I, like you, know dogs have an incredible sense of smell. I’ve watched my dog, Albert, sniff and retrace my brother’s steps minutes after he’d walked them. Albert also alerts me when to a forgotten bone pushed under the couch. During our walks, sometimes Albert will become so entranced smelling a rock/tree/pole/bush that he’ll resist my commands so he can sniff a moment longer.
Over the years, I’ve made up different stories about his experiences, wondering which smells are deemed essential and why. What information is he receiving that captures his attention so fully to the point of being completely oblivious of his surroundings? Perhaps he and the other dogs have a communication system going. You know, marking this tree means “mission is a go,” but if it’s on that bush it means, “abort.” I don’t know, but I dug around (pun intended) and found some pretty remarkable things about canine sniffing talents.
Dog Noses are Amazing
The superiority of a dog’s sense of smell is super cool and well researched. Dogs can sniff out cancers, weapons, and missing people. Recently they’ve even been trained to detect when someone has Covid.
It makes sense, seeing as dogs have 300 million receptors in their noses, whereas we mere humans have around 5 million. (Though our smelling ability is actually way better and more impressive than I initially thought, though I’ll hold off to tell you about that until Monday in Curious Life.)
Back to the point, the shapes of dog noses allow them to move the air around thanks to the increased surface area they have. This enables them to capture more smells, and under perfect conditions, dogs can smell over 12 miles (20 km), making them great trackers. The bloodhound, specifically, is so good at tracking that their routes are used in court as evidence.
When Albert, or any dog, smells a scent, the information is sent to a specific area of their brain designed uniquely for examining and identifying odors. They even have an organ just for detecting chemical scents and pheromones that we can’t detect.
One of the most incredible things I learned is that dogs smell in 3-D. Similar to how our eyes see two slightly different versions of the world and our brains turn them 3-D, a dog’s brain takes two odor profiles (one from each nostril) which tells a dog exactly where a smell is coming from.
But dog noses are good for more than just smelling treats and trees. Did you know that dogs can associate behaviors by smelling emotions? They can also sense thermal radiation or heat signatures. Only a handful of other animals have been found with this ability, but dogs are one of only two mammals we know of with this skill—the other is vampire bats.
How Does Smell Shape A Dog’s World?
It’s kinda hard to fathom the differences between the way humans experience our world compared to dogs. Based on the number of receptors alone, we may never fully grasp the intricacies or depth of information dog’s noses provide them.
While I marvel at the beauty of changing leaves on the crisp Fall day, Albert is learning the mood and health of the animals that marked whatever he’s smelling or sniffing the trail of a raccoon who walked the same path before we reached it. We’re walking the same path but having vastly different experiences.
Before, I sometimes felt like a bad dog owner because while other dogs seem to have no qualms with walking at a steady pace, I let Albert sniff whatever he wants. It turns out it’s excellent for dogs and is sometimes called a “sniffy walk” because it allows them to experience the world and actually makes them happier. Do you have a dog? Try playing one of these smelling-based games and see their excitement.
Animals will never cease to amaze me. We say that humans are the most intelligent creatures on Earth, but the truth is, intelligence is subjective. By this point, Albert probably knows more about the going-ons in my neighborhood than I do. Then again, he probably knows a lot more about several things that I’m oblivious to, thanks to his excellent nose.
Our senses dictate how we experience the world. So, imagine how different life would be if our noses were more robust than our eyes. What other paths might we have taken or discoveries might we have found if we knew what dogs knew?
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