Ever wonder what a dog’s nose knows that ours doesn’t? It’s actually an impressive list. Let’s start by discussing how they smell and why it’s important.
A dog’s nose has separate pathways, one for breathing that directs the air to the lungs and one for smelling that leads air to folds of tissue that are called the olfactory area, where the smelling magic happens.
The canine olfactory area has approximately 300 million nasal receptors, whereas humans only have about 6 million. With these numbers, it’s easy to understand why dogs have a much better sense of smell than we do. They are built more efficiently for interpreting smells.
Dogs can detect the faintest of odors from far distances, underwater, to even tiny particle sample sizes. Due to their anatomy, they can separate the target odor from masking smells as well, which is useful if they are a working dog, such as a police, drug, or cadaver dog. Dogs are also able to separate what they smell and focus on a specific scent, making tracking easier.
Knowing how amazing a dog’s nose is, let’s look at what else a dog can do with this canine advantage.
Detecting Medical Conditions
According to researchers, some dogs can sniff out the presence of cancerous cells in humans and, with training, can routinely identify it. Various reports show that dogs are persistently drawn to areas on their owners’ bodies when their doctors examine them, they are officially diagnosed with some form of cancer.
Humans can smell diseases such as lung cancer as well, but a human can’t detect the scent until the cancer is in advanced stages. Dogs can detect lung cancer cells much sooner, which offers the patient a better survival rate due to earlier treatment.
Due to minute chemical changes in human the human body that occur during times of physical distress, changes that are present in your scent, dogs also notice changes in blood sugar levels and even predict when their owner is at risk for seizures. For instance, a guide dog for the blind, diabetic, and seizure dogs are trained to be companions for humans with these medical conditions and can alert help if needed.
Search, Rescue, and Recovery
When disaster strikes, specially trained dogs aid in the search for survivors or recover remains. Search and rescue dogs receive training to find live persons, which is different training than a cadaver dog receives. “Trailing training” is for scents that originate from ground level, and air-scent training” is for scents caught on the breeze that then must be tracked to its source.
Bombs, Guns, and Drugs
Typically, a police dog with a K-9 officer is trained to detect explosives, firearms, or drugs, but not all three. These dogs might assist in serving a warrant, or as part of a screening process. With their impressive noses, police dogs can track scents even when the target is concealed.
For these dogs, working their jobs is a serious business. When they are successful at targeting the specific scent they were trained with, they look forward to a reward, usually a brief playtime or toy. Then it’s on to the next job.
Just a few years ago, a stray dog in Seattle got a very important job. A black Lab named Tucker became an Orca Scat Detection Dog.
The program studies the food supply of orca whales and how it relates to their lifecycles in local waters. Tucker served proudly, detecting the scent and aiding researchers in locating over 300 Orca scat samples in the waters of the Pacific Northwest.
From SeattleMet, Tucker is described as, “…One of the many scat detection dogs in the Conservation Canine program at the University of Washington’s Center for Conservation Biology. Tucker retired this year as the number-one dog for locating killer whale number twos.”
Can Humans Be Trained to Smell Scents Like Dogs?
Researchers at the University of California at Berkley studied whether humans could track a specific scent in the way a dog would. The study involved creating various trails of chocolate and crawling through the set course to trail the scent. Surprisingly with weeks of practice, the study participants’ ability to track a scent improved, but still with nowhere near the ease of a dog.
Why would this type of research be necessary? By understanding the way scents are detected, researchers can begin to unlock better detection methods to catch diseases in earlier stages, increasing survival rates, increase public safety, and many other creative applications humans haven’t even thought of yet.