Why You Should Let Your Dog Sniff During Walks—A Lot!
We've all been there. It's dark, cold, and windy, and we thought the dog just needed a quick potty break before heading back inside. So what's with all the sniffing?
"Instead of checking out the sights or enjoying the view, a dog's primary way of experiencing and finding joy in their world comes by way of their nose. To a dog, smell is everything," says Mikkel Becker, KPA CTP, CBCC-KA, CPDT-KA, CDBC, a dog behavior consultant and the lead animal trainer for Fear Free.
So why should you let your dog sniff during walks? Becker says that while people like to scroll on their phones to check social media or the news, dogs engage a similar "seeking system" in their brain. "They're literally sniffing out new discoveries and important insights that are their equivalent of 'checking their pee-mail,'" she says.
Your Dog's Sense of Smell Is Extraordinary
Dogs' sense of smell is estimated as being between 10,000 to 100,000 times more powerful than humans'. To put that into context, some scientists say that dogs can smell a mere teaspoon of sugar diluted into "a million gallons of water, or two Olympic-sized swimming pools worth." Humans rely on canines' incredible sensory abilities in many life or death situations, from search and rescue operations to disease detection. But even your average couch-loving pup has sniffing superpowers.
Becker notes that most dogs have approximately 220 million scent receptors, of about 900 different varieties, which differ by breed. For example, beagles and German shepherds have around 225 million scent receptors, but the dogs with the best sense of smell are bloodhounds, who top the scale at around 300 million. Other breeds have less, including fox terriers at roughly 147 million, and dachshunds with 125 million.
There's really no comparison between a dog's sense of smell versus human: We only have about 6 million scent receptors, and their olfactory center is much larger than ours. They can also move their nostrils independently and smell both as they inhale and exhale. Yeah, we don't have those abilities, either.
Should You Let Your Dog Sniff on Walks?
Absolutely! Becker says we vastly improve dogs' mental health when we let them sniff during walks because it provides endless amounts of data for their brains to process.
"They think through 'maps' that allow them to tell the past, who has been there previously, as well as what may be decaying below the ground," she explains. "They also tell the future, sniffing the wind to see what might be happening next—as in who or what might be approaching—and tell where they're going next, gaining information about what findings they're about to come upon before they've even reached their destination. A dog's sense of 'now' is likely drastically different from the present moment that's experienced by people."
Your dog's sense of smell decodes other messages, too. While humans' noses pick up on general scents, dogs (and cats!) can separate individual elements that make up the entirety of an aroma. Becker says this includes the sex, age, and health status of other animals who marked the spaces before them through eliminations and scent trails left on various surfaces.
Animals leave what she calls "serene" messages and "stress" messages as well, and your dog categorizes this information accordingly. "They choose to actively avoid eliminations of stressed animals of their same species and gravitate towards that of more relaxed happy individuals to investigate their eliminations further."
Planning a Sniff Walk
"A sniff walk can be thought of as a walk that exercises and engages both body and brain," Becker says. "The process of a sniff walk is similar to a normal walk, with the added exception of actually letting your dog take the time to slow down and smell the roses—or bush, or grass patch, or fire hydrant!"
Most of us aren't inclined to lag about while dog walking, but she advises mustering up the patience to allow your pup to sniff at his leisure.
"Rather than pulling the dog along, allow your pet to move at a more comfortable pace. If they stop to sniff, let them sniff! Or, if they have an interest in investigating a given area, let them do so," Becker says. "You may even set up walks to be in more interesting areas with inviting scents, such as going to a park and walking along a bush line, near a lake, or other areas where wildlife, including squirrels and birds, may have traversed, leaving behind intriguing scents for your dog to discover."
Also try a leisurely hike in a wooded area, visiting a dog park before it gets too crowded, or traipsing through an open field with your pup on a long line leash for safety. Distance doesn't matter, but in all environments, stay engaged to watch for any distractions, such as other dogs approaching.
In dog training terms, these types of activities are often referred to as "sniffaris," and often lead to better bonding time with both of you learning more aspects of scent work.
How Long Should You Let Your Dog Sniff on Walks?
As long as he wants! There's no specific guideline, but Becker's recommendation is 30–60 minutes. If that doesn't seem manageable between daily activities, even 10–15 minute increments twice a day make a difference. When you take your dog out to pee, for example, hang out for a few extra minutes after his business is complete so he can explore as many scents as possible.
In addition to mental engagement, Becker says when your canine pal is offered ample time to sniff, they become more emotionally and physically satisfied.
"Dogs have an innate desire to move their body and to investigate their world while doing it," she says. "Sniff walks allow for both of these, as they get a chance to follow their nose and learn, leading to a happier, more content, and fulfilled dog."
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