That dogs have powerful noses is a well-known fact. The term “sniffari” is endearingly used by some dog lovers to describe the safari-like sniffing excursions that healthy dogs enjoy so much. And it is easy to understand why, when you know that dogs have about 300 million olfactory receptor cells — humans have only about 5 million, which may explain our tendency to hold our noses skyward.
Dogs perceive the distinct odor profiles of innumerable things and beings, including the unseen. They perceive the scents of someone or something coming or having been and how they feel or felt. As dogs explore their environments, they perceive the distinct profiles of and in every tree — not only the tree itself but every bird in it and each’s location — of every person and pet in each passing car, and of all the soils, groundcovers, insects and other creatures, and all their leavings on the terrain along the paths where you walk your dogs.
Celebrate your Sniffarati at dog-walking time. They worked hard to get where they are, to the point in evolution where they provide you with live-in friendship, comfort, affection, joy. Are they not among the biggest stars of our lives? Whether they chose their place here, or whether we chose it for them is no longer the point. The question now is, What is our role in their lives? To quote Robert Frost, arguably America’s most renowned poet:
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
When it comes to leash walks with our dogs, the two roads are, in essence, provide or deny. That is, our choices are to provide them the time they need, and for which they yearn, to sniff—
a natural behavior that is both necessary and enriching for them—or to deny them that natural behavior and by denying it, break at least one of the most basic rules of animal care outlined in the Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare.
What is not natural for dogs is to be made to march next to us at our plodding human speed, attached to us by a leash/collar, especially one that is sometimes yanked or tightened or worse if they should attempt any natural behavior or any behavior at all that is outside the lines of the pre-determined march we expect.
That comment may surprise you, coming from a dog trainer. After all, I do indeed train dogs to walk politely on leash near their owners. But here’s the thing that makes all the difference: I want the dogs I train to get to sniff to their heart’s content; I want a leash walk to be a Sniffari—a sniff mission, not an exercise mission. Yes, they will know how to loose leash walk and will do so if cued to do so, but the difference is that loose leash walking is a skill I recommend used when truly needed, not as a compulsion ‘just because I say so.’
Some people use sniffing as an occasional reward for dogs who obediently march like soldiers through a good portion of their walks, when in reality, off-site exploration—sniffing—should be the main point of the dog walk. Humans do not walk fast enough for dogs to get aerobic exercise from leash walks anyway, and frankly, it seems a bit cruel to make dogs ignore all the olfactory stimuli surrounding them even if we did manage to move fast enough to exercise them that way. Dogs don’t care about buns of steel, so exactly what would be their motivation to forego the birthright that is the secret world of scent delights near infinitely perceptible to them?
If you say it’s “pleasing their masters,” I invite you to peruse my blog while awaiting the next column. And please do feel free to send an email if you’d like to converse.
Rain Jordan, CBCC-KA, KPA CTP, is a certified canine behavior and training professional. Visit her at www.expertcanine.com.