Knowing Their Nose

Knowing Their Nose

August 29, 2021

Why we should encourage our dogs to sniff


When we breathe in through our noses, we are taking in the air from around us and it is pushed into our nasal cavity to be processed. This job falls to our smelling receptors, called olfactory receptors. These tiny structures code outside information, such as the smoke from a fire, into information that our brains can then process and make sense of.

While we can boast that our sense of smell isn’t too shabby, our pups' sense of smell is blatantly superior to ours. Why is that? The short answer is, they’re far more equipped to smell than we are!

This short video will give us insight to how dogs "see" with their noses, then we can talk about why letting our dogs sniff is so important.

So what does that mean? Let’s start at the physical level…
  • Dogs have a lot more smell receptors than we do. Compared to our 5-20 million receptors, dogs have from 150 million up to 2 billion smell receptors! The area for processing these smells is much larger in dogs compared to humans, and their mental lives are dominated just as much by their noses as ours are by our eyes. Depriving your dog of sniffing is like being blindfolded for us - while it may be fine for a short amount of time, our dogs will be much happier being able to ‘see’ and explore with their noses.
  • Dogs have an extra organ that joins up with their nasal cavity (the vomeronasal organ for the geeks out there!) that humans simply don’t have. This organ provides an extra layer of smell receptors that specifically codes information for your pup about chemical signals that other animals are releasing, such as pheromones. This is why dogs check out other dogs' ‘marking’ spots, and might try escape properties when another dog in the neighbourhood is wanting to have puppies. This organ can tell a dog whether a person is pregnant, sad, or angry – yes, your dog really does know when to give you comfort and when to steer clear!
  • As well as the extra smelling organ, they also have another area involved in sniffing that we don’t have (again for the geeks, this area is called the olfactory recess). This space allows dogs to keep 12-13% of the smells inhaled from the world around them close to their smelling receptors for longer, allowing them more time to process the information they are receiving. Amazing stuff, huh? When our pups are spending a lot of time sniffing at one thing, they are effectively filling up their noses with more of that scent so they can learn more about it. This is why our pups will often spend a lot more time sniffing new smells and checking out power poles where other animals in the neighbourhood have been, especially when there is a new dog in town, or a new person comes over.
Now that we have learned about the amount of resources dogs devote to sniffing, let’s talk about why sniffing is important for our dogs’ wellbeing.

Studies have shown that engaging your puppy to find food increases their optimism – huh? What does this mean in the context of dogs? For your dog, this means that they are more likely to expect good things to happen rather than bad things, or boring things. When you have a shy dog, or a dog who reacts out of fear, increasing their optimism can help them build confidence that the world is actually a pretty good place to explore after all.

Teaching them optimism from a young age will help them engage in new activities without fear, allowing for an easier time teaching behaviours or activities that require new objects and locations. Doing sniffing activities with your dog will build your relationship together by working as a team.
For our flat-faced/short-nosed dogs, such as Shih Tzus, Chihuahuas, Pekingese, Bulldogs and Pugs, we must try extra hard to enhance their world of smells.
The more we practice a certain state of mind, the more likely we are to rest in that state without prompting. This is how mindfulness works for humans to improve our wellbeing in the long run. By allowing your dogs opportunities to sniff, you are helping them develop a healthy state of mind.

How can we encourage our dogs to sniff? Using snuffling and searching to enrich our canines.

Now that we understand just how important smell is for dogs, let's talk about how we can facilitate sniffing activities.
The first thing you can do to start engaging your dog's nose is to make the most out of mealtimes! Whether your dog is on a wet, dry, or mixed diet, there are endless activities that can engage their brains and noses while getting their necessary nutrients. Remember – whenever we are doing a new activity, our dogs may need some extra encouragement to investigate. That is your cue to be the leader! You can play your role in ‘hunting’ games by leading them closer to their tasty bits of food. The following activities can be used in conjunction with one another to make an ‘obstacle course’ of sorts for your dog's nose while simultaneously providing ample mental enrichment.
  • The Scatter Feed: It is in the name – instead of putting your puppy's food in their bowl, scatter their food over the yard, driveway, or area inside your home. Stay with them while they are finding their food, pointing out bits they have missed and giving them praise for finding that last cheeky bit of kibble.
  • The Mystery Box (dry): Find a container or box that your dog will be able to reach into. Using their toys, toilet roll holders, an old towel, a shirt destined for the bin, torn up paper, or anything else that you don't mind getting covered in slobber, fill up the mystery box. Shake your dog's breakfast or dinner into the box, and let them have a ball sniffing out all of their yummy kibble.
  • The Snuffle Mat (dry): Fill your snuffle mat with your dog's kibble or some tasty treats. Let them enjoy the foraging feeling of searching for their food!
  • The ‘Seek!’ Game, food edition: Put your puppy somewhere comfortable away from the area you will be using to play your ‘seek’ game so they won't be able to interrupt your food placement. To begin, hide your kibble/treats/chopped meat in fairly visible locations around the area. If you are using wet food, you can smear it on their toys, hard surfaces that are safe and easy to clean, and their bowl/s. Bring your puppy into your ‘seek’ area, use the cue you would like to attach to this game, and lead them to their first prize. Encourage them to ‘seek’ by gesturing towards other areas. Keep doing this until your puppy begins hunting for themselves. If they give up or miss any, encourage them to follow you to their prizes as above. As your puppy gets better at this activity, hide their food in more difficult places – get creative!
There are endless activities we can do with our dogs to facilitate sniffing, it just takes a bit of imagination and creativity.