We play a lot of nose work games at our dog school, Edu-Care for Dogs, and the dogs love it. While almost everyone realizes that a dog’s ability to smell is far superior to ours, what many people may not be aware of is that using their nose to pinpoint the location of different objects requires a great deal of mental focus. After an hour of tracking games, the dog “students” are exhausted — both physically and mentally.
To get a better perspective of your dog’s olfactory ability, let’s compare it to a person’s nose. Inside the nose of both species are bony plates, called turbinates, over which air passes. If you took a microscopic view of this organ, you would see a thick, spongy membrane that contains most of the scent-detecting cells, along with nerves that transport information to the brain. In humans, the area containing these odor analyzers is about the size of a postage stamp. If you could unfold this area in a dog, it would be just under the size of a piece of typing paper. Though the size of this surface varies with the size and length of the dog’s nose, even flat-nosed breeds can detect smells far better than people.
A dog’s brain is also specialized for identifying scents. The percentage of the dog’s brain that is devoted to analyzing smells is actually 40 times larger than that of a human. It uses a lot of brain power when we challenge a dog to tune in to his scenting abilities and discriminate one particular smell from the thousands he detects in any given environment. Dogs whose job it is to locate particular smells (rescue dogs, drug-sniffing dogs, etc.) can only work for a limited amount of time before taking a much-needed break. They are wiped out after working and concentrating so hard.
Try some basic tracking games at home with your dog. Not only is it fun, it’s a great confidence builder and improves the relationship between you and your dog because success depends on cooperation and trust. Here’s an easy one to start with: Have your dog on leash and have him walk with you as you hide a treat. Let him see where you are hiding it. Walk away from the treat (he may look at you like you are crazy), and walk to the other side of the room. Have your dog “sit” and “wait” for a few moments. When your dog is calm, release him with a “Find it!” cue and let your dog run to where you left the treat. Once your dog understands the rules of the game, up the challenge by keeping your dog in a “stay” (or keep him tethered) while you hide the treat. Don’t let him see where you put it. Return to your dog and when he is calm, release to “Find it!”
You can keep increasing the difficulty and keep increasing the fun. This is quality together time you will both love with an added bonus of having a worn out dog when you’re done.
• Stefanie Strackbein is co-creator and dean of students affairs for Edu-Care for Dogs, a Valley day school/daycare that provides life skills training and educational play for dogs. For more information, visit www.edu-carefordogs.com.