Incredible Mister Hans

How Does Your Dog Smell?

One of the Bloganuary prompts asked about a memory associated with a smell. I’m sure there’s lots of scents that can transport me back to a time and place, but none come to mind. 

I’m fascinated by how dogs smell. No, not their personal odor, but their amazing ability to detect and analyze scents. 

Humans have a pretty good sense of smell, with 6 million sensory receptors in our nasal cavities, but it pales in comparison to over 100 million sensory receptors in a dogs nose. The part of their brain devoted to analyzing odors is also 40 times larger than the comparable part of our brains. 

I have read a lot of accounts of dogs in the front lines during WWI and WWII. There’s plenty of stories of dogs rescuing their handlers and squadrons, mostly using their uncanny ability to sniff out enemies and weapons, but there’s lots of stories of dogs entertaining the soldiers and boosting morale as well. I loved reading about dogs performing tricks based on scent that appeared to be magic to the uninitiated, and was eager to see if I could teach Hans similar behaviors. 

Dog trainer and behaviorist, Sarah Kalnajs, really opened my eyes to scent work when she explained we have to encourage our dogs to use their noses. Scent work requires dogs to use their brain, and is highly rewarding, but our pets often grow lazy and look to us to point out the hidden toy or treat.

It made me realize that the dogs ability to smell is a bit like our ability to learn. Everyone can do it, but some people have greater natural ability at grasping concepts and retaining information. However, it needs practice to improve and reach your full potential.  

Scent work was something that Hans loved. I could tell when he was using his nose compared to his eyes or his knowledge of my behavior. Sometimes, when running a scent trial, he’d go straight to where he’d seen me standing, or to where I’d last hidden the toy. Usually I’d have anticipated this and the toy wouldn’t be there, so he’d have to switch over to his super sniffer. He’d always find the toy no problem. 

I loved watching Hans work a trail. I’d hide items in the park or a field, and it was amazing watching him follow in my exact footsteps as he tracked my scent. Many times, when finding toys hidden in the house, he’d track the item to visual range but would continue following his nose until it led him to the right spot. It was as if he wasn’t even using his eyes anymore, his focus was entirely on the scent. 

I didn’t often run scent trials where he had to identify an item with a particular person’s scent, but he performed well whenever I managed to rope someone in to help. I had to be very careful to have nothing to do with the hidden item in case of contamination. One of the most difficult things I faced with scent training was to make sure that Hans tracked an item when he was sent to find it, rather than just following my scent. As I worked alone with him, and he was most familiar with my scent, it could sometimes make it difficult for him to successfully complete a trial. 

There was nothing like giving Hans a whiff of a person’s scent (usually from a tissue that the person had held for a few minutes and then sealed in a plastic bag) and then sending him to find them or an item they’d hidden. As I hadn’t been involved in the hiding of the item or knew where it was, I couldn’t influence Hans subconsciously as to the whereabouts of the item by my body language. He would find the person or item so fast that it seemed like he knew where they were before the trial started. This almost magic like ability made scent work so fun for both me and Hans that it was more like play than work. His nose was so good, it became difficult to find new ways to challenge him. 

One of the fun games that I used to play with Hans, using his amazing nose, was hide and seek. Someone would hide (it didn’t even have to be a person, it could be an item, as long as he knew it by name), we’d count to 100, and then Hans would be sent to find the person or object by name. Children especially loved playing hide and seek with Hans. They’d try to squeeze themselves into tiny and unusual spaces in order to stump him, but he’d always find them in five seconds flat. 

Hans and I were never apart for very long, but my family noticed that Hans would alert to my return when I was about 7km (roughly 4 miles) from home. We worked this out through recording times when he alerted and where I was on the journey. Despite many experiments showing that dogs can accurately alert to release of a scent over a mile away, I was skeptical of Hans knowing when I was on my way home. However, I became convinced that he was accurately and predictably alerting to my approach, most likely due to recognizing the scent of my car. It’s quite incredible to think about. 

I noticed that he would alert to my sisters’ return home several minutes before they arrived, but in their case he seemed to be responding to them turning onto the road that leads to our house. 

My current dog, Tigger Tuffnut the cocker spaniel, is a self taught super sniffer. Cocker spaniels are one of the top breeds for scent work, and Tigger obviously entertained himself by following every scent he could during the first 18 months of his life before he found his way to me. 

When Tigger arrived he had practically no training and was very anxious. He barked at everything, couldn’t relax, and his focus was nonexistent. He was extremely nervous of me, and if Hans hadn’t been there to show him the ropes, it would have taken a long time for him to trust me. Hans and Tigger became instant best friends, so when Hans told him that I was okay, Tigger listened. 

Starting training with Tigger I could only work for seconds at a time because he’d get over excited and he couldn’t focus. However, scent work was a different matter. He loved using his nose, and was so good at it, that he would calm down and focus for minutes at a time. When he couldn’t grasp the concept of wait, I incorporated it into scent work and he got it immediately. He was so anxious when he first arrived that he wouldn’t eat, but scent work was so rewarding I could do it with him even when he spat out treats. 

It’s a joy to watch Tigger working a scent. He has such confidence in his ability that I’ve yet to see him be lazy and use his eyes, like Hans sometimes would. He’s also very good at giving a null answer. If he’s searched and can’t find the item, he will return to me and say it’s not there. If I don’t believe him, he’ll lie down and bark. 

Sometimes he’s so good that I forget he hasn’t the ground work Hans had, and I push him too far. One trial in the garden I threw a toy into the bushes so he had to follow its scent rather than mine. I’d done this before, so it wasn’t new, but I failed to account for the direction of the wind. Dogs follow scent particles that drift off objects and wind can blow the particles away from the source and confuse the trail. 

The wind blew the scent up the garden directly into Tigger, so he followed it to one bush away from the toy, searched thoroughly, and gave a null signal. 

Tigger worked hard, followed the scent and couldn’t find the item, so he was correct in his response. However, I know Hans would have found the item because he would have widened his search area when he didn’t find the toy at the highest concentration of scent and, as it was so close, he would have found it. This is where Hans education combined with experience would have helped him solve the puzzle over Tigger’s incredible natural ability. 

Unfortunately, due to poor health, I don’t run scent trials with Tigger as often as I like. Now that his focus has improved I concentrate on trick training as it’s easier with my limited mobility. However, I must work on more scent training this year as it’s so much fun and we both love it. 

14 thoughts on “How Does Your Dog Smell?”

  1. It’s sounds like Hans was an amazing tracker, and Tigger is just as good although not as completely trained. Isn’t interesting about the scent area of dogs’ brains compared to ours?

    My dog loved the sniff-and-find it game so much I could hear the excitement in his foot steps. He was more on his toes and springier. If I watched him, his tail was higher and curlier. (I miss him!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s fascinating. I love reading about the things dogs can detect with smell. Migraines, cancer, low blood sugar, seizures, gun parts, money… it’s so fascinating. Scent is like a foreign country to me.

      They love scent work, you can see it in their whole body (and hear it too!). I know you miss your dear dog. Hugs.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I loved reading about your scent work with Hans and Tigger Tuffnut! Dogs’ noses are incredible. I’d love to get my cavalier to do some scent work but so far unless there is a tennis ball involved (and yes, I suppose I could use that!) he won’t be interested.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Very interesting that dogs have to train their ability to smell to optimise their capability. I am sure it is the same for humans, although we probably don’t rely much on our sense of smell in our daily life. Lovely that you take the time to train your dog on this and it must be satisfactory to see them improve.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It makes sense when you think about it, we improve when we practice, but it’s a fascinating glimpse into how dogs work. It’s so much fun, and it’s lovely to see my dog learn and grow. Thank you for stopping by. 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I love this post! I’m fascinated by dogs and their sense of smell. If I can find some scent work training, I’m eager to take Zeph – my young Border collie. I believe it would be great for his mental exercise. We do walks that I call ‘sniffaris’! (I wrote a blog post about it, too.) They give him a great opportunity to catch up on his ‘pee-mail’…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I just read your post and loved it! It’s another aspect of dogs that’s so fascinating.

      Zeph is so handsome! I hope you find scent training classes for him. Apart from the fact dogs love it, and it’s so fun, it’s the BEST way to tire out a lively dog. Hans could run for hours without taking the edge off, but 30 minutes of hard scent work would settle him nicely.


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