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Why Do Dogs Sniff Everything on Walks?

Dogs sniff everything on walks (or at least they try to!) and this behavior is often something dog owners find frustrating. "Heel!" Stop pulling!" Arghh! " Help, how do I stop my dog from wanting to sniff every bush?" 

Many dog owners are upset  when they can't control their dogs on walks. If this sounds all too familiar, rest assured, you are not alone. Every dog equipped with a nose will want to sniff, there's no doubt about it as this is a very normal behavior. Fact check: it's actually more worrisome when dogs do not want to sniff, rather than wanting to!

By putting ourselves in our dog's shoes (ehm, noses), it's possible to better understand a dog's "fixation" for sniffing,  which can ultimately help us become better owners. So why do dogs sniff everything on walks?

A dog's "almighty nose" is there for a reason!

A dog's "almighty nose" is there for a reason!

Because They Have a Powerful Nose...

A dog's almighty nose is quite a piece of machinery! It is highly underestimated and research keeps on revealing intriguing findings. Here's just a little primer about dog noses and their amazing capabilities.

One way to acknowledge how powerful a dog's nose is, is by comparing it to ours. For starters, dogs are considered macrosomatic animals, which simply means they have a sense of smell that is highly developed. Humans on the other hand, are microsomatic.

Dogs have a brain of which 35 percent is dedicated for the task on detecting odors, while in us humans it's just a mere 5 percent. This makes a dog's olfactory brain 7 times larger than ours.

A dog's olfactory cortex, which is the the part of the cerebral cortex that processes olfactory information, is 40 times larger compared to ours.

Dog noses are capable of detecting up to 100,000 different types of smell, while us lowly humans may detect only up to 10,000. Update: Well, actually this is likely a myth, recent research by neuroscientist McGann suggests that us humans may detect much more than that (about one trillion) especially when it comes to certain odors. He claims that, while dogs may be better capable at discriminating various urines on a fire hydrant, humans may be better at discriminating the odors of fine wine. 

Bloodhounds, which are often affectionately nicknamed "noses on four legs," are estimated to have a sense of smell that is up to 100 million times superior to ours. 

Dogs can sniff compounds at concentrations as low as one part for trillion, while humans can detect concentrations as low as just one part for billion.

While us humans can detect 1 teaspoon of sugar in  cup of coffee, our dogs can detect a teaspoon of sugar in a million gallons of water. Crazy as it sounds, that's just about the size of  two olympic-sized pools!


And a Specialized Organ To Detect Pheromones.

Not many dog owners are aware of the fact that dogs, on top of having a nose, they are also equipped with a special organ known as the vomeronasal organ, which basically acts almost a second nose, powering up a dog's sniffing capabilities.

Also known as Jacobson's organ, (in honor of the Danish anatomist Ludwig L. Jacobson ), the vomeronasal organ consists of a patch of sensory cells meant for detecting pheromones. It is found within the nasal cavity just above the roof of the mouth (the dog's hard palate).

Just as lizards or snakes flick their tongues to draw in chemical information towards the vomeronasal organ, dogs flick their tongue against the incisive papilla, a little bump on the roof of the dog's mouth which has a duct that communicates with the vomeronasal organ. Along with licking and teeth chattering, tonguing can therefore help dogs detect the presence of pheromones. 

What's so special about pheromones? And what sort of information do they provide to our dogs? Pheromones are hormonelike chemical substances that are purposely released into the environment by other dogs. Pheromones encompass a vast array of compounds, of varied chemical nature,

The vomeronasal organ is therefore an organ specifically crafted for the detection of pheromones, something that the dog's ordinary nose is not capable of on its own. 

When tonguing, the dog's tongue is pushed rapidly against the roof of the mouth with the teeth sometimes chattering and expressing profuse foam sometimes collecting on the upper lip. Tonguing is frequently observed after a dog licks a urine spot or "tastes the air" following the exchange of mutual threat displays between two rival males” " ~Steven Lindsay

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Because Walks are Teeming With Smells...

With powerful noses and a specialized organ meant to detect pheromones, it's not surprising why dogs are so interested in sniffing everything on walks.

Dogs leave around plenty of "pee"mail" in various areas purposely for dogs to detect. Favorite areas to mark with urine include lampposts, electric poles and the quintessential fire hydrant. What makes these places so special to pee on? The simple fact that these vertical items leave a dog's pee at another dog's "nose level" for easy reception.

Pee-mail contains pheromones which informs other dogs about several interesting things  such as the sex, age, diet, health and reproductive status of the dog peeing. Intact (non-spayed) female dogs in particular, release powerful pheromones in their urine which indicate at what point they are in the ir heat cycle. 

Dogs may release pheromones in several other various ways. For example, dogs who experience a particularly traumatic event, may empty their anal glands releasing special alarm pheromones which are meant to alert other dogs of a danger. A portion of anal gland secretions, rich with pheromones, are also secreted every time a dog poops, and just like pee, it helps provide identity information.

Pheromones are also released when dogs scratch the dirt after pooping. Dogs have special glands between their toes that are capable of releasing pheromones. 

And then, of course, there are so many other attractive smells on walks to explore such as empty sandwich wrappers, mice droppings, the scent of footsteps, a distant bakery cooking goodies miles away and so much more!


And Smell is Ever-Changing

Don't dogs get bored of sniffing the same stuff over and over? What's so interesting in smelling every day the same spots? Don't things smell the same if the route we choose to walk is always the same? The big fat answer is no!

Here's a fact: smell is never the same. Your dog's nose captures all the different nuances and facets of life. Your dog's nose captures the scent of pollen from weeds and flowers wafting through the breeze, the scent of bugs, animals and people, it can even detect the humid molecules associated with distant thunderstorms. Every day there are new scents and dogs never grow tired of exploring them.

As visual beings, us humans use our eyes to scan the world and we can even visualize imaginary images in our minds, while dogs, on the other hand, focus on detecting scents and interpreting the clouds of odorous particles coming from every direction.

"Each departure from the house brings a new scene, one never visited. Each day, each hour, wears a new smellscape. There is no such thing as “fresh air” to a dog. Air is rich : an olfactory tangle that the dog’s nose will diligently unknot." says Alexandra Horowitz, in her book: Being a Dog, Following the Dog Into a World of Smell .


Now That You Know...

And there you have it...several explanations as to why dogs sniff everything on walks. Sniffing is knowledge, just as for humans seeing is. And while everyday walks may look habitual and even a tad boring to us humans, to dogs they are faceted with countless olfactory changes.

 "To ask your dog to enter a new area and then tell him "No Sniff' is like putting a blindfold on you before you enter a new place, remarks Sheila Booth, in the book "Purely Positive Training, Companion to Competition." This surely provides us an interesting perspective!

So how do you deal with a dog who wants to sniff everything on walks? How do you tackle the issue? You can't just allow your dog to drag you towards every bush, every fire hydrant, every candy wrapper on the ground, right? After all, even if your dog doesn't sniff a spot directly, he still uses his nose to a great extent on the walk even when walking besides you.

  However, you may want to find a compromise so that you can allow your dog to be a dog and carefully analyze some scents sniffing directly off the ground or objects where other dogs have left their pee-mail. Here are a few tips:

  •  Every now and then, make it a habit of rewarding your dog for walking nicely on the leash by allowing him to "go sniff".  
  • Teach the "go sniff" cue by simply loosening the leash completely and using a hand gesture to direct your dog to an area to explore. This is one of the easiest training cues you will ever train since sniffing to dogs comes so naturally! However, if you have been very strict with your dog in training him to perfectly heel the past he may need some encouragement to inform him that it's perfectly OK to go sniff.
  • Allow your dog some time to sniff the area when he seems to be losing interest,then say “let’s go” praise, (give a treat) and continue on your walk. 
  • With such powerful noses, it therefore makes perfectly sense to allow dogs the benefit from sniffing from time to time. As a bonus, consider that sniffing is a tiring activity too, so it offers a win-win situation for all!

When it comes to smells, we should let dogs be dogs and not hold them to human standards of propriety. This means we should let them sniff one anther to their nose's content and we must let their walks be their walks, not ours, as frustrating and challenging as this might be. Their sense organs, like their muscles, heart and lungs, need to be exercised and we need to make time for them to do so."~Marc Bekoff, Canine Confidential

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