Why Sniff Time Is so Important to Your Dog

So often when we go out with our dog it is a brisk walk down the street or to the park where we then play fetch with a ball or let them run around with some other dogs.  If your dog stops to sniff, I am sure we have all been guilty of feeling frustrated or impatient and pulling our dog to encourage them to hurry up.

Actually, if we just slow things down, go at our dog’s pace and allow them to take the time to stop and sniff it can be much more mentally stimulating and physically tiring for them.


A Dog’s Nose Is Incredibly Powerful

You may have noticed that your dog has a very sensitive nose, but did you know that a dog’s sense of smell could be as much as 100,000 times as strong as ours.  It can be hard to understand just how sensitive that really is. By giving a more visual example it can really put it into context. The one that is most frequently quoted is that a dog could sniff out one drop of blood in an Olympic sized swimming pool!

Their sense of smell is so acute that they can even smell cancer when it is in its very early stages.  They have been shown to accurately detect early-stage breast, pancreatic and lung cancer, amongst others.

Whilst humans use sight most off all to understand their environment, a dog uses its sense of smell much more to explore and evaluate its surroundings.

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We often forget just how powerful our dog’s sense of smell is

What are the Five Animal Freedoms?

The Five Freedoms for Animals is a standard of care designed to meet the mental and physical needs of the animals in our care. It is recognised worldwide after being developed in the 1960s by the British Farm Animal Welfare Council.  They were then adapted by the Association of Shelter Veterinarians to fit more appropriately for companion animals.

The Five Freedoms include:

  1. Freedom from thirst and hunger
  2. Freedom from discomfort
  3. Freedom from pain, injury and disease
  4. Freedom from fear and distress
  5. Freedom to express normal behaviour

Whilst the first four seem like common sense to any good dog owner, the fifth freedom is something that we sometimes may not actually be giving our dog the opportunity to enjoy without even realising it.  We often place constraints on our dog’s to allow them to fit into our lifestyle.

Is a Dog Walk for You or for Them?

Yes, a dog walk is important for ensuring that your dog receives enough exercise and often so that they can go to the toilet, but it actually should be so much more than that.

So many people, especially in urban areas, will take their dog out for a walk through busy streets and sometimes whilst they have the time constraint of needing to get to work, drop children at school, get the walk done on a restricted lunch break.  You may find yourself rushing along the street, perhaps they will get a very quick run through the park and then rush back home again. Have you ever been guilty of getting impatient when your dog stops to sniff a lamp post or a patch of grass and you find yourself pulling them along to get to your end destination more quickly?

Given that a dog walk is meant to be time for them, we should all take the time to think more about how to make that time more enjoyable and enriching for them.

Whilst loose leash walking and heelwork can be important, it is also good to give our dog the chance to explore more freely, even when on the leash.

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We often rush our dog walks, on a time schedule, on a busy street and with a short leash

Give Your Dog Choices

Why not take the time to go on a walk when you are not clock watching?  You have the time to go at your dog’s pace and you pick an environment that is likely to be more stimulating and relaxing for them than just along a busy street.

Why not let your dog lead the way?  By that I don’t mean let him drag you around and engage in inappropriate behaviours, but if they want to stop and sniff in a particular place or if they are showing an interest in a certain space, why not let them go there?  Give your dog the chance to make some choices of their own.

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Take your dog somewhere with lots of great natural smells and let them have the time to sniff and roam, even if they are on the lead

Does Sniffing Make a Dog Feel Better?

There are some dog behaviourists and scientists that are now studying dogs being given more olfactory opportunities.  It has even been claimed that by not giving our dogs the opportunity to exercise their need for sniffing enough, we could be causing some sort of sensory deprivation that could result in increased stress, depression or other behaviour problems.

A study published in the Applied Animal Behaviour Science Journal in 2019 called ‘Let me sniff! Nosework induces positive judgment bias in pet dogs’ even suggested that giving a dog an opportunity to sniff can increase their optimism.   There were two sets of dogs in the study, those that were given nosework opportunities and tasks and those that were given heelwork tasks.  Those involved in the foraging type activities were given the opportunity to partake in more natural, free behaviour and their welfare improved as a result.

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A recent study showed that allowing your dog more time to sniff can make them feel more optimistic

Does Sniffing Tire Your Dog out More?

By allowing your dog the opportunity to stop and sniff and forage when out on walks you are actually likely to tire them out more than you would on a brisk walk over a longer distance.  By giving your dog the opportunity to discover, analyse and explore more they will get much more mental stimulation and, as a result, they are going to feel more tired – in a good way.

This not only helps your dog feel more relaxed but it can also help to reduce problem behaviours you may see arising as a result of boredom, like destructive behaviour in the home, when used alongside some other training techniques and with other brain train exercises.

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A dog that is given more opportunities to sniff is likely to feel more mentally stimulated and more tired and relaxed during rest time as a result

Sniffing Is a Crucial Part of Dog Communication

Sniffing is not just about your dog getting a better overall picture of their environment, it is also an important part of dog communication.  Whilst dogs use, often very subtle, body language to communicate, there are other things that make up a vital part of their communication with other dogs and with us too.

So, when your dog stops to sniff another dog’s urine on a lamppost this is actually an important part of doggy communication for them. They are trying to evaluate who else is in the neighbourhood, are they male or female, do they know them and so on.

Your dog sniffing another dogs bottom may seem odd to us but it is another important means of communication for them.

Sniffing on the ground can also be a form of communication for dogs.  If they are unsure of another dog or the situation, they may start to sniff as a displacement or appeasement signal to the other dog, often to try to alleviate any tension or stress.  It can be their way of saying that they don’t want any trouble and that they are not a threat.

A dog uses its sense of smell as a form of recognition.  Have you ever watched a viral video of a soldier returning after a long tour of duty? Their dog is often initially very wary of the approaching person, they may exhibit nervous body language with their tail tucked, ears back and crouching low to the ground.  They come right up to their owner and still do not seem to recognise them. When the owner crouches down to let the dog smell them they suddenly recognise them and a very joyful and exuberant reunion happens and the dog’s body language changes from hesitant to happy in just a second.

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Dogs can identify others by the scents they leave behind and they also use sniffing as part of their communication with other dogs

Scent Work and Other Types of Sniffing Activity

If you would like to give your dog the opportunity to use their nose more there are lots of different types of activities that you can choose from. Some examples are included below:

Scent work

Do you and your dog already enjoy taking part in agility or another dog sport?  Do you think you would both enjoy something  more structured and competitive that utilises your dog’s fantastic olfactory abilities? Then you may want to consider enrolling with a scent work club or on a specific course for this.

This sport is based on the work of professional scent detection dogs.  It usually involves the dogs having to find swabs that have been doused in particular essential oils (usually Birch, Anise, Clove or Cypress) and then hidden.  In a competitive environment, the handler does not know where the swab has been hidden either so they are relying on the dog finding the swab and then correctly alerting them.

It is an easy activity to be practising at home and there are a lot of useful books and videos that you can work from if you don’t want to join a club

It is a great way of getting your dog to really use their scenting skills, can greatly increase your bond and is obviously a lovely way to keep them mentally stimulated too

K9 nosework classes are very popular and these can provide a great supportive environment for getting the opportunity to try some structured scent work sessions.   The tasks, often involving searching through a number of boxes or other objects to find the treat or scented item, sometimes work wonders for dogs that can otherwise be reactive in a class environment.  The tasks are done one at a time, so no other dogs will be involved at the same time and the focus on the scent is often enough to remove the stress of the other things that can normally be a trigger in that type of environment.

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Scent work trials were developed following the principles of training for working detection dogs

Food Foraging

By selecting a certain spot in your garden or another safe and grassy environment where you throw some of your dog’s food or a handful of small yummy treats and then you bring your dog out to let them naturally forage for them, you can be providing them with a very enriching opportunity.

It is not a training exercise so they are just allowed to sniff out the food at their own pace and in their own style.  It can be a helpful tool for building confidence in an anxious dog. If you start in an environment where they are less anxious, you can then move the activity gradually to other areas.

It can be a great way to provide extra enrichment for less mobile senior dogs, dogs that are recovering from injury or for high energy puppies that need a focussed activity.

Always make sure that you pick a non-distracting environment, particularly at first and somewhere that has a decent and safe covering of grass for the food to embed into.

If you don’t have access to grass then you could consider using a Snuffle Mats which is usually made up of lots of interwoven pieces of fleece with a rubber mat base.

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Scattering some food over a safe area of grass can prove to be very mentally enriching for your dog

Create a Miniature Sensory Garden

Sensory gardens are becoming increasingly popular, especially within well-run rescue organisations that want to provide a calm, relaxing and enriching environment for the dogs in kennels, especially those that may often be feeling stressed.

As well as introducing more unusual textures and surfaces into a garden environment and areas where they can explore their natural urges, like sand pits for digging, by also introducing new, doggy safe plants this can provide your dog with more scents to discover.  There are certain plants that, if eaten, will be perfectly safe and could actually benefit your dog’s health and well being.

Marigold is meant to help with stress, birch is meant to help with inflammation, meadowsweet can help with digestive issues.

Pick the Right Equipment for a Free Sniffing Walk

If you do plan to allow your dog to enjoy more free sniffing time when out on a walk, it is important to consider what equipment you are using.  If you have your dog on a standard 3-foot lead, they are not really going to get the opportunity for much free behaviour. Why not work with a long, adjustable length training leash or, if you have an appropriate open and safe space for them but you don’t want to let them off leash you could use a long line to give them a lot more freedom to make choices on where they want to go.  Make sure that you always have your dog on a harness if you are using a long line to avoid unnecessary pressure being placed on their neck.

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If your dog is on leash,  make sure that is is a long enough length for them still to be able to enjoy some free sniffy exploration

Would You Like Some Further Reading?

If you are interested in understanding more about your dog’s wonderful olfactory abilities then we would recommend reading ‘Being a Dog: Following the Dog Into a World of Smell’ by Alexandra Horowitz.

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