How dogs smell. Curious facts about dog's nose, how they detect scent, disease, what can affect dog ability to smell. (C) Perfect cocker spaniel dog blog by Natalia Ashton / Canine nutritionist, pet nutrition coach, all about English cocker spaniels, grooming, training, diet, puppy tips. Photo of Cooper, English cocker spaniel with snow on his nose.

Dog’s nose | Curious facts beyond the boop

It’s not just for cute boops… A dog’s nose is probably one of the most fascinating things about them. So much so that I am dedicating another post to the dog’s nose and incredible sense of smell. 

I love watching my boys noses, how they follow an invisible story, the tiny twitches, the hunger of the unknown and exciting information they greedily breathe in. They are both into this ritual, yet I often wonder how Coop and Fred perceive this world based on their experiences of scents.

Coop is certainly a good sniffer, but the boy is mostly interested in pee mail. And flowers. Fred, on the other hand, has the nose of canine dreams! He doesn’t care about the mail, but he always informs me if somebody we know is around the corner, a dog just walked through the village, or there’s a cat, bunny or pheasant nearby (by “nearby” I mean distance on Fred’s sniffing terms – it covers miles…) And both are definitely aware of food smells and do react to any emotional and hormone-related changes in us.

We know that dogs rely on their sense of smell and hearing more than vision. Does it mean that even my chaps, whilst being canines, would actually see the world around us as two completely different environments? The geek in me keeps playing with this idea a lot. 

But is it exactly that makes a dog’s nose so unique?

It has about 250 million receptors responsible for detecting scents. Humans only have 5 million. We are pretty basic.

Dogs can bond with their littermates and humans through scent and detest strangers and non-litter pups because of it. In a study a dog was presented with 5 different scents including his own, a familiar human, a strange human, a familiar dog and a strange dog. Only the scent of the familiar human triggered the response in the brain area responsible for positive emotions, rewards and “romantic interactions”. In other words, the pups knew who is responsible for the biscuits. 

Even more fascinating, dogs can differentiate between two identical twins if the twins were fed different diets or raised in different environments.

If a teaspoon of sugar was dissolved in two Olympic-sized swimming pools, dogs would be able to smell it. 

Dog’s ability to sniff is breed-dependent. In a 1965 experiment by Scott and Fuller, a mouse was left in an acre-sized field. Beagles located it within a minute. A fox terrier took 15. A Scotty literally stood by the mouse and still failed to see it. I suspect if a bloodhound (the clear champion of sniffing) was around he’d be by that mouse in seconds.

Cockers, on the other hand, proved themselves as fabulous drug detectors.

Dogs can track a person days after his or her disappearance as long as there’s about 1/1000 of human scent left on the ground. 

They can also confirm or deny if two odours are from the same source, identify separate ingredients in a bowl of soup, or detect substances used in explosions despite the presence of any debris. 

Dogs can smell cancer, covid, changes in blood sugar or body pre-seizure. 

A blind dog will always follow his nose. It is what can help him adjust to his new life and stay tuned in without panicking.

Dogs smell better in humid conditions, and struggle to smell effectively when they feel really hot.

Dogs who frequently eat coconut oil may have a reduced ability to detect scents

And canines diagnosed with hyperadrenocorticism, hypothyroidism, or diabetes can also struggle to use their nose as nature intended.


Next time you look at your pup’s snout, take a moment to appreciate its wonders that we will never experience or truly comprehend… And follow your dog’s nose…



Photo credit: Cooper photographed by me

Be more dog. A few simple secrets to better understanding & training your spaniel

Do you speak Dog? I know, I know, odd question to ask… But bear with me.

A few days ago, as we finished our little training session, I wondered how much my perception of training has changed over the years. Once upon a time training a pup a few basic commands felt, well, basic… Nothing much. Treats, gestures, cues – job done! 

But as the years passed by and the volume of digested books, studies, courses and experiences settled in my brain, I realised a simple thing – training a dog – and especially COMMUNICATING your idea to the dog effectively – is far from simple, rrrrrrreally far from simple.

More often than not (and here I am talking about regular pup parents like you and me, not professional trainers) getting a pup from A to Z feels like a three step process: the treats and lure, the results and the added cue or gesture or both. Creatively speaking, we see training as Malevich’s Black Square. 

For a typical dog, on the other hand, our efforts are likely to resemble something painted by Dali…

The smell. The dog smells all the distrastive, often invisitable to us, thing around him. He also knows that you have treats in your pocket. He knows what sort of treats they are. He smells your emotions. 

The taste. It makes the brain happy. And the pleasure should be immediate otherwise there’s no point. 

The sight. He watches you most intensly than you’d dare to know. For a dog, it’s not such a cue -> a treat link. It’s also everything in between (it’s known as bridging if you want to be clever). The position of your body, your hand, your eyes, facial expression, any movement you might make, the spot where the treat is placed and received. All these matter to him and will be remembered carefully because  he needs to remember exactly what, when and how gets him the treat.

The sound. Dogs are a creatures of a few words. They like it simple. The first word is to get attention. The second one is to determine an action. High pitched sounds can mean excitement or alarm. Longer (stretched like legato in music, think “staaaay” or “gooood boooy”) words are to slow down, calm, stay still, relax… 

The emotions. Happiness, fear, excitement, stress – all these emotions cause a burst of different hormones that will have an effect on the pup’s ability to concentrate, learn and remember. 

What does it all mean?

For me, communicating an idea to a dog successfully involves a few simple but important points…

… only train when you feel happy, relaxed and well (otherwise the dog will sniff out our own hormones, especially stress hormones – and will mimic them)

… only train when a dog is happy to be trained – he is rested, happy, adventurous, excited and eager to learn

… keep the duration of training based on your dog’s abilities. Do not let him get tired or bored. Think how you’d feel if you were made to sit through a two hour lecture – even if it’s really interesting in the beginning, the brain often gives up on living after an hour unless there’s a break

… watch your own body language – record your sessions if necessary

… use the right tone of your voice depending on what you want to achieve and, please, do not get into the “machine gun”mode saying to your dog “sit, sit, sit, sit” or “come, come, come, come” on repeat. One word – long pause – another word if needed. Otherwise your pup will just hear “comecomecomecomecoooooome” the same way we hear “yap-yap-yap-yap” – it’s just another meaningless and slighly irritating noise…

… choose treats wisely. You don’t need to have a whole bag of high value treats! Mix them up! I use kibble, but if we need high value or more attention, add a few tiny pieces of cooked chicken breast and mix them all up. The kibble get a bit of an extra “flavour”. Everyone is happy

… be precise. Reward within 1-2 seconds with easy-to-swallow tiny treats, with precise action, at precise spot and accompanied by specific word and specific praise. Eventually the praise will (or almost will) replace the treat teasing the pleasure center in the brain with a sound alone. 

Simple? Yes, once you know the why’s and how-to’s. Now all you need to do is to remember these points while putting them into action. And that’s when things suddenly get as complicated as learning and practising a foreign language. It takes an effort but suddenly and eventually everything falls into place.

Image credit: Salvador Dali. Feather Equilibrium. 1947

study shows effects of different types of music on dogs / music to help anxious dogs relax / Perfect cocker spaniel (C) Dog blog about English cocker spaniels, dog behaviour, diet, nutrition, health, puppy tips (C) Natalia Ashton

The sound of music. Study shows, our pooches have their preferences too.

I came across a curious study the other day and wanted to share it here. I have mentioned the effect of music on my pups in the past, so it was interesting to see some research into the subject.

The work was conducted in 2020 and examined several previous studied that involved dogs of various breeds and age groups placed in different environments.

The first interesting bit of the study for me was the possible difference between breeds and their physical characteristics suggesting that dogs with pointy ears might perceive any music sounds differently compared to dogs with floppy ears. Which, of course, makes sense, but not something I’d think of immediately.

The second discovery was about the type of music. Several studies showed that dogs preferred classical music to rock or pop music. The dogs exposed to the classical music began acting more calm, seemed more relaxed and less prone to barking, and their heart rate appeared reduced.

On the other hand, rock music increased excitement, became more vocal and showed increased in stress hormone levels.

Does it mean, we could use some soft classical music as another way to reduce anxiety and stress in our dogs? Absolutely. Just bear in mind that you may need to change your play list every 5-7 days to maintain the positive effects.

I guess it’s time for a drink and some Chopin now.