Study: You Can Sniff Out Your Dog By Smell

Lori Ennis
by Lori Ennis
It’s not new information that our dogs’ sniffers are pretty incredible and they have the ability to sniff out everything from new lotion we wear to cancer, diabetes and even COVID. But now new research suggests that WE can sniff our dogs out, based on their smell, and it just goes to show that the noses know.

Dogs are known for their ability to sniff out (almost) all the stuff. We as humans have used their magnificent ability to do so for many years in many ways–from disease detection to truffle hunting.

And why wouldn’t we? We mere humans have about 5 million olfactory receptors in our noses. On the other hand, our best furry buds have on average 225-300 million. No wonder our dogs can sniff those treats in our pockets out a mile away!

But while we’re far less superior in the sniffing game than our dogs, it turns out there is SOME aspect of our olfactory receptors that tends to know our dogs as our dogs know us. No, we’re not sniffing butts as they do (we hope?) but while scents are processed differently in our brains–we’re still prone to scents bringing emotional response and even being able to accurately (mostly) identify items based on scent. Including the scents of living things, like our pups.

While our sense of smell is not necessarily a strong one in the repertoire of sensory systems, it does play a role in our lives. We all have individual odors that are influenced by everything from diet to hormones to disease.

And studies have shown that we’re able to tell our own family members based on their individual smells. So researchers wondered if we could do the same for our dogs as they’re furry family to us. The group was headed by Lucie Přibylová of the Department of Ethology and Companion Animal Science at Prague’s Czech University of Life Sciences. It looked at 53 dog owners (40 female and 13 male participants of different ages). They used sterile gauze pads to rub down each dog and then placed them in separate glass jars with a twist-off lid.

For each trial, six glass jars were randomly placed in a line up in front of the human participant. One was their dog’s scent; the other five were form other random dogs. Neither experimenters nor the participants knew what was what.

The participants were allowed to sniff for as long as they wanted before telling the experimenter which jar they thought contained the pad of their dog’s scent.

Interestingly, considering there were six possible dog choices from which to choose, the odds of choosing accurately should have been only about 17%, give or take. Men were actually able to correctly guess 89.5% of the time, while women were accurate 64.7%. That’s nine out of ten times for mean and nearly two out of three times for women. Not too shabby for a bunch of humans!

What Made The Smell Stick?

The researchers found that neutered dogs were easier to identify, as were dogs who were housed outside full-time. They hypothesize that living inside with a dog full-time may bring on olfactory fatigue–a situation where you can smell something immediately but after a few minutes, your scent receptors adapt and you don’t smell it anymore.

Something odd that was found was that dogs who were fed dry kibble were more easily identified than dogs who were on raw diets. The researchers suggest that because the bulk of their sample participants were women, and studies show women prefer the scent of men who eat plant-based diets over meat-based, perhaps they could respond better to the scent of their dry-kibble fed dogs better.

Not surprisingly was the finding that the older the human, the harder it was to identify based on scent. Getting older isn’t for sissies, and it shows even in your ability to detect scents. The best dog identification skills were in young, male participants.

So there you go. Give yourself a pat on the back for not being quite as inept with our sniffers as our canine pals.

Lori Ennis
Lori Ennis

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