The magic of the dog’s nose

First there was the sock… and the sock was in the mouth of a cocker spaniel… Destined to become his new favourite possession. You stood there wondering how on Earth your dog found yet another sock despite the fact that your entire collection was out of your dog’s sight or reach, or both actually… Yet, he still found it… the yesterday’s sock… the unearthed treasure on every dog’s wish list. Once a whole, now all “hole’y”… Because no matter what you do, there is the dog’s nose and no human can compete with its magical powers.

The scent…. It means so much to any dog. We watch the world around us – he smells it. We step into the street and see the trees and the grass, the crowds of little sparrows and a  cat lazying in the dust of sunlight… The dog, oh the dog… he inhales the visuals through his wonderful nose, he learns about and records each scent into the memory the way we assign names to objects. To him, the world isn’t a pretty picture, but a vast cloud of scents and aromas. He doesn’t need to see the street to be aware of that cat or the birds. As soon as the air hits his nostrils (each one gets a separate sniff moving the flow of air in and out simultaneously!), he is already aware of everything and everyone around. Even more, he can tell you which direction a certain scent is coming from – all within milliseconds!

For me, it is the nose that makes a dog so extraordinary. There is no other creature who can sniff like a dog, perceive the world the way a dog does… His 250 million scent receptors make our furry companions so much superior to us, humans, who possess measly 5 million if that.

We can recognise about 10000 different odours – a dog is said to be 100000 better than us! No wonder they can identify different family members through the scent alone, know adults from children, able to sniff our psychological state, detect a single finger print left on a glass up to six weeks ago, find drugs, acknowledge illnesses and even alert a person suffering from low blood sugar (through sniffing the changes in levels of isoprene substance in their owner’s breath) or seizures. They can even find someone who’s been missing for days tracking the steps that may only contain 1/1800 of the remaining scent. Or detect an equivalent of a teaspoon of sugar dissolved in 5 million litters of water (enough to fill two Olympic-sized swimming pools).

I love the study from 1982 that compared our abilities to identify a butyric acid, one of the substances found in human perspiration. If a gram of this acid was present in a 10-storey building, we would only be able to smell it at the time of release. A typical dog could smell it anywhere around the entire city for some time! Since any used socks always contain butyric acid, it is no wonder your spaniel can find them in any drawer or buried a pile of laundry even if it’s a height of Everest.

But what is the point of having such an advanced olfactory? Surely, it’s not such about an old sock…

The dogs need their noses to learn and explore. The young puppies use theirs to identify litter mates and locate milk (though the ability to detect heat comes into play here, too). Adults sniff to find a mate or rival, hone their social skills, find food and identify toxins.

Not all dogs are equal, of course. It’s a matter of individuality, genetic predisposition,  breed and even their nutritional status and physical state. But regardless of their scenting abilities, all of these dogs would find a sock or sniff out a bag of biscuits in your pocket.

Simply because they are dogs and they all have their amazing big wet kissable noses.


Image credit: Cooper photographed by me


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