The Sniffing Dog

The sniffing dog is happier

We all understand how important it is we take our dog for a walk. However, I think a large part of us, if not the most, have not realised the importance of letting the dog smell and sniff. For many of our dogs, going for a walk is the moment of the day. They are happy to go anywhere as long as they are outside together with us. When we go out with our dogs, they tend to want to stop to sniff every rock or stone. Some dog handlers become frustrated that the walk lasts longer than planned.

Should we let the dog sniff during the walk?

Oh yes!

Dogs have the same five senses as us humans, but their sense of smell is infinitely more developed. We smell all the time. However, the smell is in most cases just a confirmation that something smells good or bad. We rarely use smell to collect information. In fact, for dogs, the sense of smell is the number one mode in which they collect information about the world around them. For dogs, smelling things is an automatic behaviour. That way they “see” the world, just as we experience it when looking at it. This is why it is so important that you let your dog smell things while he is out on a walk. It is not necessary that you dedicate yourself to it every time, but you must remember that the walk is for him. If your dog wants to smell something for a few seconds – let him! 

It is not just better for the dog’s general well-being, but it can also help prevent problem behaviours resulting from stress, boredom, or frustration.

We buy many enriching puzzle toys for our dog to solve, but handlers often overlook one of the simplest enriching and natural behaviours: sniffing.

By giving dogs more opportunities to use their great sense of smell, they will certainly enjoy their walk more. Also, if we give them possibilities to make decisions and a little more freedom, they will be naturally stimulated in a bigger way. Therefore they will be more relaxed and tired when they get home.

Do not underestimate the power of the dog’s nose

We should never forget how powerful the dog’s nose is. The dog’s capacity for scent detection has been reported to be as much as 10,000–100,000 times that of the average human. In her book “Inside of a dog: What dogs see, smell and know”, Alexandra Horowitz goes as far as to suggest that a dog can detect the sugar from a teaspoon diluted in an Olympic swimming pool.

Dogs’ sense of smell is fundamental to communicate, explore, and evaluate.

Slow down and let the dog choose

Unfortunately, many dog handlers believe that faster and longer-distance running is the best way to tire a dog (I did). Dogs are on a short leash, usually on narrow paths and sidewalks next to their carer. Some are taken to a dog park where they can “hang out” with other dogs.

The walk is probably not particularly interesting, and the dog park can be overly stimulating or stressful. Above all, when the interaction with other dogs is not managed properly.

We can choose a calmer trail with changing surfaces and leave our dog loose (or at least on a longer leash) and let him follow his nose. As a result, we offer him a richer experience.

Further, if we let our dog choose and decide what he wants to smell and investigate and give him the time he needs during the walk, or in another suitable environment, we will positively strengthen him. The sniffing dog processes the environment better and it is more difficult to surprise him and thus he will be less reactive.

The sniffing dog feels more free

Dogs depend on their carers, and along with regulated meals and a place called home, it is an arrangement that can become a confinement. Their movements are limited by walls and leashes. They have to sit where they are told and they eat what they are told to eat. When the carer decides it is time, they go for a walk. They can’t even decide when to go to the bathroom.

The control the four-legged members of our family have over their lives is close to none. Therefore, they get a feeling of being held back all the time and this can play an important role on their mental health. Research shows that lack of freedom often leads to stress, anxiety, and depression.

According to Pet Dog Trainers of Europe:
“When taking away choices, we take away any control dogs have over their lives as well as the possibility to fulfil their own needs. This is true for many, if not all areas in a dog’s life, such as sleep, nutrition and activity.”

To guide or not to guide

Guiding our dog through life is not always wrong. For the most part, it’s a matter of safety, not letting him run loose in uncontrolled areas. There are also situations where the dogs’ decisions are inappropriate (for us), such as deciding to urinate indoors or run to the neighbour’s house to play.

However, too much control affects our dog in a negative way. The daily walk is our chance to give our dog some space and let him make his own decisions. The easiest way to do this is to let your dog smell what he wants to smell and to spend the time he wants doing it. If he wants to spend a full five minutes sniffing every inch of a lamp post, let him!

On the whole, this is a tiny decision, but the ability to choose will do a lot for the dog’s mental health. If with each step we take on the walk we are forcing our dog to walk beside us and making all the decisions about the path we take, we add more stress, when what we should do is reduce.

The sniffing dog feels better

Dogs with a high energy level are mostly overstimulated. By using the dogs’ natural sniffing behaviour, we get a calming and generally relaxing result.

Anne Lill Kvam, the esteemed nose work expert, says that  
“Nose work is the only thing that allows the dog to live its own instincts and use its natural abilities in a pleasant way for both himself and for his human companion. Thus the dog manages to find balance and security, and builds a relationship of quiet collaboration with its handler who discovers a new way of looking at his own dog and his peculiar capabilities.”

Charlotte Duranton and Alexandra Horowitz published a study in 2018 that even suggests that enough sniffing opportunities can make dogs feel more optimistic. The study highlights:
• Nosework reduced dogs’ latencies to reach an ambiguous pot in a cognitive bias test.
• Nose work increases dogs’ positive judgment bias or “optimism”.
• Practicing nose work allows dogs to express a natural behaviour and be more autonomous.
• Behaving naturally and making active choices are two key factors in animal welfare.
• Olfaction-based activities contribute to dogs’ welfare.

Anders Hallgren, probably the world’s first dog psychologist, says that
“dogs live in a world full of odors that define their emotions as much as visual and auditory stimuli influence our feelings, or perhaps even more. In dogs, there is a direct relationship between the sense of smell and the state of mind.”

The sniffing dog rests better

The mental enrichment your dog gets during a slow walk with longer sniffing time is much bigger than it would get on a faster walk. This means that a shorter slow sniffing walk can tire them more and they will generally be more relaxed and rest better. Therefore they are less likely to exhibit destructive or rebellious behaviour at home.

The sniffing dog communicates better

We must not forget that smell is also an important part of how dogs communicate. We may feel frustrated and impatient when our dog wants to sniff every lamp post in the neighbourhood, but they generally only observe the scent marks of other dogs in the area. These scents let them know if a female or male has passed, if it is someone they are familiar with and if they are close or not. Certainly they can also receive information about the other dog’s emotional state when he put his mark there.

My personal opinion (which has no scientific basis) is that if we know that the sense of smell is by far the dog’s most developed sense, it is also very likely that it is its most important means of communication. For me, it seems absurd to think that the sense of smell only has a small role in canine communication.

That we humans do not understand olfactory communication is a completely different matter.

Other sniffing activities

In addition to dogs having opportunities to sniff when they are out on walks, there are other enriching activities we can carry out to stimulate nose work.


Distributing treats in a safe, distraction-free, grassy environment and then letting our dog search for food can be an easy and inexpensive way to offer additional enrichment.

This is an excellent activity for older dogs or for dogs with limited mobility. In addition, it is also a useful tool to help anxious dogs feel more relaxed and safe.

On rainy days, we can do this type of activity on a smaller scale indoors. For example, with the help of a sniffing rug. There are a wide variety of types that can be found on the Internet.


If you are looking for a more structured learning environment to stimulate the dog’s sense of smell. You should considering a nose work class of some sort. This will not only refine your dog’s skills, but can also be a great way to strengthen your relationship.

Look for a canine education centre near you that offers these types of classes. The dog will learn to identify and find certain scents and then show the handler the position where it is hidden.


So the next time you take your dog for a walk, try be more patient when he want to stop and sniff. It is a behaviour that must be accepted and in the end you realise that as a result you have a happier dog.


When the gender of the dog is unknown it is taken as masculin. I do not like to treat the dog as an “it” and apart from that, I am just lazy – nothing else.

If you would like to listen to some dog sniffing talk, I can highly recommend these two Podcast episodes:
Dog Tails – Conversations with the Pet Dog Trainers of Europe – Follow your (dog’s) nose (Anne Lill Kvam)
Teach Me About Doggies – Toronto dog walker Amanda Factor is on a mission to learn more about dogs. – Why is sniffing so important for dogs (Helen Moore)

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