Seven Reasons to Let Your Dog Sniff
When you’re taking your dog for a walk, do you let them move at their own pace and sniff freely, or do you dictate where and when they can sniff? Sniffing is a powerful behavior for dogs that serves a variety of functions. Here are five reasons to let your dog sniff when out in the world.
1. Sniffing is how dogs learn about the world.
Dogs have an incredible olfactory system (sense of smell), one of the best in the animal kingdom. Dogs have up to 300 million olfactory receptors in their nose (we have about 5 million), and it’s estimated that about one eighth of a dog’s brain is dedicated to olfaction. Dogs evolved to use their sense of smell to survive - to find food, to learn about other members of their species, to navigate the landscape, and to evade predators. Sniffing is the primary means by which dogs gather and process information about the world. It’s as essential as sight is to humans. Would you want to take a walk with a blindfold on?
2. Sniffing lets your dog be a dog.
All dogs should be given daily opportunities to practice the innate behaviors that make them dogs, and sniffing is no exception. Playing, vocalizing, digging, scavenging, foraging, and hunting are all normal dog behaviors that we often see as “problems” when done in contexts that we don’t like. Giving your dog plenty of opportunities to sniff is an easy, no brainer way to let your dog be a dog!
3. Sniffing works your dog’s brain.
Because such a large portion of their brain is dedicated to their sense of smell, sniffing is a great way to give your dog’s brain a workout - and a happy side effect of this will be a more calm, relaxed dog at home. While a sniff walk will certainly engage your dog’s brain, you can level up by playing scavenging games in your house or yard (scattering or hiding treats for your dog to find), using food puzzles, or signing up for a nose work class. Try out some scent games for mental enrichment, and see if you notice a more relaxed companion at home.
4. Sniffing relieves stress.
Studies have shown that when dogs sniff, their heart rate goes down - and the more they sniff, the more their heart rate goes down. This suggests that sniffing has a calming, self soothing effect on dogs, and that it may help reduce anxiety and stress. Over time, daily decompression walks using a long line can have significant benefits for fearful or anxious dogs, or any dog living in our modern, busy world. Putting sniffing on cue (through “Find It” games and the like) can help dogs disengage from scanning, staring, and fixating on potential triggers in the environment, and the movement involved can release tension in their body.
5. Sniffing feels good.
Sniffing activates something called the Seeking System portion of a dog’s brain - which is also the portion of the brain responsible for releasing dopamine, the “feel good” chemical. An increase in dopamine can boost mood, motivation, and attention, and helps regulate learning and emotional responses. In addition to reducing stress, studies have shown that sniffing can improve a dog’s mood and make them more optimistic. I joke that when we take a walk, my dog is checking the “pee mail” or checking the “social posts” in the neighborhood - but in reality, the feeling he gets through investigating scents are probably similar to the feelings that keep bringing us back to social media.
6. Sniffing is a form of communication
Dogs don’t just sniff to gather information, relieve stress, and feel good - they also use it to communicate their emotional state. Dogs who are feeling stressed, overstimulated, or anxious may sniff to self soothe or as a displacement behavior, kind of like how we say “um” or scratch our heads when we’re feeling nervous and aren’t sure what to do. Sniffing can also be used as an appeasement gesture or as a cut-off signal to other dogs or humans. If we observe our dogs carefully, we can start to understand what their sniffing means in certain contexts, and how they might be feeling.
7. Give “the gift of sniff” to enrich your bond
Every walk you take with your dog is a conversation. Giving them the freedom to explore their environment gives them choice and autonomy over their body and their environment. It tells them that they matter, and that their needs, desires, and feelings are important. We may never fully know a dog’s inner life, but we can honor its existence. Letting your dog sniff gives you the opportunity to slow down, be in the moment, observe, and practice empathy. Over time, these moments you share with your dog will build a bridge of trust and deepen your bond.
Dogs give us so much - let’s give them the gift of sniff in return.
At High Tail Hikes, we recommend investing in a long line for decompression walks or "sniffaris." A long line is simply a long leash - 10 feet or more - that will allow your dog more freedom of movement. For more information about long lines, check out this post and this one. And as always, contact us with any questions!
For more information about the importance of sniffing, check out:
Sniffing and Nose Work: The Activity for Every Dog by Stacy Barnett
Inside of a Dog by Alexandra Horowitz
For more about decompression walks, check out Sarah Stremming's Cognitive Dog podcast.