Pets: A dog’s nose knows

Pets: A dog’s nose knows
File Photo

By Kim Gilliam

Everyone knows a dog loves keeping its nose to the ground. It’s been estimated that dogs sniff around 33 percent of the time when they’re moving and this is how they pick up all sorts of information about who has been there before them. They truly sense the world around them through their nose. Research in recent months tells us a lot about this.

Dr. Frank Rosell, professor of environmental and health studies at University College of Southeast Norway, shares all there is to know about dogs’ noses and why they never seem to get enough of using this amazing organ in his new book “Secrets of the Snout: The Dog’s Incredible Nose.” With 300 million receptors to our mere 5 million, a dog’s nose is between 100,000 and 100 million times more sensitive than a human’s.

The section of a dog’s brain related to processing smells is almost seven times larger than ours. In addition, dogs don’t exhale when sniffing a faint scent, which allows them to sniff faint odors without diluting the scent. Rosell’s hope is that more dogs will have the chance to be given a range of tasks for the use of their noses; he encourages owners to get their dogs into sniffing activities that will enrich their lives.

New research by Dr. Charlotte Duranton of Ethodog and Dr. Alexandra Horowitz of Barnard College finds that dogs who participate in nosework have increased optimism compared to dogs that took part in heelwork. Opportunities to use their nose and make choices in scent detection activities was proven good for dogs’ welfare.

While both activities involved food rewards as positive reinforcement, in nosework the dog uses their nose, providing environmental enrichment, and can exercise choice in what they are doing. As such, they were problem-solving, and successful problem-solving makes dogs happy too.

Six universities have come together, funded by the National Science Foundation’s Brain Initiative, to work on the Odor Navigation Project. Collaborators from disparate fields of study – animal behavior, genetics, physiology and fluid mechanics – are looking at how animals use smell to understand their surroundings. The goal is to help develop more effective devices to detect explosives, drugs and dangerous chemicals in airports, subways and factories.

For example, colleagues at Penn State University considered the anatomy of a dog’s nose and how air moves through it. They’ve found that animals considered to have a strong sense of smell tend to have a similar structure in the back of their noses called an olfactory recess, a dead-end region at the back of the nose where the sensors are located. Dogs have about 600,000 olfactory neurons, 15 times what humans have. Humans have olfactory neurons in a little patch at the top of the inside of their noses, where smell mixes with the rest of the air we breathe, making it harder to distinguish individual odors.

So, what can you as a dog owner do with this information? Find a way to engage your dog’s nose.

On cold, wet days why not play a game of ‘find it,’ ‘pick the hand,’ the ‘shell game’ or ‘hide and seek’ in the house. Or on a nice day where you have some time to spend on a walk, go on a ‘sniff adventure’ where you find a park or hiking trail nearby where you let your dog wander and sniff to their heart’s content.

The writer co-owns Frolick Dogs, an indoor dog gym in Alexandria, with her husband, Kevin Gilliam.