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Sniff, Sniff! How Your Dog’s Nose Works

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We may be blessed with thumbs to open jars, but when it comes to the sense of smell, our dogs have us beat, paws down. Discover ways your dog uses his superior sense of smell.

Dogs use their noses in many predictable as well as some surprising ways. They can easily sniff out a bag of potato chips you opened a room away and swiftly show up with begging eyes. But they can also distinguish the odors of identical twins and smell a fingerprint left on a glass up to six weeks later.

“Olfaction is an important means of communication for dogs – even more important than sight or sound,” says Amy Learn, DVM, a veterinarian on staff at Florida Veterinary Behavior Service in West Palm Beach. “Even though dogs are good at detecting motion, even in dim light and can hear up to [three times] more than humans can, they rely mostly on smell to communicate.”

Chemical Clues

People often rely on email and phone texts to communicate. Sometimes messages get misinterpreted. Dogs, however, rely on pee and poop “mail” to give them clear clues to the health status, gender, and emotional states of dogs they have just met or who have long left the area. That explains why your dog wants to do a deep nose dive during a walk when he finds canine poop in the grass or dried urine splashed on a fire hydrant.

“Dogs excrete scents through their glands and within feces and urine to send messages,” says Dr. Learn. “In this way, dogs are constantly gathering information from the world around them.”

And that world includes the veterinary clinic. It is often the nose more than the eyes or ears that tell your dog whether the clinic lobby is welcoming or threatening.

I Smell a Cat

“Dogs are constantly gathering information about the other dogs who have been there as well as the type of chemicals used to clean and the staff members,” says Dr. Learn.

Fear Free Certified Professionals throughout the country, including at Florida Veterinary Behavior Service, help make the lobby, exam room, and entire clinic feel more beckoning by unleashing nose-effective tools. They include the use of products such as Adaptil D.A.P. (Dog Appeasing Pheromones) in sprays and plug-in diffusers. Certain pheromones produce a calming effect in some dogs to reduce their levels of anxiety, stress, and fear.

“Pheromones are detected by the dog’s vomeronasal organ–a set of receptors between the hard palate and nasal passage,” Dr. Learn says. “When a pheromone message is inhaled, it is sent directly to the hypothalamus, the emotional center in the brain, to induce a calming response.”

Calming Scents

For road trips, you can also consider using lavender scent to help reduce your dog’s anxiety levels or to maintain his level of calm when houseguests come to stay.

Use lavender with caution as it comes in many types and levels of quality. Consult your veterinarian for the safest, most effective way to employ lavender scent to help your dog’s anxiety. For your dog’s safety, never add lavender oil to your dog’s food, and avoid getting lavender oil in your dog’s eyes, mouth or ears.

Sniff Out the Truth

What’s the real truth behind the expression that dogs can smell fear?

“Dogs do not smell fear per se but do recognize human sweat and pheromones as signs of fear,” clarifies Dr. Learn. “They also are very reliant on body language. So, we may be giving away our feelings in a subtle manner that dogs recognize.”

We know dogs can out sniff us with their superior nose, but among the canine breeds, which one holds the title of best sniffer?

“Dachshunds have about 125 million olfactory receptor cells, compared to people, who only have about 6,000,000. Bloodhounds are blessed with about 300 million olfactory receptor cells,” says Dr. Learn.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.

Arden Moore is The Pet Health and Safety Coach. She is a best-selling author, radio show host, in-demand speaker and master certified pet first aid/CPR instructor who travels the country teaching with Pet Safety Dog Kona and Pet Safety Cat Casey. Learn more at and


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