Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Sniffing: More Important Than You Think

Sniffing is just how dogs check out smells, right? Well that's part of it, but there's actually quite a lot more going on when your dog has their nose to the ground. They may be collecting information, but they could also be trying to calm themselves, reassure someone, or diffuse an escalating social situation. There's a time and a place for getting our noses up off the ground, but I think it's worthwhile to ponder what's really going on for a moment.
Queensland heeler at the pier
Photo by Erin Koski

The Zen of Sniffing

I like to think of sniffing as a dog's personal "me time", their chance to withdraw into their own head for a little while. As a major introvert, I definitely understand needing that chance to pull back and recharge. When I need to take a break from the world, I like to read a book. When Brisbane needs to take a break from the world, he sniffs the ground.

This took me a lot of years to learn, and for a long time I thought Briz was just getting distracted. Obviously he thought the smells on the ground were just more interesting than me, and I needed to work harder at being the most exciting thing in the world to my dog. This was endlessly frustrating while we were doing UKC obedience trials because mine seemed to be the only dog who couldn't keep his nose off the ground. 

At practice I would ask for attention and feed him treats constantly, but the instant he had the treat in his mouth his nose would drop to the ground again. All the other dogs could calmly sit or lay down in between exercises, mine was constantly, endlessly searching the grass. It wasn't until I had quit formal obedience that I read Control Unleashed and realized Brisbane found the whole sport to be incredibly stressful. 

Sniff Away the Stress

Brisbane the mixed breed dog checks out the smells
Photo by Erin Koski
Dogs use sniffing as a calming signal, a way to help themselves relax or tell another dog that they are not a threat. However, some dogs don't know how to use sniffing to help them unwind. 

I've been working with a young poodle mix who is generally anxious about the world around her. She responds to alarming sights and sounds by freezing in place. She's not particularly motivated by food, but absolutely loves praise.

At our last training session, her handler and I just stood with her for a while in the middle of a grassy park. We all watched some children playing at a playground at the far end, and waited for the pup to do something other than freeze and stare in horror. After almost ten minutes she dropped her nose to the ground and we told her what a magnificent dog she was for having a sniff. This immediately led to more sniffing. After another amble around the park, we walked toward the playground again. This time we got much closer to the kids before she froze. A moment later she began sniffing the grass, and we speedwalked away from the playground and declared it a victory for the day.

Sometimes a Sniff is Just a Sniff

Of course, not every sniff is an attempt to relieve stress, especially if you have a beagle or other scenthound. The world is a big, exciting place full of amazing scents that we humans will never truly understand. Some dogs do indeed need to learn to get their noses off the ground and focus on their handlers, but I think intense sniffing should be a part of most adventures. As a devout bookworm, I like to think of sniffing as reading with their noses. If my happily engaged dog suddenly abandons me to delve into a book, it's either a really good novel or there's something he needs to escape from.

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