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Dogs Sense Smell: A Dog’s-Nose View Of Life

dogs sense smell

Dogs Sense Smell vs Human

Most humans experience the world primarily through vision but for a dog, the world is a Smell-O-Rama the extent of which we can’t even imagine. When your dog starts barking at something you can’t see or hear, don’t call your dog crazy. When your dog “obsesses” about a blade of grass, he’s not just smelling who walked by or peed there last; he’s picking up information just like you pick up information on the Internet. When your dog is in a new environment, he’ll be nose-to-the-ground until he has thoroughly investigated the scene. Dogs sense smell.

Dogs Sense Smell

Your dog may know that his name is Sparky and that the neighbor’s dog’s name is Shut Up. When it comes to you though, it’s your scent, above all other sensory information, that distinguishes you from other humans. To your dog, your scent is your name.

Not only does your dog “name” people by smell, but an individual’s scent also provides important information about the person. Yes, it’s true that dogs can smell fear. They can also smell disease, the onset of epileptic seizures and even new pregnancy.

Dogs sense pregnancy

Why Dogs Are Nose-Worthy

Dogs are born blind and deaf so their sense of smell (to find mom) and touch are exquisitely fine-tuned from day one. These senses and smell, in particular, remain a dog’s primary means of experiencing the world.

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Living things are constantly giving off scents. Sweating is an obvious one, but did you know that every exhale sends scented data into the world, including what you ate and the state of your health? Living things are also constantly shedding information in the form of leaves, pollen, skin, hair, dander, fur, feathers, scales… and all of these bits of our physical selves have detectable smells for dogs.


Dogs sense of smell

The dog’s-nose view of the world is mostly invisible and incomprehensible to us. When you factor in a dog’s keen eyesight and fine-tuned sense of hearing, you can understand why they live in an incredibly rich sensory world that is far different from our limited sensory ‘view’.

A dog’s sense of smell is 1,000-10,000 times more sensitive than a human’s* and the percentage of a dog’s brain responsible for analyzing smells is 40 times larger than that of a human.

His eyes are attuned to fine movements (an evolutionary adaptation for hunting); and he can hear much higher sound frequencies… at four times the distance of an average human.

Smart Dog

* “One thousand to ten thousand times more sensitive” is a huge range, admittedly. A lot more research is needed, particularly since we now understand that dogs can sense health problems in humans—information that can be used to save lives.

Calling Dr. Dog

We know a dog’s sense of smell is extraordinary, making them perfect drug- or bomb-sniffers at airports, but their remarkable noses can also save lives at home.

Although researchers were skeptical at first, studies have proven that dogs are nearly as effective as traditional cancer testing.

Cancer sniffing dog

Dogs, and certain breeds, in particular, can pick up on volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in extremely tiny amounts. VOCs are microscopic chemicals that exist in both gaseous and liquid states. This is the information emitted by all living things as well as man-made substances. We can smell them too, such as body odor, the smell of cooking, noxious odors from certain paint, gasoline or household chemicals, but not nearly to the extent that dogs can.

Researchers have successfully trained dogs to sniff out cancer, starting with a study in which six dogs were trained to detect bladder cancer from urine samples belonging to patients known to have bladder cancer. Admittedly, the 41 percent success rate wasn’t earth-shattering, but it was significantly higher than a 14 percent “coincidence rate” determined by the researchers.

Since that first study, the success rate has gone up dramatically because of a change from K9 urinalysis to a breath analysis. Rather than giving dogs urine samples to smell, the dogs were trained to sniff out breast and lung cancer by smelling patients’ breath… with an 88 percent accuracy with breast cancer, 97 percent with lung cancer and 98 percent with colorectal cancer.

Dogs can smell cancer

Scientists hope to identify and isolate the exact VOCs that dogs detect, to create electronic cancer-sniffing diagnostic devices.

Dogs have also been used to alert their human companions to imminent epileptic seizures, let diabetics know when their blood sugar is dropping dangerously low and they have even alerted people about changes in blood pressure that can lead to a heart attack. There are also plenty of stories about dogs detecting pregnancy long before the stick test picks up enough pregnancy hormones to give a positive reading.

Tune In For More Dog Senses

We’re just beginning to understand just how tuned-in dogs are to the world and just how oblivious we are.

So… is there anything you can do to hone your senses? Absolutely! Spend less time in a hurry, and more time noticing things.

  • Listen deeply as you walk and get rid of the background noise of TV or constant music.
  • Look in directions you don’t normally look when you’re in a familiar place.
  • Notice the texture of things you handle on a daily basis (the ones you use without thinking about them).
  • Slow down and savor the food you eat by taking small mouthfuls, inhaling a little through your nose while you chew and taking the time to chew and not gulp your food.

The most challenging one for us humans is developing our sense of smell. We have become desensitized to subtle scents because we overpower them with artificially and powerfully scented everything: antiperspirant, perfume, scented laundry detergent and fabric softener, scented dish soap, home fragrance sprays and deodorizers and strong-smelling cleaning products. Just imagine how in-your-face overpowering these products are to dogs!

You can rediscover your sense of smell if you use less artificially-scented products (essential oils, for example, are not as strong as artificial scents). You can also opt for the unscented kinds that don’t mask other smells in the home. And wherever you are, take the time to pause and try to pick out at least a few smells in your environment.

You’ll never be a Sensory Ninja-like your dog, but you can definitely enhance your life experience by honing your senses and becoming more attuned to your environment!

Dogs Sense Smell: A Dog’s-Nose View Of Life – I would love to hear your comments or experiences on dog senses! Please share it with us.


Written by Johannes


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  1. I would love to be able to experience the world the way a dog does. I already have a pretty good sense of smell and can notice right away if someone is stressed or sick or (ha) has been drinking. I can’t even imagine how much more detailed this information could be, especially if I could smell specific illnesses like cancer. Thanks for the great info! I wonder, how does a dog’s sense of smell compare to a cat’s?

    • I agree, Penelope, it would be great if we could smell cancer and other diseases so we could diagnose ourselves and get to the doctor for treatment. Thank you for your comment. 🙂

  2. I find dogs sniffing out cancer and disease fascinating! Do you have any more information on the studies you mentioned? I’d love to read them. Can you imagine being able to experience the world through your nose sharpened to that magnitude? Wow, that would be a profound experience I’m sure!

  3. Incredible. I knew that dogs had super-sniffers, but this article really drives the point home about the remarkable olfactory sense our canine friends have. I learned a lot reading about dogs’ sense of smell and what life is like for them from a dog’s nose point of view, LOL. I am going to pay much closer attention when I’m around dogs and watch how they sniff things out and respond to scents. I am also going to start relying on my own (woefully inferior) sense of smell and see what I can detect if I concentrate. Fun article and informative too!

    • Thanks, Mike, isn’t it amazing what they can sniff out? The medical field can really use them to fight and find disease early.

  4. Wow, that’s pretty interesting facts to know that dogs can smell cancer! I’ve always known that dogs have a great sense of smell but I didn’t think that they could be trained to smell cancer! It’s amazing, I guess dogs can be really helpful especially when it comes to sniffing stuff out, just how they can be trained to sniff out bombs and stuff. Imagine having that great sense of a smell like dogs! I wouldn’t know if that would be a good thing if you’re outside walking especially with all the funky smells the environment could have. Ha ha!

    • Ha ha, I don’t think I would want the same sense of smell as dogs have. Too much funky stuff for sure. Dogs really are amazing. They can even let someone know if they’re going to have a seizure or if there’s going to be an earthquake (we get those here in California). I swear one of my dogs can read my mind. I just think of going outside and all of a sudden she gets really excited, crazy!

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