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For the majority of people around the world, vision is the number one way we get information about the world. While our other senses can have a lot of importance, we primarily describe things based on how they look first and foremost. Consider how you give directions – “Take a left by the big tree with the broken trunk”, not “Take a left by the house that always smells like pie.” But if you have ever been on the receiving end of a curious dog nose, you know that for our canine friends, it’s a bit different.
From investigating new things to communicating desire, our dogs’ noses are pretty amazing things that they use to understand the world, navigate, and much more. The sense of smell is a dog’s number one way to experience the world, and I’ve rounded up a few facts about it for today’s post.
Why Dog Noses Are Better Than Human Noses
Think of the tip of a dog’s nose as basically the equivalent of the inside of a human nose. Dogs gather scent with the outside of their nose as well as the inside, and the way that they go about taking in scent is very fascinating.
First, dogs smell scents more than once. Have you ever noticed that dogs have slits on the outsides of their nostrils? That is where dogs exhale. So they inhale through the nostrils, and then exhale through those slits, which causes there to be a sort of circulation of the scent molecules. In effect, dogs smell things once when they inhale, and then again when their exhalations circulate back around to the front of the nose.
Second, dogs’ nostrils work separately. Each nostril is smelling something different at all times, and dogs are able to comprehend both sensory inputs simultaneously. This means that dogs can not only identify what a smell is, but it’s what allows them to locate where a smell is coming from at the same time. This is very similar to the way our eyes give us a field of depth, so that we can judge how far away something is from us by looking at it.
Dog noses have 300 million cells that work to understand a scent. Human noses have just five million, in comparison – so your dog’s nose is 60 times more powerful than your own. And to add to that, dog brains work in such a way that they can understand information from smells 100 million times better than human brains are able to. So as you can see, dogs are truly built to use their noses better than any other sense they have. So now let’s get into some fun dog nose facts.
Fact 1: Dogs Can Smell Invisible Messages
So, you’ve probably heard about dogs that can sniff out cancer, or dogs that seemed to know when their owner was pregnant. This is due to a dog’s amazing sense of smell. Dogs have a secondary receptor in their noses called a vomeronasal organ, which sniffs out things that are invisible. Basically, this organ can detect pheromones and hormones, things that tell the dog a lot of information. They can sense when another animal is friendly or dangerous through this receptor, for example. This is why your dog likes to spend a lot of time sniffing specific spots in the neighborhood. It tells them all about other dogs that have passed by, and in a way is almost like doggie Facebook – through the pheromones left behind, dogs can know if other dogs in the area are stressed out, if they are healthy, and so on. It’s also why you can’t seem to fool your dog when you are sad or stressed out – they can smell the uncontrollable hormones in your body that you produce when feeling certain emotions.
Fact 2: Dogs Tell Time with Scent
Did you ever wonder how your childhood pet always knew when it was time to wait for you at the bus stop? Part of it may have been simple routine, but dogs can actually tell time in a way. Have you ever realized, just based on the way your home looked with the deepening light, that it was suddenly late afternoon? Well, just like light travels through our homes alerting us to the passing of time, so do smells. As the air currents in your home move, smells move with them, and your dog becomes used to the way the house smells at specific times of the day. When the house’s smell changes to just the right scent, they can remember that a specific thing is about to happen – such as a kid coming home from school. Pretty neat, huh? So when your dog brings you the leash, you might want to listen – chances are they know it’s about time to get going.
Did you know that dogs with longer snouts have better senses of smell than dogs with shorter muzzles? For example, a German Shepherd has about 300 million scent receptors in its nose, making it great for drug detecting and tracking. A Chihuahua on the other hand, will have fewer scent receptors in the nose because there’s just not enough physical room in their tiny muzzles for so many cells. That’s why you only see certain breeds of dogs as rescue or service dogs. This is also why some small dogs, like Pekinese or Maltese dogs, have much bigger, rounder eyes than larger dogs. These dogs rely more on their sense of sight than bigger dogs with more scent receptors might.
Did you know that your dog’s nose is uniquely shaped? Every single dog in the world has a totally unique nose print, just like humans have a totally unique fingerprint. There are even companies that have started registering nose prints into a database that can be used if a dog gets lost. Some kennels have started using this as a way to provide extra security for dogs. If you want to do a cool art project and have a unique wall hanging that honors your best buddy, you can use food-grade food coloring on his nose, press it into some paper, and frame! Your dog will be safe licking away the food coloring should they happen to, and you can get something really fun out of it with patience. There are even companies that will take that print and turn it into a metal necklace pendant for a special gift.
Fact 5: Tracking and Trailing Are Two Different Things
When you think of a dog’s amazing nose, chances are you immediately picture a dog with their nose to the ground, following a scent trail to find a missing person or hidden items. You may have seen shows where a dog is given a piece of clothing, and then immediately starts to follow a scent trail to find the person who wore that clothing. What you are picturing is called trailing, which is when a dog tracks down a specific scent across a distance. In trailing, a dog is literally just following an existing scent trail and nothing more.
However, there is another nose-based activity that dogs do called tracking, which is different from trailing. Tracking dogs don’t work by picking up the trail of scent after being introduced to it by a piece of clothing. Instead, they find a fresh track – which includes both a smell and visual clues of ground disturbance – and follow it. This is more like hunting. A dog is trained to hunt raccoons, for example, so when they go into the woods, they simply find the smell of a raccoon, look for evidence of an animal walking through an area, and follow those tracks. In tracking, a dog is using logic plus scent information to find the most likely place where the object, animal, or person may be.
Fact 6: Some Dogs Use Their Ears to Smell
Did you know that the ears are a big part of the sense of smell for some dogs? Think about a classic hound dog, like a Basset Hound. They have long, floppy ears that drag the ground. This is actually a desirable trait in a hunting dog, because it means they’ll be able to pick up on scent trails easier. The ears fan the aroma from the ground up to the nose in more detail, making it easier for the nose to get more information. That’s pretty cool! (Just make sure you keep those ears clean – dragging the ground like that can result in a lot of dirt getting into the ear folds, which can cause infection.)
There’s a myth going around that dogs have a dry, hot nose when they are sick. This is true, sometimes. But a dry nose doesn’t automatically mean a dog is sick. In fact, the moisture that they produce on the nose can change based on the weather, their environment, or even the time of day. Sick dogs can still have a wet nose as well.
Dogs have wet noses for different purposes, which may help you understand better why this isn’t necessarily a sign of illness. One reason they have wet noses is that the mucous they secrete is used to help pick up on odors better. Another reason is because dogs clean their noses frequently to get rid of dust or food that may be blocking their ability to smell other things. And finally, dogs’ noses get wet when they are hot because it helps them cool down.
Letting Your Dog Smell Their Way Around
One thing that many dog owners realize with some embarrassment is that their dogs like to sniff at delicate areas on strangers as well as people they know. The fact is that the human groin, as well as the armpits, mouths, and shoes, are the best places to get information about that person. It’s where we have the most scent due to the way our biology works, or where we’ve picked up the most scent from the outside world in the case of our shoes. Other places that dogs really like to smell that may seem odd to us humans aretrash cans, the litter box, and other dogs’ bums.
The bum greeting is something that has baffled humans forever, but we now know a little more about what this greeting does for dogs. Whereas humans will meet and chat about the weather, work, or something else to start learning about each other, dogs immediately go for the “good” information. They want to know if the other dog is healthy, what they ate that day, and how old they are – information like this tells them all about how friendly the other dog may be. This is why it’s a good idea to simply let your dog have his way and smell his world the way he wants to.
Of course, if having a dog nose in your groin makes you uncomfortable, like most people, it’s pretty easy to distract a dog. Just offer him a new scent, such as your hand, and he’ll move on. One thing to note for owners: If you always pull your dog away from good smells, like a tree that they seem really intent on checking out, you could actually cause them to lose some of their ability to smell. They need to continually practice smelling in order to keep this sense sharp.
Because there is a lot of pressure for dogs to communicate visually, by responding to our cues like pointing, they can start to repress their own instinct to smell first. If you want your dog to keep their real superpower of smelling, letting them have lots of time to smell, and taking them to scent-heavy areas, are great ideas. It keeps them happy and interested in the world, and you’ll be letting your dog live up to his true nature. That’s a really wonderful thing to do for an animal who does so much for you.
It’s always neat to me to see Janice and Leroy checking something out in a way that I could never fathom with my sad human nose. Together they’ve discovered all kinds of things through just scent alone. Next time you’re wondering what your dog is up to when his nose is going, you can remember these seven facts about dog noses!