If you only knew how much I smell you
|Sadie narrows in on the scent.|
By Doris Dressler, CPDT-KA
What does that mean, “expensive shoe?”
I ate it because it smelled like you.
“If only you knew how much I smell you”
~Valerie Shaff and Roy Blount Jr.
Did you know dogs have 40 times more brain capacity devoted to smell than humans do?
We may smell chicken soup cooking when we walk into mom’s kitchen, but a dog can smell all the individual components from chicken, carrots, potatoes and onion to the celery, salt and pepper. A dog’s scent discrimination is between 1,000 and 100,000 times that of humans.
It’s easy to understand why dogs are so easily distracted outdoors by smell.
Link between smell and emotion
Most of our senses (such as sight and hearing) are routed to the cortex, the analytical part of our brain, but the sense of smell is routed to the amygdala in the limbic system, which is the emotional part of our brain.
Have you ever wondered why the smell of pine trees makes you feel warm and fuzzy about Christmas? Or why the smell of home-baked cookies makes you think affectionately of your grandmother baking cookies? Smell and emotion are strongly linked, and there is research underway to study how this can be used to help humans and animals.
Using smell to train your dog
The use of food to motivate and train your dog is one of the most powerful tools you have at your disposal. Most breeds are incredibly food-motivated. How often have you pulled out one of your dog’s favorite treats, only to have your dog perform his entire repertoire of tricks, without your even saying a word?
An amazing thing scientists have discovered is the smell of food can be used to “rewire” a dog’s brain to make him feel good about, for example, responding to cues such as sit, down or come. Food is commonly also used when trying to desensitize and counter-condition how your dog feels about scary objects, dogs or people.
“If your dog learns to associate the good smells of food with sitting when you ask, then you’re teaching his brain to feel good when he listens to you,” notes Patricia McConnell, Ph.D. and author of “For the Love of a Dog.”
|Ollie finds the food wedged between the stones.|
“This is one of the reasons you can use food to get a behavior started, and then drop it out once the behavior has become a habit. You don’t need to carry dog treats around in your pocket for the rest of your dog’s life, because you’ve wired his brain to associate listening to you with feeling good. If, on the other hand, you train primarily using force, you’re missing out on a remarkable opportunity to condition a primal, positive association between obedience to you and his reaction to good food.”
Rewiring your dog’s brain
Research done by Tim Jacob, Ph.D. and Emeritus Professor at Cardiff University, UK, supports McConnell’s statements (cardiff.ac.uk/biosi/staffinfo/jacob/index.html). Jacob’s research shows:
- Strong odors are associated with food.
- The sense of smell is directly linked to areas of pleasure (or displeasure) in the limbic system of the brain.
- The use of food teaches the brain to feel good; if you ask your dog to sit and you pull out a piece of chicken, your dog will smell the chicken (before even seeing it) and start to feel good about sitting.
- The brain is rewired.
- Eventually, the food is not necessary.
Smelling cancer and more
Studies have shown dogs can be trained to detect cancer, even in the early stages. DAD dogs (diabetic alert dogs) are using their sense of smell to alert their human when blood sugar levels are too high or too low. Nobody knows for sure how seizure alert dogs can predict a seizure, but a prevailing theory is the dog may detect some sort of odor associated with the upcoming seizure.
How often have you noticed your dog locating something using only his nose? I’m constantly amazed that my dog consistently locates his tennis ball using his sense of smell, even when it’s buried underneath a pile of leaves.
During my last year as aftercare coordinator at Canine Assistants, I was looking forward to a visit with one of the dogs I had trained and placed with a young man several years earlier. When the team arrived, the dog didn’t react to me at all; I have to confess my feelings were hurt.
After a few minutes though, the dog curiously came up and sniffed me.
All of a sudden, the light bulb went on. The dog started whining, jumping up on me, wagging his tail and licking my face. While he didn’t initially recognize me, he remembered who I was once he smelled me.
“Can’t you see what I’m trying to tell you? If only you knew how much I smell you.”
Doris Dressler is a CPDT-KA (certified professional dog trainer, knowledge assessed) with more than 16 years’ experience training service dogs and family pet dogs. She also volunteers her time training rescued dogs at Big Canoe Animal Rescue.