In December 2007, I took my dog Tina hiking in the woods. When we got home, I was dismayed to find that my camera had fallen out of my pocket. Because we’d strayed from the trails that day to explore, I gave up the camera for lost. The very next day, I decided to stick to the trails, but Tina started pulling me into the forest. After a few minutes, she stopped and sniffed the ground. I looked down and there was my lost camera! I was awestruck.
Frequently, our dogs will sniff at us and then give us a good lick. This is one way in which we see a dog’s piercing senses of scent and taste working in tandem. Rather than the camera itself, it is much more likely that Tina recognized some trace of a scent or taste she associated with me among the leaves, leading her to the lost camera. Even without scent-discrimination training, our dogs’ noses are absolutely remarkable organs.
Why do dogs smell everything?
Along with her tongue and ears, a dog’s nose is her most consistent and powerful tool for experiencing the world. Because dogs rely so heavily on their noses, their brains have adapted accordingly. The length of a dog’s muzzle makes a significant difference to the precision with which they can smell. Thus, a Beagle or a Basset Hound is a superhero of scent compared to, say, a Pug or a Pekingese, but any given dog’s brain has scent-processing equipment on a scale that dwarfs that of their human owners.
Dogs and scent-discrimination training
There are few limits to what dogs can find with their noses. Whether it’s called “nose work,” “tracking,” or “scent discrimination,” there are as many approaches as names for teaching a dog to sniff out a particular item. If something has a scent, a dog can be trained to alert us to its presence — or its absence. Even more astounding, it needn’t even be a physical item; it need only have a particular odor or olfactory emanation associated with it.
All over the world, working dogs are being trained to use their noses to locate unusual items for science, manufacture, farming, and even human health. No matter what you’re looking for, chances are a dog’s nose can find it. Through practice, a key word, or repeated exposure, with or without a direct command, here are just a few of the ways that dogs are helping people simply by following their noses:
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