The Secret to a Happy Dog is to Let Them Get Their Sniff On
Dr. Alexandra Horowitz is a psychologist with Barnard College, and she specializes in dog cognition, particularly relating to their sense of smell. Last fall, she published the illuminating book, Being A Dog: Following A Dog Into The World Of Smell, which detailed how poor humans are compared to dogs when it comes to our sense of smell. Where we humans have maybe six million olfactory receptor cells in our noses, our canine counterparts have anywhere between 200 million and one billion, depending on the dog’s breed.
Where we depend mostly on sight (and by the way, we only have three receptor genes that allow us to see all the colors in the world), dogs have about 800 receptor genes for smell alone. They are literally creatures built with super noses, and we had the chance to talk to Dr. Horowitz about what this means for our pups, and for how even we can interact better in our world with them and others around us.
Q. When researching for your book, what was the most surprising thing that came to you?
Dr. Horowitz: Well, I’m a dog behaviorist. I want to know what dogs think about, how they know things and what things are like from their point of view. Dogs use their olfactory senses to explore the world much like we humans use our sight to navigate in a visual world. What I find so surprising is that dogs’ ability to smell and use their sense of smell to find and determine things is just amazing, particularly when we look at it compared to our ability, and I think we haven’t even gotten close to discovering the potential there. In my work, I learned of a rescue dog named Tucker who tracks Orca whales from the smell of their scat in the Peugeot Sound! I think that ability is phenomenal!
Q: Wow! Me too!! How in the world does that even happen? What breed dog was that? Is there a difference in breeds?
Dr. Horowitz: Honestly, a lot of these phenomenal dogs are rescue-dogs/non-special breeds that have high drives. Dogs, simply because of genetics, have the ability to smell as they do, and these high-drive dogs are trained to sniff specific odors out and care about them. Then they can be used in amazing ways that humans haven’t even gotten close to understanding fully.
Q: That’s an interesting concept. Anything particular you are talking about that?
Dr. Horowitz: I think it is incredible that dogs are being used more and more to sniff out things that we humans wouldn’t even particularly think had ‘odors.’ For instance, dogs are used to detect oncoming earthquakes and seizures in people and even cancers, and I just find it remarkable that these creatures can do that. I think there’s so much potential there!
Q: What kind of potential?
Dr. Horowitz: There’s potential for the dogs to do amazing things for humans, or course, but I also feel like there is tremendous potential for us humans as well. In my research, I wanted to try to get in the mind of a dog and really and purposely train myself to look for and smell different odors. We often find it odd or embarrassing to use our sense of smell in social interactions, but humans could take notes from dogs. The subtleties in smells around us can really lead us to even more enjoyable moments in our lives and with our dogs. In purposely trying to take note of smell and the associations with them, I feel like I’ve opened up a latent superpower!
Q: So, if dogs are such olfactory-driven creatures, since we love them so much, what can we do to best accommodate their needs and who they genetically are?
Dr. Horowitz: We need to let them smell and sniff! I know it seems socially rude when our dogs are sniffing our friends or guests, but that’s who they are and what they do. It’s their world and how they experience it. Also, I am an advocate of walks just for the experience of sniffing and smelling different things in the world. Let them go just for the purpose of discovering with their noses and I believe this enriches their life tremendously. Some even take their pets to Nosework classes and I believe those are really pleasurable for dogs because it allows them to utilize their incredible sense of smell in a way that also stimulates and challenges them, while also increasing the relationship and bond between their humans! A win for both!
Dr. Horowitz’s book is really fascinating and sheds light on how to make the most of your dog’s sense of smell, and the relationship you have with Fido. Check it out!
More by Lori Ennis