The Nose Knows: The Canine Sense of Smell

Tracker dog on the left.

While dogs can see plenty well, it’s no secret to anyone who has ever owned a dog that the main way dogs interact with the world is through their sense of smell. A dog’s sense of smell is many, many magnitudes sharper than our own, with scientists saying that it may be in the ballpark of 10,000 to 100,000 times better than an average human, depending on the breed. Not only does the incredible olfactory sense of dogs allow them to perceive smells we humans could never get a whiff of, it gives them a much greater ability to distinguish subtleties in smells that a person would find very similar or even identical. They use their nose for a wide range of activities, from everyday tasks to the absolutely incredible.

Dogs use their sense of smell as a basic form of communication; anyone who’s ever seen two dogs meet can confirm as much. Dogs can learn a ton about each other, including things like health and mood, just by smell. Additionally, dogs have a much better memory of specific scents than we humans do and can often recall other dogs and sometimes people just from their scents. It’s well known that dogs mark their territory, but other dogs can figure out which dog has marked that territory from the scent alone, if the dog has encountered it before.

So beyond the mundane, what else can we use dog noses for? Dogs are frequently used for rescue operations, as their keen sense of smell allows them to find survivors buried in rubble. They are also used as drug sniffers, finding illegal contraband for law enforcement agencies. Both of these “dog jobs” are pretty well known and have been around for a while, but we are learning to use dogs’ extraordinary sense of smell in new ways all the time. Dogs, when trained, can even smell out the specific odors of cancer in humans, and ongoing trials have shown the success rate to be quite good.

Before dogs’ noses were put to such a wide variety of modern uses, humans already had a very good reason to trust their canine companion’s sniffer; dogs have been hunting partners of humans since prehistory, and their noses would lead their masters on successful hunts. Many still use dogs for traditional hunting purposes today, but others choose to test their dog’s tracking skills in other ways. The American Kennel Club hosts an official tracking sport where dogs can compete for medals. A dog must track a scent that is hours old over long distances, from 440 to 1000 yards, depending on which title they are competing for. Dogs that have earned the titles of Tracking Dog, Tracking Dog Excellent, and Variable Surface Tracking will additionally earn the title of Champion Tracker. As of 2017, only 44 dogs have earned the coveted highest tracking title.

Dogs rely on their sense of smell for all kinds of everyday needs; it forms the basis for many of their social interactions with other dogs. People have also harnessed this superior sense for their own needs, from hunting for their next meal to helping rescue those in need. Their sense of smell is a powerful tool and its usefulness has been a major part in shaping the history of dogs as we see them today; their strong sense of smell is a major reason why dogs became so useful to people that they earned the title of “man’s best friend”. People still track with their dogs for sport, invoking this ancient bond, and new uses for their powerful nose are still being discovered. Whatever the future has in store for dogs, their nose will surely confidently be leading the way, blazing a trail for tomorrow.

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