Let them sniff, let them sniff, let the sniff!
Updated: Sep 26
The weather outside is frightful, but the fire is so delightful, and then you have to take your dog out to pee and they are refusing to go. Fluffy’s busy sniffing the bushes and seems a bit distracted. It’s wet and cold and you want to go back inside, so you tell fluffy to hurry up and go potty again, this time with a bit of a frustrated undertone. In turn, Fluffy starts sniffing even more intensely and seems even more distracted. Why is Fluffy being so disobedient? The more frustrated you become, hounding Fluffy to hurry up, the more Fluffy blows you off and glues her nose to the ground. She is seemingly ignoring you for the purpose of keeping you outside in the wet, cold weather.
Why is Fluffy being so disobedient? Well it turns out sniffing has a very important function for dogs and Fluffy isn’t being disobedient at all! Sniffing is calming for dogs. Sniffing lowers your dog’s pulse, even while walking. The faster and more intensely your dog sniffs, the quicker their pulse rate will lower! Yes, cool, I know! Knowing this information, and re-examining the above situation, Fluffy is likely picking up on her owner’s frustration and desire to hurry and this causes her to feel stress too. So she attempts to calm herself by sniffing, and when her owner becomes more agitated, she sniffs even more intensely to try to calm herself down once more. Fluffy wasn’t acting out, she was being affected by her owner’s stress and in turn was sniffing intensely trying to diffuse stress and avoid conflict with her owner.
When we become keen observers of our dog’s behavior, we can learn a lot about them. I’ve had many clients who’s dog’s perform basic commands in the living room with 100% accuracy but when you take that same dog and human team outside, the dog won’t engage. He’s pulling intensely and his nose is glued to the ground and the owner is often frustrated. It’s easy to think, my dog is ignoring my commands, he’s blowing me off, he’s not food motivated when outside, etc. After all, he performs commands beautifully in the house but once outside, all bets are off. I encourage you take a step back and really look at what might be going on instead.
Often, if your dog is distracted and sniffing, that may be a sign that he is experiencing some rather intense emotions and is attempting to calm himself down internally. Your dog could be over-excited to be outside, he could be feeling anxious or nervous, he could be feeling frustrated. Patiently standing still and waiting might just be the ticket. Allowing your dog to sniff for as long they need is a great way to support your dog in their own ability to calm themselves. Dogs who are feeling calm and relaxed are easy to engage with and in turn this sets the stage for teaching your dog whatever behaviors, commands or tricks you desire!
A common scenario trainers often hear is “My dog isn’t food motivated. When I take him outside he’s more interested in pulling and sniffing and is not interested in eating treats no matter what kind I have with me.” The first thing to realize is that a dog that isn’t motivated by food, is a dead dog. Eating is biologically motivated and all living creatures are motivated to eat food. When you take your dog outside and he suddenly becomes distracted, pulling, sniffing and becomes disinterested in eating, it’s time to put on your detective hat, because something else might be going on instead.
Dogs don’t speak English so it’s not as easy as asking them “how are you feeling?” Instead we have to examine their behavior to make a best guess about what’s going on for them internally. When my dog isn’t interested in food, that’s a good indicator that they are having a sympathetic nervous system response. First, the brain sends a signal causing the sympathetic nervous system to activate, which in turn sends more signals through the autonomic nerves to the adrenaline glands. The adrenaline glands then respond by releasing adrenaline into the bloodstream. Heart rate and breathing increases, allowing the body to send extra blood flow to the muscles for fast action while inhibiting digestion. Simply put, your dog’s lack of food motivation is likely a sign that he is worked-up for one reason or another. If I respond by correcting the dog for being distracted and sniffing, I’m actually handicapping the dog’s innate ability to calm themselves down. Giving your dog time to sniff, lowers the heart rate and encourages a parasympathetic nervous system response, also know as the “rest and digest system.” Basically, this reverses the work of the sympathetic nervous system. When this happens, Voila!, the dog is suddenly interested in training with food again and his need to sniff has decreased.
Introducing sniffing activities into your dogs life proactively is a great way to help them manage daily life stress. Just like we may do things like take a walk, meditate or focus on breath work to handle the stress that comes with everyday life, building some similar activities into your dog’s routine is a smart idea.
The “decompression walk,” is something I like to do with my own dogs regularly. Take yourself outside somewhere or go to a favorite nature spot with your dog. Put your dog on a longer leash or let them off leash if appropriate and they have a reliable recall in place. Recent studies show that dogs sniff 280% more on a long leash than they do on a short leash. The rules for the decompression walk are simply, let your dog meander and sniff until their heart is content. No leave it’s, no yanking, just let your dog be a dog and offer support only when necessary for safety. Decompression walks are great for humans also and there is research that shows that “Forest Bathing” can reduce stress, hostility and depressive symptoms in humans too. Decompression walks are a win/win for both species.
Consider introducing scent work games and nose work into your dog’s life as another variation of sniffing. Reactive dogs usually excel with nose work and given what we know about sniffing and calming, it’s no coincidence that reactive dogs usually benefit from any of the sniffing based dog sports.
Sniffing based toys and games are another way to get more sniff time into your dogs life. Snuffle mats usually look like a fleece rag rug and mimic a natural foraging environment like grass. Hide treats between the fabric layers and let your dog sniff and forage. This can be great for calming a dog after guests arrive. Alternatively, toss a handful of kibble into the grass and let your dog sniff them out. Teaching your dog to sniff out and find treats you hid around the house is an easy and fun game with calming benefits.
So remember, the next time your dog seems distracted or appears to be having a stressful day, let them sniff. Take a deep breath to calm yourself and then wait patiently for your dog to the same thing in the from of sniffing. Go out for sniff walks with no pressure for your dog to “perform.” Introducing more sniffing into your dog's day will pay off as you find you have a happier, healthier and calmer pup!