If you’ve ever owned a dog, you know they can have some strange behavior! As humans, we do our best to get to know and understand our furry friends, but as new behaviors crop up, so do new questions.
When taking your dog on a walk, to the dog park, or a new environment, you may notice your dog sniffing the air or particular spots incessantly. Since you’ve stumbled upon this article, you’re probably wondering why!
A dog’s nose is a powerful tool, and they can start sniffing the air for many reasons. For example, maybe your dog hears another animal and wants to figure out what it is through scent, or there are other dog owners or pets around that your dog is curious about. Sometimes, dogs perform air sniffing behaviors when they contact nervous triggers or because of medical conditions.
So, now that you know why dogs tend to sniff the air, you may be curious to find out more about dog behavior, why dogs sniff, and just how much a dog’s sense of smell can affect their daily life!
Why Does My Dog Keep Looking Up and Sniffing the Air?
As stated above, dogs tend to sniff the air for a wide variety of reasons, from normal, healthy behavior, to nervous triggers and anxiety responses.
It’s a wide range of information, but I’m going to break it down for the average dog owner in bite-sized pieces!
Dog Smells in the Environment
Dogs have a powerful sense of smell. In fact, your dog’s nose is between 10,000-100,000 times stronger than yours! So no wonder they’re always sniffing the air!
Dogs can smell food, other animals, and various other dog smells with great clarity and can follow those scent trails over long distances, especially when a wind breeze carries certain smells.
If you catch your dog sniffing the air outdoors, it could be because they’re trying to figure out just what’s going on out here! To figure out their surroundings through their sense of smell, a dog sniffs everything they can in search of a scent trail.
When a dog can’t find the origin of a scent, they stick their noses in the air for a bit until they get a better idea of where the smell came from.
Most dog owners are familiar with this behavior; in fact, your dog can lead you on some wild walks when they start sniffing!
Why Does My Dog Sniff at Home?
If your dog starts sniffing the air inside, it may be because a breeze has rolled in or your air conditioner has just turned on, filling the interior of your home with brand new smells to explore!
Life can get dull when a dog is stuck inside the house, so opening a window now and then can bring some new excitement to your dog’s nostrils.
Of course, I couldn’t talk about a typical dog’s behavior without mentioning the kitchen. If your dog is hanging around while you’re cooking, it’s likely he or she smells food and is looking for a bite.
What’s That Noise?
But other environmental stimuli can trigger the air sniffing response in dogs, namely sound! Just like their sense of smell, their hearing is phenomenal, and dogs can hear smaller sounds from far greater distances than we can.
Why Does My Dog Look Straight Up in the Air?
If your dog is sniffing the air and looking up, it may be because they’ve heard or smelled something that you can’t see. Maybe they hear a bug flying around somewhere in the room or something crawling about in the wall.
Though it may seem a bit freaky to an owner, there can be a perfectly reasonable explanation—maybe your dog sees something you can’t!
My Dog Sniffs the Air Before a Storm
Some dogs sniff the air when the air pressure or weather conditions are changing as a way to investigate what’s coming. Some dogs with storm phobia may be especially sensitive to this, as certain smells and changes in the environment can indicate that a storm is brewing.
For further discussion of nervous dogs and sniffing the air, keep reading, as I’ll discuss this in more detail below!
Is Air Sniffing Normal Behavior?
Sniffing the air is a relatively normal behavior in dogs. When a dog smells something new, they naturally want to investigate! Though a dog sniffing can sometimes derail an otherwise calm walk in the fresh air, a dog’s curiosity through their sense of smell should be encouraged by owners.
Even though sniffing the air is a harmless and normal dog behavior, many owners are concerned when their dogs start sniffing the air and staring upward.
In these situations, it’s important to read your dog’s body language and assess their other habits to determine if sniffing the air is an indicator of a different behavioral issue. Staring can also be a symptom of a health issue.
Just remember, just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean your dog’s nose can’t!
Why Is It Important to Encourage Dog Sniffing?
As a dog owner, you know your dog is inside your home for most of the day, especially if you’re going to a full-time job. That’s why walking your dog is so essential—it allows dogs to interact with the outside world, blow off some excess energy, and spend quality time with you!
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When a dog sniffs, they explore their environment and become familiar with the world around them. Sniffing the air is one way to do that, allowing your dog to get to know the other dogs, other animals, and various scents in your neighborhood.
Sniffing and marking are important vehicles for dog communication—when your dog is sniffing on a walk, just imagine that they’re checking out the morning paper!
Sniffing the air is also an excellent way for your dog to get some much-needed mental stimulation by identifying and searching out scents. If you walk your dog in the same area each day, try taking your dog out to a park or particular spot you haven’t visited before! There will be tons of new smells to experience and catalog, and your dog will thank you for it!
Dogs With Jobs
Exercising a dog’s sense of smell is good for them, but it’s also good for us humans! Thanks to this incredible sense, dogs can be a great help to us just by using their noses—and they’ve been doing that throughout history!
Dogs with a particularly great sense of smell, like Bloodhounds, make excellent hunting companions, as they have a knack for tracking an animal’s scent through the forest.
Other dogs can be trained to recognize the smell of humans and come to our rescue! Dogs can even sniff out cancer! Is there anything these guys can’t do?
Is Sniffing a Problem?
If your dog is sniffing a lot, it can hold up your walk, making slow work of the task. While it is essential for a dog to sniff the environment, when does it become too much?
As I’ll discuss later, excessive air sniffing can be an indicator of stress, so it’s best to assess your dog’s overall behavior and body language when taking that into account. In these cases, you’d want to take corrective action to train your dog to be calm when on a walk or greeting new people and provide the reassurance your dog needs.
But if your dog just enjoys spending time exercising their incredible sense of smell to sniff everything in sight, you can work to correct this. After all, you can’t spend all your time waiting for your dog to be finished!
How Do I Get My Dog to Stop Sniffing?
If your dog is sniffing excessively (such as bothering guests at your home), do something to grab your dog’s attention. Typically, a loud clap or command will bring their focus back to you, the owner, and away from whatever they were sniffing.
To do this effectively, you can train focus commands like “touch” or “look” that you can then utilize on walks. These commands are simple and effective tools for bringing your dog’s focus back to you in distracting situations.
A confident dog in these commands will also become more comfortable in new environments, as they know they can rely on their owners for focus and reassurance. If you’re concerned about your dog’s nervousness, focus commands are a great first step to keeping calm in new situations!
Sniffing the Air and Medical Conditions
Sometimes, dogs sniffing and staring into space or at one particular spot can be symptoms of health conditions. If your dog keeps their focus somewhere in the air or seems to be sniffing loudly or even coughing, you may want to investigate a little further.
Dogs can stare into the air due to eye problems. Sometimes, something is stuck in the eye (grass, fur, or fluff), and the dog is distracted by it, continuously staring at the blockage. Other times, your dog may have a scratch on the surface of the eye—a corneal ulcer—and be bothered by it due to irritation and impaired vision.
You may also see your dog rubbing their eyes with their paws, against furniture, or on the carpet.
In either case, if you are concerned about your dog’s eyes or vision, you should get them checked out by a veterinarian. Corneal ulcers require special treatment, and any eye issues should be evaluated as soon as possible due to the delicate nature of the eye.
As your dog gets older, they will display many symptoms of aging. For example, it’s quite common for dogs to become confused or develop cataracts as they age, which can lead to strange things like staring into space or trouble navigating their environment.
If you have an older dog and are concerned about any newly developing behaviors, see your veterinarian to rule out any other health concerns before attributing your dog’s sniffing and staring behavior to aging alone.
Some dogs can develop compulsive behaviors. Some of these include staring into space, chasing shadows, licking and chewing themselves (tails, paws, etc.), obsessive barking, fly snapping syndrome, and circling.
If your dog is displaying compulsive behaviors, a veterinarian should evaluate them to rule out any other medical causes.
If a compulsive disorder is suspected, there are a range of treatment options you can try for your dog. The Veterinary Information Network (VIN) has more information about compulsive behaviors in dogs here.
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Sniffing the Air and Nervous Behaviors
If you’ve taken your dog to the park and they’re sniffing the air anytime other dogs are around, could this be an indicator of anxiety? Well, maybe. Sniffing is a very normal dog behavior, and so is sniffing the air and looking up. So how can we differentiate regular sniffing from nervous sniffing?
Dogs exert a variety of nervous behaviors. Therefore, for our interpretation of whether or not your dog is experiencing stress, we will want to consider the overall picture, taking into account their behavior, body language, and environment.
What an Anxious Dog Looks Like
So, how can you tell if your dog is nervous? Anxious dogs typically demonstrate the following body language, odd behavior, or physiological responses:
- Flattened ears
- Sweaty paws
- Lip licking
- Tucked tail
- Dogs stare or show the whites of their eyes
- Dilated pupils
- Hiding (behind owner, in corners, beneath furniture)
- Wrinkled forehead
- Excessive shedding
- Paw lifting
If you take air sniffing into account alongside these other signs, your dog may be sniffing the air due to anxiety. This anxiety can arise due to oncoming weather changes (such as thunderstorms), other dogs or animals, changes in the environment, or going to new places. So what can you do to help?
What Makes a Dog Anxious?
Ideally, dogs are socialized when they’re puppies to form positive associations with animals, humans, and unique environments.
When this doesn’t happen, dogs can become very anxious, as they lack the proper skills to adjust to new environments and situations. Additionally, dogs can develop specific phobias during their lives, such as storm phobia or phobias to fireworks.
How to Calm an Anxious Dog
Counterconditioning anxiety in a dog can be a long and challenging road, especially if you’re a beginner dog owner.
If you see your dog exhibiting nervous behavior and sniffing the air, remove your dog from the situation if you’re able. Dogs can be slowly desensitized to their triggers over time through slow exposure therapy, which allows your dog to become used to the anxiety-inducing stimulus in a controlled and cautious way.
Dr. Sophia Yin provides excellent tools for counterconditioning dog anxiety on her website. You can also reach out to your veterinarian for a behavior consultation and local dog training facility recommendations.
Dogs may sniff the air to locate a scent trail, become familiar with their surroundings, or for mental stimulation. Sniffing is an essential part of your dog’s life, so stimulating behaviors like these should be encouraged!
While sniffing the air and looking up can be perfectly normal behavior for most dogs, it can also be a sign of stress or a symptom of a medical issue. If you’re ever concerned about your dog’s health or behavior, contact your veterinarian to get your dog back on the right track!