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Snow Shows What Your Dog Smells
What interests your dog—revealed!

How many times have we said, “What I wouldn’t give to know what my dog is smelling that is so captivating?” I think it each time I walk a dog. On every outing, dogs suddenly become wildly enthusiastic about a shrub or patch of ground that looks pretty much like every other shrub or patch of ground. What’s so special about this spot? And there are lots of other areas that they sniff, but don’t get excited about, quickly moving on. What makes some spots thrilling and others merely interesting?

This weekend when I was walking Marley, some of the mystery was revealed to me thanks to the conditions. We had snow three days ago and it has not been above 25˚F since then. That makes the snow hard and crunchy, which preserves tracks or other disturbances to it. In other words, there were visual clues in the snow that told me more than usual about what Marley found interesting. Here’s what caused him to put his nose to the ground to investigate:

1. Urine. Okay, that’s no surprise, but it was still cool to see evidence of what he was sniffing. Every time we saw yellow snow, Marley was interested, and quite likely to mark the spot. Not once did he pass a spot where another dog had obviously peed without taking at least a moment to sniff the area.

2. Signs of squirrels. In areas under pine trees where tufts of needles had been chewed off by squirrels and stuck in the snow, or where squirrel tracks were visible, Marley became extremely excitable. He sniffed in a rapid pattern, turning around, zigzagging, and becoming quite agitated.

3. Bird tracks. Whether it was ravens, doves, juncos, or sparrows, Marley sniffed areas with bird tracks. He was calm while he did so as opposed to exhibiting the borderline frantic behavior associated with the presence of squirrels.

4. Poop. I wish that all of my neighbors were fastidious about cleaning up after their dogs, but at least a couple of families are not diligent about it. I see quite a few piles of poop on almost every walk, and they were even more obvious in the snow. Marley sniffed at each one, though in a calm way, and rather briefly.

5. Trash. Every place with the indentation of a trash can that had been left for pick-up the previous day was a source of interest. Marley smelled at each such spot methodically, but without great excitement.

There were things that I thought Marley might want to sniff, but that he didn’t seem to care about. I saw cat tracks in a few places, but Marley paid them no attention at all. He didn’t sniff at tracks made by people, either. Similarly, he showed no interest in any marks from tires, whether from cars, bicycles, snow blowers, or snow plows. He did not investigate birdseed, gravel, salt, or kitty litter, all of which are commonly used to make sidewalks less slick.

What have you learned about your dog’s sniffing behavior from walks in the snow?

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Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer whose clinical work over the last 17 years has focused on the evaluation and treatment of serious behavioral problems in dogs, especially aggression. Karen has been writing the behavior column for The Bark since 2012 and wrote The Bark’s training column and various other articles for eight years before that. She is an adjunct professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University, and teaches a tropical field biology course in Costa Rica. Karen writes an animal column, The London Zoo, which appear in The Arizona Daily Sun and is the author of five books on canine training and behavior. She is working on her next book, which she expects to be published in 2017.

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