Most dog owners recognize the importance of keeping their dog mentally and physically enriched. Not only is it better for the dog's general well being, but it can also help reduce the chances of problem behaviors arising as a result of boredom or frustration.
There are a whole host of puzzle toys available to let your dog try but, often, owners can overlook one of the most simple natural and enriching behaviors - sniffing.
By giving your dog more opportunities to use their powerful sense of smell, they will undoubtedly enjoy their walk more. They will also be more stimulated, gain more choice and freedom, and, ultimately, be more tired and relaxed.
Don't Underestimate the Power of Your Dog's Nose
It is important to remember just how powerful our dog's noses are. They could be up to 100,000 times more sensitive than our own. A common quote is that a dog would be able to sniff out a single drop of blood from an area as large as an Olympic-sized swimming pool!
Their sense of smell is crucial for communicating, exploring, and evaluating.
Slow Dog Walks Down and Give Your Dog Choices
Owners often make the mistake of assuming that a faster, long walk is the best option for tiring a dog out. Commonly, the dog is on a short, traffic-leash, being power walked along roads and pavements closely by their owner's side. Maybe they then go to the dog park where they careen around for a while with lots of other dogs.
The walk may not be particularly interesting, and dog parks can be over-stimulating or stressful if interactions are not managed carefully.
By picking a more peaceful walking route, with grass and other non-road surfaces, and allowing your dog to be off leash (or at least on a longer leash) and following their noses, you can be offering a much more beneficial experience.
Your dog is given few choices of their own, and by making time to allow them to decide what they want to investigate and how long they spend doing this on a walk, or in another appropriate environment, you are positively empowering them.
Sniffing Can Make Your Dog Feel Better
Some dogs can become over-stimulated when they do high energy level activities, but harnessing your dog's natural sniffing behavior is a calm and generally relaxing option.
A 2019 study published in the Applied Animal Behavior Science Journal even suggests that providing ample sniffing opportunities can make your dog feel more optimistic.
Sniffing Can Make Your Dog Feel More Tired
The mental enrichment your dog gets on a slow walk with lots of time for sniffing is much greater than they would get on a fast-paced, walk to heel. This means a shorter sniffy walk can tire them out and they will generally be more relaxed and less likely to exhibit destructive or mischievous behavior when at home.
Sniffing Is an Important Part of Doggy Communication
Don't forget that sniffing is also a vital part of how your dog communicates. You may get frustrated when your dog wants to sniff every lamp post down the block, but they are usually just checking out the scent marks of another dog in the neighborhood. These scents will allow them to tell if the dog is a male or female, if it is one they are familiar with, and whether they are in the near vicinity or not.
Owners can be embarrassed when their dog automatically gravitates towards sniffing another dog's butt when they first meet. For a dog though, this is almost like an evaluative handshake. They are getting to know the other dog's distinct smell.
Sometimes sniffing can also be an appeasement behavior. If your dog is trying to diffuse a situation with another dog, they may begin to sniff the ground to let them know they are not a threat. By allowing your dog to do this rather than pulling them away, it can help to relax both dogs.
Other Sniffing Activities for your Dog
As well as giving your dog more opportunities to sniff when on general walks, there are other enriching activities that you can consider if your dog enjoys working their nose.
Foraging for Food
Scattering dry kibble or treats over a safe, non-distracting, grassy environment and then allowing your dog to come out and naturally forage for the food can be an inexpensive and easy way to offer your dog extra enrichment.
This is an excellent activity for less mobile dogs that may be on restricted exercise, and it can also be a useful tool for helping nervous dogs to feel more relaxed and confident.
On a rainy day, you can still do this sort of activity on a smaller scale with the use of a snuffle mat indoors. These are usually rubber mats that have felt "grass" strands tied through them, and you can bury your dog's food or treats into them to sniff out.
Scent Work Classes
If you want a more structured learning environment to harness your dog's scenting capabilities, then a nose work class of some sort may be worth considering. Not only will this hone your dog's skills, but it can also be a great way to strengthen your bond.
Your dog will be taught to identify a particular scent and will learn how to find it and alert their handler as to the position it has been hidden in.
So, next time you are out on a walk with your dog, don't get impatient when they want to stop and sniff; embrace it and you might just find you have a happier dog as a result.
Duranton, C., and A. Horowitz. Let Me Sniff! Nosework Induces Positive Judgment Bias In Pet Dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, vol 211, 2019, pp. 61-66. Elsevier BV, doi:10.1016/j.applanim.2018.12.009