The Savvy Trainer | Harness the power of your dog’s nose

Carla Brown
Special to the Sun

Imagine walking into a room blindfolded.

With every step you risk tripping over furniture or falling down stairs. Without sight, an unknown room is an intimidating scenario.

We see the world, dogs smell it. They smell it at a level that is impossible for us to comprehend. We have about six million scent receptors in our nose. A sheepdog has over 200 million receptors and a beagle over 300 million.

Furthermore, dogs smell at a molecular level, allowing them to dissect a complex odor into smaller parts. Alexandra Horowitz, author of “Inside of a Dog,” offers the analogy that a dog can smell a teaspoon of sugar in one million gallons of water, the equivalent of two Olympic-size pools! Dogs trained to detect the odor associated with cancer cells failed to identify the cancer only 14 times in 1,272 attempts.


Any item that has our smell on it is an extension of us to our dog. My clients often report that when left alone their dog gathers shoes, socks and other personal articles. They don’t chew anything, just gather the objects in an effort to soothe themselves. A towel or blanket with your scent left on your dog’s bed could help him feel better about being alone. This technique is also useful in advance of bringing a new baby home. Take an extra baby blanket to the hospital and let the dog get acquainted with the new family member before the actual homecoming.

Dogs can smell fear in a human or another dog.

Sweat and the adrenaline associated with increased blood flow make us a particularly smelly species. Dogs who have had an unpleasant encounter with another dog often develop fear-based aggression. In turn, we worry that our beloved friend will get attacked and our heart rate increases when an unknown dog approaches. Our dog smells our fear which reinforces their fear, making it worse. Working with a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT) can help both you and your dog learn to manage these situations.

We can also harness our dog’s amazing sense of smell to modify his behavior.

A nervous or stressed animal is more likely to act aggressively and be less able to learn. When a dog is actively smelling something, their brain is fully engaged in the task at hand and less likely to be reactive.

Take your dog on “smell walks.” They get to determine the pace and path of the walk in order to fully take in the environment. This could be the most fulfilling part of your dog’s day!

If you don’t have time for a leisurely walk, stop occasionally and let your dog sniff. Teach a “Let’s Go” cue to use when it’s time to move on.

Hide your dog’s morning kibble around the house instead of feeding it from a bowl. It will keep him busy and mentally active when you leave the house and he will likely need a good nap after finding all the food.

Dogs smell each other to get acquainted, but this simple act can be too much for some fearful canines. To make the greeting easier, allow each dog to smell the other’s bed prior to any kind of direct encounter.

The next time your dog insists on stopping constantly to sniff, remember this is how they “see” the world and appreciate them for who they are.

Carla Brown, CPDT is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and owner of The Savvy Dog in Truckee. She can be reached at

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