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The Nose Knows: An Essential Information Gathering Tool for Work, Play and Training

By Barbara Denzer, Vice President of Marketing, Cardinal Laboratories
 

Do you use savory-smelling training rewards to motivate clients’ dogs? Have you taught a class based on scenting or tracking work? As every pet professional “knows,” the nose is a vital part of any training program, because a dog’s dominant sense is that of smell.

From a large portion of brain dedicated to identifying odors, to an incredibly sensitive Jacobson’s organ, canines seem to be built for scenting. Their sense of smell and ability to read and understand pheromones work together to open a world of physical and interactive data that’s more extensive than anything you’ll read on social media all week.

Scenting Ability
What is it that makes dogs such stellar sniffers? It’s common knowledge that canine noses contain more than 10 to 100 times the amount of sensory receptors as humans. However, that power is actually amplified because, in addition to their vast army of sensors, a large portion of their brain is dedicated to identifying and tracking scents. Depending on the breed, up to 30 percent of a dog’s brain-power might be focused on his nose. The combination of brain “hardwiring” and increased sensory cells adds up to a nose that works thousands to millions of times better than ours. 
 
The canine nasal cavity also contains a sizable Jacobson’s organ, a sensory receptor with nerve cells that communicate not with the olfactory bulbs and cortex, but with the accessory bulbs and the part of the brain that coordinates mating and other basic emotions. The Jacobson’s organ takes in and processes a range of substances that are comprised of large molecules, specifically pheromones. Pheromones are a chemical substance secreted by members of a species that affect the behavior of other members or other species. 
While we experience the world visually, dogs experience the world first through their sense of smell, which is why they can be perfectly distracted and entertained just sniffing around the backyard. They pick up scented chemicals left on the ground by other animals and can also follow volatile oils that travel through air. This is what makes their ability to track so powerful—strong enough to follow a trail that’s over a week old.

Sniffing Out Humans 
Dogs take note of this olfactory data not only from each other, but also whenever they greet people. Some research suggests that canines even have the ability to understand human pheromones. 

This, coupled with their overdeveloped sense of smell, allows dogs to learn a great deal about a person “at first sniff.” It’s one of the things—along with body language—that gives them their uncanny ability to read human emotions. Dogs can also use their noses to determine a person’s age and health information, such as if a female is pregnant. They can even tell a true pregnancy from a false one. It’s fair to say that dogs have nosed their way into being our best friends.

Working Noses
Indeed, humans noticed and began to harness the power of dog noses long before we could scientifically assess how they worked. Canine scent tracking has an ancient and rich history. Dogs have been used to help men hunt for more than 20,000 years, according to geneticists. They’ve had a nose in law enforcement since at least the Middle Ages when bloodhounds were used to hunt outlaws. 

Today’s working canines are often trained for very specific scenting jobs, such as detecting firearms, explosives and drugs. Their sensitive snouts “lend a paw” to the field of medicine, where they’ve sniffed out conditions such as tumors in cancer patients with amazing accuracy. They’ve even been put to work identifying superbug patients to prevent outbreaks of C. difficile, the dangerous infection linked to overuse of antibiotics. Normal testing is a slow and costly process, but a dog trained to do this work needs only about 10 minutes to diagnose an entire hospital ward full of patients. 

New uses for the canine nose emerge regularly as our knowledge of their natural ability grows. For people living with a difficult food intolerance condition, such as a life-threatening peanut allergy, dogs trained to detect peanuts in other foods are life-changing companions. Canine “food sniffing” services are increasingly being marketed for the general public’s needs, including the detection of miniscule amounts of gluten in food. 

“Nosy” Training Exercises
A dog’s outstanding scenting ability cannot only be put to good use working, but also as part of a fun and effective training exercise that your clients can do at home. “Scent games” can be a fun learning activity for dogs of any breed, providing mental and physical stimulation, as well as a means of keeping pets occupied indoors during harsh weather. 

Your clients can start by building their dog’s desire to search by hiding a treat that he really loves in one of a half dozen containers, such as cardboard boxes, and giving an associative command such as “Seek.” When the dog sniffs out the correct box, he should be praised and rewarded immediately (the same type of treat can be used as a reward). From there, the search can be expanded to hiding a treat somewhere less accessible in a dark room, again voicing the Seek command and rewarding the dog when he finds it. 

Once the task of finding food has been mastered, the exercise can be re-focused to use a favorite toy as a search object. Show the dog the toy, then hide it and give the Seek command. It will probably take some time for the dog to realize that it is now the toy you want her to find, but the learning process can be sped along by giving her a reward whenever she moves closer toward the toy, then lavishing her with praise and a couple more treats when she finds it. Eventually, she will come to associate Seek with whatever object is shown to her just prior to the sound of the command. More advanced games can even teach pooches to sniff out people for a fun game of Hide ’N Seek. 

Scent Motivation 
Of course, the key to making scenting exercises a success is to use treats that are absolutely irresistible, both as a search object for beginners and as a reward at all levels of play. Here again, the canine nose rules. Because dogs are such sensitive sniffers, they will be more attracted to and motivated by food rewards that have a strong, savory aroma, such as Crazy Dog Train Me. Treats.

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