By Sophia Rutti, Dog’s Downtown

It is no secret that dogs have an exceptional sense of smell. Walking down the street you’ll see every breed of dog get carried away by a scent on the air, sniff sniff sniffing when a smell wafts by, or carried away by a scent on the ground, their noses pressed into the grass until they come upon a telephone pole or a fire hydrant or a bush that some other dog has marked with some especially smelly urine. And still, we humans, of course, smell nothing.

Average dogs have a scent capability that ranges from 10,000 to 100,000 times more acute than humans while bloodhounds who are known for their exceptional gifts have a nose that is 10 to 100 million times more sensitive than ours according to Frank Rosell, author of Secrets of the Snout .

This means that in some cases, dogs can detect odors in parts per trillion. And this skill does not end on dry land—these dogs can scent for odors effectively in fresh water, salt water, in liquids such as gasoline, under snow, under rock slides, and in the open air.

Why are dogs so capable with their noses? Unlike us, notes that they have up to 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses (for comparison- humans have about 5- 6 million) and their “brain is devoted to analyzing smells, proportionally speaking, 40 times more than ours.” Furthermore, their noses are constructed perfectly for their sniff-obsessed world, with a unique ability to “determine the direction of airstream in and out of the nose” by using a wing-like flap in each nostril. When the dog breathes out it is able to direct the exhalation so that it does not “disturb or destroy” the scent they are tracking, this fascinating detail is described in detail on

As with all things dogs, humans have developed dogs’ natural gifts to help support us in our everyday lives with important tasks and nose-work is no exception.

There are dogs tasked with dozens of different, important, life-saving, harrowing jobs that focus around their incredible noses:

Search and Rescue Dogs:  There are multiple different types of Search and Rescue or (SAR) dogs. In general, SAR dogs are dogs that detect human scent in a variety of situations. These dogs can be broadly viewed in two different categories: air-scenting dogs or tracking (or trailing) dogs. SAR dogs can also be considered scent discriminating  or non-scent discriminating. The dogs that are scent discriminating are capable of taking an offered scent (of a specific person, for example) and search for/ find that individual person. Non-discriminating dogs then are capable of tracking/ trailing a general scent such as human scent or cadaver remains. The most common dogs used for SAR are Labs, German or Belgian Shepherds or Malinois, but other dogs are capable of the work as well.

SAR dogs work with a number of different applications. For example, they might work in wilderness situations to find a lost hiker, disaster situations such as 9/11 when the dogs searched through rubble to find survivors, cadaver searches where they are looking for human remains (specifically these dogs are Human Remains Detection or Cadaver Dogs), avalanche situations where dogs are looking beneath deep snow for human survivors, and even water rescue and recovery where someone might have fallen/ been lost in a body of water.

The training for SAR dogs is rigorous and requires a particular type of dog—motivated, confident and handler- focused—and a particular type of handler (owner) that is ready to get started very early in their pup’s life with training and devote their time to what is often (though not always) volunteer work for the community—helping in disaster and emergency situations with their dog’s unique skills.

Police or Military Working Dogs:    Police K9 or Military Working Dogs (MWDs) use their scent capabilities for a number of different jobs. They might do comparable work to SAR dogs in the event of a disaster, but they also additionally use their noses to search for missing people who have committed a crime, look for items that extend from drugs and drug paraphernalia to firearms and explosives to humans being illegally trafficked.

Bed Bug Sniffing Dogs:  These dogs do exactly what it sounds like—they sniff for bed bugs! They use their sniffers to check high-density areas like hotels, hospitals, barracks, and similar environments for pests that can be extremely difficult to locate otherwise!

Wildlife Sniffing Dogs:  These dogs do a wide variety of jobs. One example of their possible work is to sniff for contraband like ivory, rhino horn, rare plants and wood and work with their law enforcement handlers to prevent these items from leaving their countries’ of origin in order to prevent illegal trade. Another example is looking for endangered animals themselves so that their handlers who are conservationists can support the animals’ population growth. One great example of this are dogs sniffing for just hatched sea-turtles so that their handlers can help the baby sea turtles reach the ocean (K9s for Conservation- Instagram).

Cancer Sniffing Dogs:  These dogs are capable of smelling diseases such as cancer in unwell individuals even at the early stages. Though these dogs are in the early days of research, according to it appears that they are able to “detect many types of cancer—breast, lung, prostate, thyroid and colon—from a variety of biological samples including breath, urine, plasma, and blood.”

With continued research these dogs might eventually be capable of checking high-risk individuals and identifying cancers in the early stages when they are more easily treated.

There are a number of other applications for dogs’ incredible noses that are not listed here, but for many dogs and many handlers engaging in nose work as a full time-job is too time consuming. Just because you and your dog are not able to become full-time Search and Rescue volunteers doesn’t mean that you aren’t able to engage your dog’s nose in a positive and fun way. All dogs, according to the AKC, “have the natural ability to follow a scent- and all breeds have the capability to learn how to track.”

Why should you do scent-tracking work for your dog?

Well first, it is a great way to expend excess energy for your dog. A lot of negative behaviors in the home stem from household dogs being under-exercised and under-stimulated including in some cases, chewing and excess barking. Nose work allows you to get involved and get out with your dog so they are mentally and physically stimulated (it keeps you mentally and physically stimulated as well!)

Second, working with nose work will also help you to build your bond with your dog. Learning more about your dog’s natural tendencies, learning how to shape their behavior and how to watch for their body language when they are working will function to build you and your dog’s relationship up to new heights.

Finally, doing nose work with your dog will enrich both you and your dog’s lives tremendously. Nose work is almost always done in a “club” though you can do it at home and it gives you and your dog an outlet to practice obedience, to get to know new people with the same interests as you, and to make your dog some new friends.

A dog with a job, more exercise, and an enriched relationship with its owner is always happier!

How to get involved with nose work?

  • You can join a club and do AKC Tracking! Through AKC tracking you would be participating in the “competition form of canine search and rescue.” To get started you would need to find a local club. From there you and your dog can earn titles starting with the first level: “Tracking Dog (TD)” to the top level “Champion Tracker (CT)”! Get started here:
  • You can also join a club and do AKC Scent work which is where “your dog will use his nose to search out the hidden odors, then alert you when the odors are detected.”
  • Take a class or work with a local trainer to learn how to do nose work or scent work. You will be introduced to basic scent training with skills that you can take home and practice as a leisure activity. These fun and engaging classes provide great stimulation for you and your dog. Maybe locations throughout the DC Metro offer classes such as these, including  Dog’s Downtown, with locations in Chantilly and Sterling  You’ll find one-on-one and group classes available to get pet owners interested in doing recreational and professional nose-work with their dogs!
  • Get Started at home! There are tons of resources online to get started reading, learning, and even practicing basic scent work at home.

Not interested in nose work for your dog? There are other ways to exercise, bond, and enrich your dog’s life!

  • Foundational Obedience Training: This is “good dog” training—getting them to work well on a leash, in public, and with strange people and dogs. Through the AKC you can title your dog with “Canine Good Citizen”, “Community Canine Good Citizen” and “Urban Canine Good Citizen”.
  • Therapy Dog Training: Is your dog a cuddle-bug that loves everyone? Consider training your dog as a therapy dog to visit and raise the spirits of the elderly, infirm, young, or stressed! These dogs might work in a variety of different environments: hospitals, airports, elderly care facilities, or schools!
  • Trick Dog Training: “AKC Trick Dog” training encourages owners to get titles with their dogs by teaching them a number of different ‘tricks’ that might range from “sit pretty” to “rollover” to “bring me your leash”! This is a great way to approach training for the whole family.
  • Agility Training: Have a high energy pup and want to run some energy out? Dog Agility is a sport in which you would direct your dog through a variety of objects including tunnels, teeter-totters, tire jumps, weave poles and standard jumps. You can do this at a recreational or a competition level so find the right agility trainer for you and take it at your own pace!
  • Rally Obedience Training: Rally Obedience takes obedience training to the next level and asks dog owners to work with their dogs on a course. According to the AKC you should consider “AKC Rally like any team sport: you and your dog navigate a course side-by-side as you steer him through a course of 10- 20 different signs that provide instructions for the skills that need to be performed!” The AKC offers a number of events to compete and title your dog!

Still not sure which sport/ activity is best for you? Remember that you should choose your sport based on your dog. Are they high energy? Are they cuddly? Are they food motivated and love learning new things? You want to find the right fit for your dog. Consider looking up breed specific activities and sports—there are dozens of sports not listed out there and your dog might be “made for one of them.”

If you feel stuck—always reach out to others—find a trainer, find a club, and get out there with your dog!

Photo Credit: Scott Oakes (Dog’s Downtown Loudoun).