The Importance of Letting a Dog Sniff While Out for a Walk

Learning Objectives

In this lesson, you will learn:

  • Why it’s beneficial to allow dogs to sniff during walks
  • What P-Mail is and what dogs learn about their environment from p-mail
  • The behavioral benefits of letting dogs sniff while out for a walk
  • What is OK for a dog to sniff and what is NOT OK
  • Reward based games you can play with dogs to reduce stress
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Understanding the Power of a Dog’s Nose

A dog’s nose is their most powerful tool to help them explore and understand their environment. Some animal behaviorists relate the way dogs explore their environment through scent to the way we humans explore our environment through sight. To understand this analogy, let’s compare a dog’s sense of smell to a human’s sense of sight. 

Dogs have approximately 300 million scent receptors in their noses, compared to the 6 million in a human’s nose and dogs dedicate approximately 40 times more brain power towards decoding smells compared to humans. The amount of brain power dogs devote to scent is comparable to the amount of brain power humans devote to sight. The neural pathways that connect a dog’s nose to their brain have a similar amount of bandwidth as the neural pathways that connect a human’s eyes to the human brain. 

Dogs also categorize smells in a similar way to how humans categorize colors. As humans, we generally don’t think of certain colors as better than other colors. Rather, we interpret colors as an image or as simply as information. Dogs categorize smells in a similar way. Dogs are generally not concerned about how good or how bad something smells. Rather, dogs tend to be most interested in the information a scent provides. Although dogs do tend to perceive stronger smells as more significant. 

The realization that dogs interpret their environment through scent in a similar way to how humans interpret our environment through sight leads us to our next analogy. When a dog is not allowed to sniff while out for a walk, it’s similar to a human going out for a walk blindfolded. Obviously, a blindfolded human will have a harder time interpreting the environment around them and dogs experience the exact same struggle when not allowed to sniff during their walks. 

Hopefully by now, it’s obvious you should be letting the dogs in your care sniff while out for a walk, but of course there are limits on what a dog should be allowed to sniff. 

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What is Not OK to Sniff?

Stay alert and make sure the dogs you are walking do not sniff or eat anything gross or dangerous that might make the dog sick. This includes:

  • Poop – which is one of the main ways worms, viruses, and bacteria are spread between dogs
  • Mushrooms – some of which can be poisonous
  • Old discarded food, trash, and so on
  • Dead animals

Understanding P-mail

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However, on the other hand there are certain things that you most certainly should let a dog sniff. And, as strange as it might sound, it is not only OK, but it’s beneficial to let a dog sniff urine while out for a walk. 

Animal behaviorists have found that dogs can gather a phenomenal amount of information about the other dogs in the neighborhood simply by sniffing another dog’s urine. Such as:

  • Which dogs were in the neighborhood
  • Age of the dog
  • Sex of the dog
  • If the dog is in heat
  • If the dog was spayed or neutered
  • The dog’s stress levels
  • Diet of the dog 
  • Overall Health of the dog

Dogs learn so much by sniffing one another’s urine, many behaviorists and trainers call this urine based messaging system, “p-mail” and it is now commonly accepted that p-mail is an important communication channel for dogs. So much so, if a dog is not allowed to sniff during their walks, they never become fully acquainted with the other dogs in their neighborhood, and this can lead to neurotic behaviors in dogs.

On the other hand, when you allow the dogs in your care to sniff p-mail, they begin to better understand their social status in the neighborhood and over time they will even be able to connect the scent of specific p-mail messages with the corresponding dogs in your neighborhood. Additionally, the dog will see other dogs as less of a threat because they are acquainted with their scent. In effect, when you start letting a dog sniff p-mail it’s like taking the blindfold off and allowing the dog to fully see their environment for the first time and it is incredibly beneficial for the dogs in your care. 

sun set p mail

Behavioral Benefits of Sniffing

When dogs are allowed to use their noses during walks, experts have noticed that they tend to display less “misbehavior”. Dogs need mental stimulation and sniffing can be thought of as a type of day-job for dogs. It gives them something to focus on, to learn from, and to work at as they go about their day.

Think about this example. You are walking a nervous dog who is alert and showing signs of being triggered by every little noise or movement in their environment. If you are hurrying them along and not letting them investigate their environment, the dog you are walking may become more agitated.

Dogs that are not allowed to sniff, may also get the sense that you are agitated, anxious, or in a hurry, and not understand why. The dog may even think “Are we running from danger?” and this could escalate their nervousness. 

But if you were to replace this hurried walk with a more natural and slow walk where you allow the dog to sniff, the nervous dog can now keep focused on his “work” of sniffing and not need to be so alert and frightened of his surroundings. He can now investigate at his own pace and be reassured that the outside world is not something to be scared of. 

At the end of the day, sniffing allows dogs to connect with the world around them and simply put, it is fulfilling and makes dogs happy.

Scent Based Games For Dogs and Cats

We have spent a lot of time talking about the benefits of letting a dog sniff while out for a walk. Now let’s cover an easy reward based game you can play with the dogs, or even with the cats in your care.

These games, often referred to as nose work or scent work are mentally stimulating, stress reducing, they improve the dog or cat’s ability to track and smell, and they are loads of fun!

The “Find It” Game

There are many scent based games out there, but one of my favorites is the “Find It” game because it’s incredibly easy to play and any dog can pick it up fairly quickly.  All you have to do to play this game is toss a small, bite sized, or even pea sized, treat onto the ground, into some grass, or even on the floor. 

Once you toss the treat, say “Find it!” and let the dog sniff out the treat. This allows the dog to use their powerful nose for exactly what it was evolved to do. Tracking down and hunting tasty food. 

Sometimes when a dog is still learning this game, it can take some encouragement to keep them sniffing. If the pup is having trouble finding the treat, I will usually give them a hint

by pointing out the general area where the treat landed by tapping my foot closer and closer to the treat.

Once the dog finally sniffs out and finds the treat, give them lots of praise so the dog knows they did the right thing, you can even mark the moment the dog found the treat with your clicker, then immediately toss another treat for them to find. 

When the dog gets used to the find it game and starts to get really good at finding treats. I will start tossing treats in a spot that’s a little harder to find. 

To end a game of “Find It”, it is fun to give the dogs a “jackpot” and toss out 5-10 small bite sized treats or pea sized treats out into the grass or on the floor for the dog to sniff out. 

Now, this game can be so fun for you and the dog to play, that it’s easy to pump a dog full of treats in a short period of time. So be sure to use small, bite sized or pea sized treats, or even pieces of the dog’s regular kibble. This way the game can go on for longer without overdoing it on the goodies. 

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