physical health.
Horowitz, who is also the author of Being a Dog: Following the Dog Into a World of Smell, explains in her TED-Ed video How Dogs Smell, that your dog can even smell events that have happened in the past or those that will occur in the future:
“The most amazing thing about your dog’s nose is that it can traverse time. The past appears in tracks left by passersby and by the warmth of a recently parked car, or the residue of where you’ve been or what you’ve done recently.
Landmarks like fire hydrants and trees are aromatic bulletin boards carrying messages of who’s been by, what they’ve been eating and how they’re feeling. And the future is in the breeze, alerting them to something or someone approaching long before you see them.”
Animal behaviorist Marc Bekoff, Ph.D. believes there is potential for sensory deprivation and stress in dogs who aren’t allowed adequate sniffing opportunities:
“Being smell-blind can be aversive to dogs. My recommendation is to let dogs sniff; let’s not hijack one of their vital connections to the world. Let them sniff to their nose’s content when they’re tethered on a leash, or when they’re walking and hanging out with friends and others and running freely.
As mentioned, not allowing dogs to exercise their nose and other senses could be a form of sensory deprivation that robs them of information they need to figure out what’s happening in their world. Being smell-blind can indeed be stressful to dogs because they need odors and other information to assess what’s happening around them.”5
Teach Your Dog Which Outings Are for Sniffing
If you’re wondering how you’ll ever finish a jog or hike with your furry companion stopping to sniff every few feet, remember that not every outing has to be a scent walk. It’s fine to take your dog on a quick stroll to relieve herself or a longer hike during which you set the pace, as long as you also give her plenty of opportunities to satisfy her sniffer.
I recommend dividing your outdoor time between intentional aerobic exercise and sensory stimulating walks (sniffaris), as they serve different purposes. Daily rigorous running, swimming, and retrieving is necessary to maintain muscle tone and tendon and ligament health throughout a dog’s life.
Aerobic exercise is defined as having your dog’s heartrate consistently elevated above normal for a minimum of 20 minutes (this means no stopping to smell the roses, or anything else for that matter!).
Karen B. London, Ph.D., a certified applied animal behaviorist and certified professional dog trainer suggests using different types of leashes or harnesses to signal to your dog which type of outing you’ll be going on, reserving a special harness only for the times you plan to let her lead the exploring.6 During the sniffari, keep the leash loose and let her wander freely. Let her sniff whatever she desires, getting her fill of the multi-layered environment all around her.