Updated: Nov 14
I used to walk my dogs solely as a form of exercise, both for them and for me. Back then my goal was to get a decent workout and tire my dogs out. It was all about how fast I could complete my designated route and was proud of myself when I made good time.
My dogs seemed to enjoy these walks, despite the fact that I didn’t leave much room for them to stop and sniff the bushes as much as they wanted. Occasionally I’d pause and allow for 20 seconds of sniffing, before I’d urge them away and continue our fast-paced walk.
A little over a year ago I had foot surgery, and very shortly after I ruptured a tendon in my foot. Both these events caused me to slow down when walking, because I physically couldn’t walk very fast. Initially I was disappointed in my lack of being able to get a good work-out on my walks, but tried to make the best of things.
Because I had no choice but to walk slowly, my dogs took advantage of it and started spending more time with their noses to the ground. Gradually I started giving them more time to sniff, until I gave in completely and waited until they lifted their heads up and were ready to move on before resuming our walk.
Dog's sense of smell facts
With as many as 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses, compared to only 6 measly million in ours, dogs are hands down much more superior at smelling their environment than we are. Additionally, each nostril takes in smell independent of the other, this allows dogs to determine the direction of the scent.
A dog’s brain is also configured differently than ours when it comes to smell, as their olfactory system takes up a larger percentage of their brain compared to ours. Not only does this allow dogs to identify scent at 100 million times fainter than we can detect, but it gives them the ability to decode the individual components making up that scent. Where we smell lasagna, dogs smell each of the ingredients that went into it.
The sense of smell is arguably the most important sense a dog has. They rely on it to determine information about others such as gender, age, health and emotion. A recent study showed that dogs can determine when humans are experiencing stress!
A dog’s ability to gather information about their world through their noses is just as important to them as the sense of vision is to humans.
Letting dogs sniff on walks is enrichment
An amazing thing started to happen when I allowed my dogs to sniff as much as they wanted; I started noticing things about the way my dogs engaged with the environment that I’d never paid attention to before.
Environmental enrichment is giving animals the opportunity to practice behavior normal to their species. Without a doubt, being able to use their noses to investigate their world is a species-typical behavior for dogs and should be something that dogs are given many opportunities to do.
In the book “The Stress Factor in Dogs”, Kristina Spaulding, Ph.D. states: “Environment enrichment has been found to improve well-being in a variety of ways, including decreasing anxiety…” Dog trainers and behaviorists have found this to be true and incorporate it in treatment plans for a variety of behavioral issues.
Benefits of letting dogs sniff on walks
My own dog, Quinn, who was extremely reactive to other dogs when younger, benefited greatly from the “find it” game where he had to hunt for a treat thrown to the side of the path as another owner and dog approached from the other way. Needing to sniff through the vegetation to find the treat not only redirected his attention, but seemed to greatly reduce his anxiety levels.
There’s a bush in a yard about a half a mile from my house that my dogs stop at every time we walk that way. This particular bush is low to the ground and has small, oval green leaves covering it even in the wintertime. Sticking their heads deep in the bush my dogs remain there with their tails wagging and bodies vibrating with excited interest. Sometimes small, startled sparrows go flying out the other side of the bush, no doubt annoyed and a bit frightened at the intrusion of their sanctuary.
One day I saw both dogs heads go down in front of a driveway and remain down, and they picked up their pace. I realized they were tracking something, and when I looked down the road I could see someone walking a dog in the distance. Knowing that’s the resident of the house where the dogs picked up the scent, I now wait to see if they start tracking at the bottom of that driveway whenever I see that same dog on a walk. They always do.
Whimsy in particular seems to have a really great nose. I can’t count the number of times she’s whined or barked and I dismissed her indications because I couldn’t see anything in the space where she was looking. Many times I’ve been proven wrong when I eventually see an animal or person that wasn’t immediately visible. I’ve learned to trust Whimsy’s alerts.
A while ago we were walking on the country road by my house when I saw her head lift up and turn in the direction of the recently harvested corn field. Her body quivering, she started to whine and tried to change the course of our walk off the road and into the field.
I stopped walking and looked off where Whimsy was indicating, and scanned the field. It took a while, but after a minute I saw some kind of animal low to the ground rooting in the dirt. After a few seconds I realized it was a skunk! Needless to say we didn’t linger, much less go off road to investigate further!
Ironically, slowing down and taking your dog for a sniff, rather than taking them for a walk can tire them out just as much. They may not physically be exerting as much effort, but because their brain is taking in and processing so much information they are expending just as much energy as they would with physical exertion.
Sometimes letting my dogs use their noses on walks is problematic. On a nice sunny day the dogs and I walked down the road near the Rock River with long grass off the side of the road. I saw Quinn lift his head and then suddenly pounce into the grass, only to come out a few seconds later with a dead rabbit in his mouth. My assumption is that it had perhaps been hit by a car, as I’m certain it was already deceased when Quinn picked it up. Quinn was very disappointed when I told him to drop it, and we continued on our walk, leaving the carcass behind.
Problems with not allowing sniffing on walks
Continuously dragging your dog away from what they’re sniffing is much like going to a museum and every time you see an interesting exhibit, your companion drags you away and urges you not to stop. Not having control over your experience can be frustrating and stressful, and the same is true for our dogs as well.
When dogs are sniffing on walks they are “seeing” their environment and learning what animals came in the area recently, what animals might be in underground tunnels, recent changes to the vegetation, and things we cannot even dream up.
Research shows that not having any control over how to behave in an environment causes stress, and a lack of ability for an animal to develop flexibility in their behavior. It also makes a dog more likely to be reactive, rather than process the environment and make rational decisions.
Preventing a dog from being able to “see” through their sense of smell can cause frustration. Denying a dog the ability to learn as much as they can about another dog in the area before an encounter can add to frustration and reactivity.
Problematic sniffing events like finding a deceased rabbit are few and far between. Most of the time they sniff a spot on the ground, noses moving as they evaluate the information coming to them from the scents of that particular spot. I used to get annoyed at how long it could for the dogs to complete their nose work research. Now I wonder what it is they perceive, that I cannot.
Sniffy walks, or Snifaris are a great way to give your dog enrichment, and provide them with the opportunity to enjoy their world through their greatest sense. Best of all, it’s an easy way to provide enrichment because all you need to do is stop when your dog starts to sniff and wait until your dog is done before continuing on.
I also offer in-person training within a 30 minute drive of Ixonia, WI.
I would love to work with you and your dog!