Have you ever wondered how a dog’s sense of smell works and why they are such good trackers? Some of these questions arise for many of us who have dogs at home, and the fact is that our furry ones tend to be very good with their sense of smell. Would you like to understand a little about how your dog’s sense of smell works and some curious facts? Or even how to train their sense of smell? You’ll be surprised!

How does a dog’s sense of smell work?

When dogs inhale, they split the air into two streams through their nasal turbinates. The turbinates are elongated, bony-based, mucous formations located on the side wall of the nostrils. One stream of air enters the lungs to allow breathing. The other stream reaches the olfactory membrane, where odour molecules are captured and processed by special cells.

Unlike humans, dogs have an additional olfactory organ that enhances their ability to smell. Jacobsen’s organ, also known as the vomeronasal organ, is a specialised part of the dog’s olfactory apparatus. It is located in the soft tissue of the nasal septum, in the nasal cavity, just above the roof of the mouth.

This organ serves as a secondary olfactory system designed specifically for chemical communication. This is because this organ detects pheromones (body odours), giving the dog its great ability to identify and recognise animals and people.

The nerves of Jacobsen’s organ go directly to the brain and differ from the other nerves in the nose in that they do not respond to common odours. Rather, these nerve cells respond to a variety of substances that often have no odour at all. In other words, they function to detect “imperceptible” odours.

To maximise their ability to smell, dogs increase the speed of their breathing by inhaling and exhaling very quickly, a movement known as “sniffing”. In addition, dogs have a good olfactory memory, which allows them to recognise other dogs, even if they have not seen them for years.

Interesting facts about dogs’ sense of smell

Now that you know how many olfactory receptors dogs have and how their sense of smell works, let’s look at some fun facts about the subject:

  • Dogs are not able to “get used to” smells: We, when we notice a smell in the environment, gradually get used to it and after a while we are no longer able to detect it. This process is called “odour habituation”. This phenomenon does not occur in dogs, as the sense of smell is their most important channel of perception and they never stop perceiving the smells around them, even if they have been exposed to them for a long time.
  • Dogs can use their sense of smell to establish temporal sequences: this is because they are able to detect the concentration of odour molecules in the environment. The higher the concentration of molecules, the more intense the odour and the less time has passed since the source of the odour was present. Thanks to this ability, dogs can easily follow the tracks of humans or other animals.
  • Not all dogs have the same ability to smell: breed, skull morphology and genetics, among other things, influence the development of the sense of smell in dogs. This sense is less developed in brachycephalic dogs (flat muzzle) or dolichocephalic dogs (very long muzzle) because their anatomy makes it more difficult for odour molecules to pass through than in mesocephalic dogs (proportional muzzle). You can find out which dogs have the best sense of smell in this article: Dog breeds with the best sense of smell.
  • Each of the dog’s nostrils works separately: Unlike our nose, the canine nose has two orifices or nostrils that can detect odours independently to locate their origin and send different signals to the brain. This is often colloquially referred to as “stereo sniffing or 3D sniffing”.
  • The nasal pattern is unique to each dog: The lines and patterns that form the skin tissue of a dog’s nose are unique to each individual, just like our fingerprints. This discovery has led to several countries already using dog nose prints as proof of identification in cases of loss, theft or abandonment.

How can you stimulate your dog’s sense of smell?

Depending on your dog’s preferences, you can offer him plenty of options to train his sense of smell alone or in company. Something as simple as hiding food, toys, or even hiding around the house, can be very stimulating and fun for your dog. Here are some tips on how to train your dog’s sense of smell:

  • Make the most of daily walks: You don’t have to spend a lot of time thinking about how to stimulate your dog’s sense of smell every day. Just offer them enriching walks and let them explore as much as they want. Ideally, you should let your dog sniff large, natural and quiet places, such as a field or a park, while using a long leash. Also, let your dog spend several minutes sniffing the same place, as there should be very interesting information there for him. If your dog doesn’t normally sniff when you walk him, you can encourage him to do so by scattering bits of food around a certain area and encouraging him to search for it, helping him as you see fit.
  • Use puzzles and interactive toys: The sense of smell can also be stimulated without leaving the house. There are hundreds of toys and puzzles on the market in which food can be hidden for the dog to find and retrieve. These products have a double advantage in that they not only invite the dog to sniff more, but also provide a mental challenge that encourages decision-making and other cognitive functions. Of course, the level of difficulty of these games should be adapted to your dog’s skills and level of experience, otherwise it can also be a frustrating experience.
  • Play hide and seek with your dog: Stimulating your dog’s sense of smell does not always require physical materials or toys. You can also do this by playing hide-and-seek indoors or outdoors. While one person holds and distracts the dog, run into a room or behind a piece of furniture and hide. Along the way, you can touch various objects to leave a trail that the dog will follow. Once hidden, call its name or whistle once to make your dog come after you.

As you can see, the world of canine olfaction is very interesting and it is well worth stimulating our furry friends. Did you find these tips useful? Did you know all this information about dogs’ sense of smell? We’ll read you in the comments.