It’s a burning question for many dog owner’s: how does a dog’s nose work? A lot of attention is focused on a canine’s sense of smell. Dogs use their sense of smell to guide their direction of movement and to recognize each other and their owners. Humans have around 6 million receptors to process smell, whereas a dog has around 300 million. With positive reinforcement methods, humans have been able to train dogs to recognize and discriminate between different odors to our advantage.

The strength of a dog’s sense of smell usually varies breed-to-breed depending on the anatomy. Dogs with large nasal canals like German Shepherds and Bloodhounds will have a better sense of smell than dogs with small nasal cavities (brachycephalic) like Pugs and Boston Terriers.

how does a dog's nose work
@fleur_the_blue_heeler

The Science

Dog can breathe air in and smell scents at the same time! The nose has small notches on the sides where air is exhaled out. The air for scent goes towards the back of the nasal cavity to the olfactory receptors. Turbinates lined with a mucus membrane capture the odors and sort them by shape and electric signaling. These signals are sent through the olfactory nerve to be processed by the brain. Not surprisingly, a dog brain has more space dedicated to processing smells compared to a human brain. Dogs also have a vomeronasal organ along the nasal cavity that helps them detect one another and their state of mating. This is why you may see dogs sniff each other’s rear ends when greeting. They are trying to figure out who they are, with the help of the vomeronasal organ.

Importance of a Strong Sense of Smell

When looking at how a dog’s nose works, they not only use odor discrimination to recognize each other, but also use this ability to find harmful bombs and drugs. We have trained dogs in different government sectors to sniff out dangerous items using positive reinforcement. Dogs are just starting to be utilized more in airports and missions overseas because of the cost of training and breeding these special dogs.

We have also used dogs to smell out kidnapped victims or criminals running away from police officers. Most of the time hounds are used to scent track these people. We have also started to train dogs to sniff out invasive plant species to help control these populations and make room for native plants. Recently, we have found that dogs can also use their sense of smell to detect low blood sugar in diabetics, cancer in patients, as well as predict when a human may have a seizure.

how does a dog's nose work
@girlmeetsmerle

In the Future

When humans start to understand the amazing ways we can use a dog’s sense of smell, there will be an extreme increase in the use of detection and service dogs. Much is still unknown about how the dog senses certain diseases. More research needs to be done to help show how well dogs can detect such minute chemical changes. No matter how frustrating it may be to take your dog for a walk on a leash, letting them smell their environment is a form of mental exercise. Smelling and tracking are both forms of enrichment that can deter them from becoming too bored or destroying your household while you are gone. So now that you know how a dog’s nose works, stop and enjoy the outdoors, and let your dog take you for a walk.

Author

Caitlin is originally from Vermont and has been working with animals since she can remember. She studied Behavioral Neuroscience and is now Mastering in Animal Shelter Management in Colorado. Her hobbies include horseback riding, fostering animals, and hiking in the Rocky Mountains. She has volunteered at five different animal shelters and worked in three different vet hospitals. Her passions include animal health, behavior, and enrichment. Caitlin also spends time taking high-quality photos of shelter animals to help them get adopted faster.

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