To sniff or not to sniff

Buffy enjoys some off leash sniffing.

To sniff or not to sniff, that is the question. In fact, dog trainers often get asked this question by clients. Is it bad to let their dogs sniff on walks so much instead of keeping them in a tight heel or perfect loose leash walk. Some dog trainers who come from a control based background would tell their clients that yes, you should always set the terms of the walk and you should not let your dog sniff unless it’s convenient for you. They might even say that sniffing can somehow get them too excited and make them unruly, or worse, dominant. 

The good news is, the dominance theory was debunked a long time ago, so your dog is never actually trying to dominate you. Let’s start at the basics instead. Why do dogs like to sniff so much?

Dogs are designed to be super sniffers. In general, a dog’s nose is 100,000 to 1,000,000 times more sensitive than a human’s nose. In fact, the space in their brains allocated to processing smells is seven times larger than that of a human. Dogs are genetically designed to be super sniffers and to see the world through their noses. If you didn’t know, their eyesight isn’t as good as ours and they don’t see nearly as many colours. Truly, their most powerful sense is their sense of smell. 

So why should you let your dog sniff on walks? 

  1. They are practising a natural behaviour

Enrichment got its start in the zoo world. It began as a way to create an environment and activities that would allow the captive animals to practice natural behaviours. Today, enrichment is defined in a more holistic approach that considers all of the needs of an animal and seeks to provide opportunities for those needs to be met. With dogs, that involves a variety of needs, but for the topic of sniffing, it involves the need to practice natural behaviours, specifically sensory stimulation, the strongest sense for a dog, is their sense of smell. 

  1. A citizen science study has demonstrated that when dogs are sniffing, their pulse lowers, indicating that sniffing helps our dogs to relax. 

A study by a group of citizen scientists involved 61 dogs. In this study, dogs were walked on a standard leash, a long line, and off leash. The study found that when dogs were off leash, they spent the most time sniffing, and when they were on a standard 1.5 meter leash, they sniffed the least amount of time. It’s easy to draw a conclusion that dogs, when given the choice, prefer to spend more time sniffing. This study also measured the pulse of dogs and found that their pulse decreased an average of 12% while sniffing. In fact, the more intense they sniffed, the more their pulse dropped.  

  1. A recently published study by Horowitz and Duranton (2019) found that dogs who were encouraged to sniff actually improved their emotional well being and became more optimistic. 

In this study, the authors worked with two groups of dogs: the control group and the experimental group. All dogs were given a cognitive bias test. This test helps to determine the emotional state of the dogs, specifically, if they are likely to respond with optimism to a new situation, or not. The control group was then instructed to work on heeling. The experimental group was instructed to work on nosework. Following their assignments, the dogs were then given the cognitive test again. The authors found that the responses from the dogs during the final tests showed that those in the experimental group became more optimistic. Whereas the control group that worked on heeling had no change in their test results. This demonstrates that allowing dogs more time to practice their natural foraging behaviour, through sniffing, improved their welfare. 

When we deny our dogs the ability to practice their critical natural behaviours, we are in essence denying them their ability to be dogs. It’s that simple. This doesn’t mean that we have to let our dogs dictate every walk and sniff that bush for twenty minutes, but it means we owe it to our dogs to include opportunities into their daily life, for sniffing. 

Just like other behaviours which can be seen as a nuisance in our human lives, such as digging, barking, and chewing. We can find a way to integrate sniffing into their lives in a constructive way which allows our dogs to have their needs met. 

The next time you are walking and you’re not in a rush, let your dog dictate the pace. Let them use their nose to sniff out all of the smells in the snow, the leaves, the grass, etc. If your dog has gotten too used to not sniffing, you can encourage them to put their nose to the ground by taking some treats and sprinkling them into the grass. 

My last words of wisdom: if anyone ever tells you that your dog shouldn’t be allowed to sniff, or that sniffing is somehow bad for them, point them in the direction of the science and continue to let your dog live its best and most fulfilled life. 

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