A Dog's Sense of Smell: Just how powerful is it?


The Beagle

A dog’s sense of smell is 10,000 to 100,000 times more powerful than ours. To put this in terms we can better understand, let’s start with the equivalent comparison in our sense of vision. If you can see something a third of a mile away, your dog can see it 3,000 miles away. Or in terms of taste, if you can taste a teaspoon of sugar in a cup of tea, your dog could taste a teaspoon of sugar in a million gallons of water – that’s two Olympic-sized pool’s worth of water.

Scent Tracking

Let’s, for a moment, consider the skill involved in tracking a missing person. The dog is first given the target scent, such as an item of clothing belonging to the missing person. He then sets to work following that scent. Along the way he’ll smell a myriad of odors – a rabbit hiding in the undergrowth, some cat urine, or deer scat perhaps – but he stays focused on the target scent, which is truly incredible.

Dog Nose
A dog's superpower is his sense of smell.

Dogs Can Smell Disease

True stories abound about dogs and their unbelievable sniffing powers.

  • A cancer-sniffing dog found melanoma on a spot of skin that doctors had pronounced to be cancer-free.
  • Five trained dogs were able to accurately identify lung cancer in 99% of patients and 88% of people with breast cancer by merely sniffing the patients’ breath.
  • Dogs can smell when a diabetic’s blood sugar drops. In a study, 65% of dogs warned their diabetic pet parents, by whining or barking, that a hypoglycemic attack was imminent. 

Dogs can also sniff out a person wearing or carrying explosives. They can sniff out drugs even when those drugs are sealed in air-tight canisters and surrounded by other smells.  

Dog sense of smell
Dogs can smell cancer

Your Dog Can Smell Fear

Our bodies betray our emotions in olfactory ways. Human skin is covered in sweat glands and sebaceous glands that secrete different biochemical scents when we are happy, anxious or sad. A dog can pick up the different smell of these hormones and be affected by them.

In a study, participating people were asked to watch a movie. Some watched a scary movie (The Shining) while others watched a happy movie (Jungle Book). Swabs were taken of each person’s skin secretions after the movie.

A group of participating golden retrievers were each presented with a swab.  Those presented with a swab from a person who watched The Shining showed signs of distress. They did not interact with strangers and sought comfort and reassurance from their owners. Those presented with a swab from a person who had watched Jungle Book were more relaxed, wagging their tails and confidently interacting with strangers. 

Dog sense of smell
Golden retrievers were able to smell fear.

What is it About a Dog's Nose That Makes it so Powerful?

There are six key factors;

  • Dogs have 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses to our 6 million.
  • The part of a dog’s brain devoted to analyzing smells is proportionally speaking, 40 times greater than ours.
  • A dog’s nose is also designed with smelling in mind. When we inhale, we smell and breathe through the same airway in the nose. But when a dog inhales, the air is separated into two paths. One goes straight to the lungs. The other swirls into a labyrinth of 300 million olfactory receptors where, in collaboration with the brain, the odor molecules are sorted and analyzed.
  • When we exhale, the spent air goes out the way it came in, temporarily rendering us incapable of smelling. But when your dog exhales, the spent air leaves through those little slits in the side of his nostrils, which enables fresh air to swirl in through his nostrils as the old air is being exhaled. That means he can continuously sniff.
  • A dog’s ability to wiggle his nose enables him to determine which nostril a scent arrived in, helping him to locate its source.
  • Dogs also have an organ in their nose that we don’t have – called a vomeronasal organ – which detects the pheromones of different species. This organ has a dedicated part of the brain to interact with or, in other words, its very own database of pheromone information.
Dog nose
Dogs have 50 times more olfactory receptors than we do.

How to Nurture Your Dog's Sense of Smell 

Dogs read the local gossip through their noses, and write their own messages in their urine, so don’t be tempted to drag him away from an interesting hotspot of odors. This is his chance to read the canine community board.

There are sports you and your dog can play that celebrate the sense of smell.  Scent work (sometimes called ‘nose work’) involves your dog being given a target scent to find. Normally this is a cotton swab doused in essential oil hidden in a pot. In the sport of tracking trial, your dog must follow a scent trail to find certain articles.

Vitamin A is associated with healthy sensory cells in a dog’s nose and brain. Give your dog vegetables (especially carrots and sweet potato), eggs and organ meats such as chicken, which are all good sources of vitamin A. Providing a healthy wholesome diet for your dog will keep him sniffing away for years. 

Dog nose
Vitamin A is important for your dog's olfactory health

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