Ever wondered what could be so fascinating about that patch of grass your dog has been sniffing for five minutes? Or why they think fox poo is the most sophisticated cologne? It’s hard for a pawrent to understand, because a dog's sense of smell can be anything from 10,000 to 100,000 times better than our own. So next time you fart and blame it on the dog, imagine what they’re smelling!
Our pup’s nose informs how they see and interact with the world in the same way that we use our eyes and ears, making them privy to information we can’t access: ‘pee mails’ from other dogs, for instance. Pee tells them who was there first, how big they are, how fertile and even - some scientists believe - what sort of mood they were in. When our hounds meet in person, these smelly messages become even stronger. When your pup shoves his or her nose into their bestie’s butt, they’re not being rude: they’re simply catching up on all the latest news, first-hand! And it’s no myth that dogs can smell fear: if they cross paths with an unfriendly neighbour, the scared dog releases a pungent stink from their anal glands - as we do from our armpits, according to this research.
Our furry friends possess up to 300 million olfactory receptors compared to about six million in hooman noses, and the part of their brains that analyses and processes scents is 40 times greater than ours. Next time your dog wiggles his snout, take a closer look at what’s going on, at the unique wing-like flap in each nostril. When dogs inhale, an opening above the flap allows air to pass through and a good smell to be collected. When they exhale, the opening closes and the air comes out below the flap through another opening. This allows your pup to build up his or her collection of smells, mixing the good ones together and removing uninteresting scents.
Dogs also use their nostrils differently for different smells. When stumbling across a strange odour, they first use their right nostril, then switch to the left if the smell seems safe. But if they pick up on a smell that signals danger, like a hostile dog or a toxic substance, they stick with the right nostril. This is because the left and right sides of the brain take in different kinds of information, the right associated with feelings like aggression or fear.
We’ve seen that dogs communicate through a sophisticated sensory language, but our dogs’ sense of smell can help us understand their mental capabilities in other ways too. Do dogs think of themselves as individuals, separate from other beings and the world around them, or are they just living blindly in the moment? One of the most well-known tests of self-recognition is the ‘mirror test’: an animal has a sticker or mark placed on them and if they try to remove it when they see it in the mirror, they pass the test. They understand that they’re viewing ‘myself’ rather than looking at another animal.
Humans pass the mirror test after 18 months old, but very few other species have passed - certainly not dogs. However, canine experts like Marc Bekoff and Alexandra Horowitz have done scientific research to show that our pups can recognise themselves through scent, rather than vision. Dogs can distinguish their own pee from that of other dogs, meaning they are self-aware! This also means that we should protect what canine ethicist Jessica Pierce calls their ‘scent identity’, rather than masking their natural smell with doggy deodorant or perfumed shampoo.
All this means that when our furry friends sniff the world around them, they’re taking an inventory of their surroundings, immersing themselves in a hidden world of scents and signs. So rather than dragging them on to the next lamppost, we should respect that and give them time to catch up. Because most important of all? Sniffing enhances your dogs’ wellbeing and reduces stress: research shows that “allowing dogs to spend more time using their olfaction through a regular nosework activity makes them more optimistic. By allowing dogs more "foraging" time, their welfare is improved.” Smelling the world makes your dog happy! What other reason do we need to let them stop and smell the roses?
If you want to read more about your furry friend’s spectacular nostrils, we recommend Secrets of the Snout: The Dog’s Incredible Nose by Frank Rosell, Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do by Marc Bekoff and Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know by Alexandra Horowitz.