How important is scent to you? Not to your dog, but to you? Have you ever thought about being more dog by embracing your scenting activity? Maybe sniff more?
I recall when I was selling my house, I noticed that after the estate agent had conducted a viewing, I was super aware of unfamiliar scent in my home. I’m not talking about anything unpleasant, but just a distinct awareness of new odours. I was picking up traces of perfume and cologne. But also just noticing certain disturbances in the air. It was very strange to me. Having quickly become familiar with the estate agent’s perfume, I could distinguish between her and the scents from the viewers. I could often tell which rooms viewers had lingered in. And even where they’d moved to. After some viewings I could tell if they’d gone over to look at the view out of the window simply by the scent trail they’d left.
I was both surprised and intrigued by this rousing of my olfactory abilities. I wasn’t deliberately or consciously sniffing the air. But the unconscious scenting and attention to the novel smells quickly became a conscious act. I started to take notice of movement, of pooling of scent, of anything unusual or particularly distinctive. Having strangers in my home was not a pleasant experience. But I looked forward to returning after the estate agent had given the all clear, just so that I could have a sniff around.
In his book *The Gift of Fear, author Gavin de Becker describes multiple instances of victims of crime being aware that something wasn’t right. They were noticing open windows that they knew had been shut. Or shadows moving in hallways. Or disturbing noises in parking lots. Many of these people ignored the signals that they were subconsciously picking up. Had they acted on them they might have been able to avoid the terrible crimes that were inflicted upon them. I don’t recall the author mentioning scent as one of subconscious signals, but I’d bet that if they’d been asked, they might have included them along with those detected by their other senses.
One scent that we do recognise as a sign of danger is smoke. Smoke and fire will set off red flags and alert us even when we are not searching for scent. It is an unmistakable warning that life could be threatened. Think about when you’ve walked into a room just after a candle has been snubbed out. If you’re not aware that a candle had been lit, you immediately start looking for the source of the unwelcome aroma.
Another deep seated, instinctive reaction to a scent is when we get a whiff of spoiled food. We know not to drink the rancid milk or eat the dodgy chicken. Scent alerts us to risk, to danger and we ignore these warnings at our peril.
But scent can herald joy and happiness too. You might notice your partner’s perfume and so know that they’ve arrived home before you. And when you come across the same perfume in another setting, away from your partner, it can trigger feelings of love and happiness. We all know what our own family smells like and recognise that communal scent. We also notice the absence of that familiar scent when we enter someone else’s house.
One of the most noticeable scents for me is washing powder. For example, if I’m on holiday, I will wash my clothes before I come home. Yep, I always do this. An old throwback to being a Customs Officer – an aversion to dirty clothes and to the thought of somebody else having to go through them. On opening my suitcase to unpack, my clothes might be clean but they don’t smell like MY clothes if I’ve washed them in a laundrette or even in the sink with travel wash rather than my usual brand. It’s not unpleasant, but it is very noticeable.
In her book *On Being a Dog – Following the Dog into a World of Smell, canine researcher Alexandra Horowitz describes going for scent walks. This is where you actively sniff the air as you walk. You might stop to get a good lungful or simply take a quick sniff. But what you do next is take interest in the odours. See if you can find their source. Think about how pungent they are. How pleasing, or not.
In other words, be mindful of the smells around you. As soon as you start to do this, you will become aware of many more scents than you’d normally notice on your walk. By actively engaging with scent, you will notice and experience more and more. It’s not that we have a poor sense of smell. It’s that we don’t use it as much as we could. By activating our scenting ability we very quickly become more proficient at identifying and locating scent sources.
And as soon as you unlock this scent-sual dimension you can start to comprehend just how important and even overwhelming scent can be for our dogs. Considering most dogs are actively sniffing much of the time, it’s no wonder that their command of all things olfactory is so well honed. We know that they can distinguish between male and female, in oestrous or out, entire or neutered. But we don’t know how they interpret other odours.
Do they smell grass or what’s on the grass or in it? My guess is all three considering how much my girls love to eat succulent dewy grass whilst ignoring dried up or dying grasses. They love to roll on it so that could be scent related or because it just feels good, or cool, or it’s fun. They can smell what’s under the grass and what’s been deposited on it. And this is what they do all the time. On everything. It’s no wonder that asking a dog to lift her head from the ground is such a difficult task. So much to sniff, to understand, to react to. And for us hapless humans, so much competition.
Like us, dogs can smell danger. I sometimes have a hedgehog visit my garden. I’ve rarely seen it but I know it’s visited when I see my dogs prancing around like circus ponies following the scent around the garden. I wouldn’t say they liked the scent. Their reaction seems more conflicted. A reaction that fluctuates between excitement and arousal. Any unfamilar scent, person, animal or object, in their home or garden or anything they perceive to be their’s (which in Ettie’s case is everything) is treated with suspicion. More often than not this quickly turns to curiosity. But occasionally hackles rise and the atmosphere becomes tense.
If you think back to your dog’s first introduction to scentwork, you can see how the scent itself elicits confidence and understanding. Some dogs are trepidatious when first entering a search area. Some are excited. Others are methodical and calm. Depending on your dog’s reactions to new places, new experiences, scentwork can be a real boon. Once the dog hits the familiar scent, everything else falls into place. She knows her target and she knows that it heralds rewards and pleasure. Finding it in places or situations that have previously caused concern can change her association and emotional state in an instant.
Add associative learning to the dog’s natural understanding of scent and you have a powerful tool. When we teach dogs to make strong positive associations between target scents and rewards, we must be mindful of the consequences. If we select inappropriate scents as our targets, we could inadvertently exacerbate issues, e.g. using rabbit scent with a Jack Russell. Or set up risky situations, e.g. teaching non-professional dogs to find tobacco (which is highly toxic to dogs) The last thing you want is your tobacco locating dog picking up cigarette butts or raiding Aunty Maureen’s handbag for her ciggies.
But if we choose our target wisely, we can manipulate situations in order to help our dog feel more supported, more confident, less anxious or worried. And by allowing our dog to free search each new search area, we allow her the time to acclimatise. She can see the lie of the land and settle into her task. Only then should we ask her to engage with us in the more concentrate directed search portion of the search. When we step into the area and immediately ask the dog to focus on small sections of the area before she’s had a chance to check out the search environment, we set her up to fail.
After all, we’ve had the opportunity see the area first. We’ve either safety checked it before setting up the search. Or if we’re at a workshop, we’ve watched the trainer setting out the search. And, unless we’ve been first up, observed others searching before us. Free search first, whether working on lead or off. Then ramp up the detail as you go into your search patterns. Once the dog is experienced and has lots of searches under her belt, she will be better able to go straight into a directed search on more straightforward areas, such as vehicle searches.
By taking a step into our dog’s world of scent, we can appreciate how skilled she is at sorting through the odours. Discarding this one, ignoring that, following that one, rolling on this. We can also enjoy the richness, the extra dimension scent can bring to our everyday experiences. Scent is not just something for perfumiers and sommeliers. It’s there for us all to embrace. So the next time your dog stops to have a good sniff, why don’t you do the same? Maybe don’t sniff lampposts or other unmentionables. But take in the air around you. You might catch a waft of bacon or coffee, a whiff of hairspray or soap. And you might even find a sweet rose or beach breeze that takes you back to a happy memory or inspires you to make some new ones.
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