Let them sniff- getting the most out of your dog walk

By Frania Shelley-Grielen. All rights reserved.

We New Yorkers (please name your town here), just love our dogs- we feed them the best food, buy all the greatest toys for chewing and squeaking, have them groomed at the best groomers, keep all our vet appointments, arrange for play dates in dog parks or day cares and without back yards (at least for most of us), we are the experts at the art of the dog walk. Or are we?

The dog walk is more than just an opportunity for elimination. All dogs, city dog or country dog, need the time and opportunity to sniff around as much as possible in order to properly “see” what is happening in their surroundings on a walk. As John Bradshaw writes in DOG SENSE: “Smells are very important to dogs, much more than they are to us. Dogs don’t just use odor to decide what to eat or not: It’s their primary way of identifying people, places and other dogs. Smell is their dominant sense, the one they use in preference to all their other senses, whenever they can.” A dog’s sensitivity to odors is 10,000 to 100,000 times more sensitive than our own. Keeping your dog from sniffing it all in when outside, with all there is to smell out there, is like you crossing the street practically blindfolded.

Dogs are built for “smell-o-vision,” from an olfactory cortex (that part of the brain that scrutinizes odors) which is 40 times greater than ours, to a hundred times more nerves than our own, linking the brain to the area of the dog’s nose that detects odors. And it is this very highly specialized nose that we are depriving of all this incredibly informative odor when we prevent our dogs from sniffing around on a walk. Being able to use their primary sense is intrinsically rewarding for dogs, it’s how their made. Watch a dog getting the chance to smell to see how absorbed, focused and content they appear.

Getting the chance to properly sniff is more than just a luxury in perception. Peter L. Borchelt, an animal behaviorist practicing in metropolitan New York, made an observation during a lecture I attended, that being allowed to sniff was in fact, an almost athletic activity for your dog. Dr. Borchelt said that a good walk (backyards only don’t count here) with sufficient sniffing opportunities is a chance to allow your active, apartment or house bound hound a proper chance to expend the right amount of energy to return home properly tired from canine efforts. Make sure to vary your routes on walks to allow your dog the chance to discover new smells left behind, finding information or reading the “pee mail” from other dogs is important and cannot be beat for encouraging elimination in return. Please include walks for dogs with their own backyards to sniff around – they know most of the smells in their garden already, give them more to explore. (Continue Reading Below)

Sniffing around can also lessen stress and give a dog a greater sense of optimism. And who doesn’t want that for their pup? Studies tell us that allowing shelter dogs olfactory enrichment (things to sniff they might like) lessens those behaviors associated with stress. And a 2019 study comparing dogs practicing activities where they get to use their noses to find scents or food independently (“nosework”) with dogs practicing physical exercises keeping in step with their owner (“heelwork”) where both groups were given food rewards for completing the exercises, found the nosework dogs outperforming the heelwork dogs on a cognitive bias test designed to measure optimism. The researchers also noted that nosework offers a chance to work autonomously and exercise choice and control over their actions while indulging in a naturally satisfying activity.

Take a look at how our dog walking stacks up on your next walk. Here are a few things to watch for to start with: Are we yanking a dog without any signal or warning from a lamppost or street sign just as it gets interesting? Or are we not even looking or paying attention and not noticing that our dog has started to sniff and yanked them away before they can complete a breath in? Do we think dogs are people and a good butt sniff means something other than getting to know the dog being sniffed? Or even worse, are we putting choke chains, prong collars and head halters on our dogs to inhibit any sniffing along with other natural behaviors? (While dogs may pull and choke against prongs and chokes and theoretically avoid the constraint by not pulling, the head halter offers no relief, placed high on the muzzle around the sensitive eye area often resulting in visible drooping and slinking and needs to be added to what not to use on our dogs.)

The good news is that making time for sniffing, including finding and exploring new and varied routes to sniff along, not only allows a dog to adequately “see” the world, sniffing is exercise for your dog’s brain that feels good, lessens stress and makes them happy. Processing all that information is a lot of work. It is as equally important for the dog to have something mentally satisfying to do as is for the dog to have something physically satisfying to do. Try it out and see how much calmer and happier your dog will start to appear. Letting your dog sniff his or her way around the block opens up a whole new world for you both.


Bradshaw, J. (2011) Dog Sense (p. 242) New York: Basic Books

Duranton, C., Horowitz, A. (2019). Let me sniff! Nosework includes positive judgment bias in pet dogs . Applied Animal Behaviour Science, (211) 61-66

This article is an original work and is subject to copyright. You may create a link to this article on another website or in a document back to this web page. You may not copy this article in whole or in part onto another web page or document without permission of the author. Email inquiries to info@animalbehaviorist.us.

AnimalBehavirorist.us is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to products we recommend on Amazon.com.