Some of the behaviours that dogs perform are super cute. That confused semi-turn of their head or when they nuzzle into our bodies have charmed great affection from us. However, other behaviours can be quite embarrassing and borderline rude in the social circles of humans.
Owners will often try to suppress these instinctive animal antics without fully understanding that they are perfectly appropriate in dog speak. Dogs are still dogs, even though they have integrated into our domestic lives so well. Understanding why they perform certain behaviours should make it easier to know what is normal and what is not.
Why Do Dogs Sniff Crotches?
Being a canine behaviourist and trainer, one of the questions I am asked frequently is “How can I stop my dog from sniffing everyone’s crotch?” Many owners find this particular behaviour immensely embarrassing and it can be highly blush-inducing for the owner of the crotch as well.
As with all behaviour modification, the key is to understand the root cause of the behaviour and address that to resolve the issue with long-lasting success.
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We are all aware that dogs sniff each other's bums and owners happily allow this. We may not know why dogs zero in on this area but as all dogs do the same it is not a cause for concern or awkwardness amongst owners. But when our dogs get their noses into a guest’s crotch it can be problematic, especially if they are an insistent sniffer.
Born to Sniff
A dog’s most dominant sense is their sense of smell. Sniffing is one of the most natural behaviours a dog exhibits.
With a scent sensitivity many thousands of times greater than our own, dogs have a specialised structure within their nasal cavity called the olfactory recess. This maze of airways, that people and other primates lack, allows dogs to sniff odours which are undetectable to us. Research carried out by scientists at Pennsylvania State University showed that dogs have the incredible ability to take a different odour into each nostril and analyse it. They are a species of superior sniffers.
Dogs were simply born to sniff. They make sense of the world through scents, much in the same way that people rely heavily on vision. But why do dogs sniff crotches in particular?
Sniffing Is Socially Acceptable Amongst Dogs
The reason that dogs sniff each other’s bums is due to certain pouches located either side of the sphincter called anal glands or anal sacs. They are lined with oils and sweat glands and release an odour that is unique to each dog.
Dogs want to know who else is in the area. This is instinctive from their days in the wild. When dogs take in the scent produced by these glands, they are able to gather a lot of information about the other dog including sex, age, health, mood and wellbeing.
If we transfer that to humans, our sweat glands and the scent they produce is often most concentrated around our genital areas and armpits. As most dogs cannot easily reach up to our armpits, the crotch is the go-to area to get the information they need on a new person.
Crotch sniffing to a dog is not bad manners. It is common practice when greeting a dog and is reinforced when the other dogs greet in the same manner. Dogs have no idea that placing their noses into the crouch of a human is not socially acceptable. We need to teach them that when it comes to people we would prefer an alternative method.
It can be relatively easy to squash this behaviour with consistency and heavily rewarding your dog when they choose to take a different approach. While we cannot train out the innate behaviour, it can be redirected. The key to training away unwanted crotch sniffing is to offer an alternative region for your dog to gather the information they so desire and gently block the current go-to area.
Typically, strangers tend to get more attention as their scent is brand new so reducing crotch-sniffing could seem a difficult task initially. When dogs become familiar to a scent, they tend not to be as keen to get all up in your crotch. However, it is best to start this training at-home using family and visitors to practise on.
Setting a dog up for success, in a controlled environment where you are unlikely to feel pressure or embarrassment goes a long way to change their behaviour long-term. Getting a dog to decide to change her behaviour rather than be forced to with lead correction or vocal reprimands has a far greater impact on future behaviour.
Most dogs will still want to know if anything has changed about their owner’s health when they return home so there is likely to be some sniffing taking place. In the wild, dogs will go on hunts and could come back injured so these sniffy check-ins are common and a good place to start. This coupled with asking friends for a little help while training could see crotch-sniffing quickly eradicated.
Clear and Simple Guidance
Each time your dog attempts to crotch sniff, follows these simple steps:
- give a clear instruction to stop and if necessary include a previously learnt command such as wait. “No Rover, wait” or “No Rover, look at me”.
- offer a hand slowly and palm up for inspection, whilst turning the crotch away or blocking it with something. This area of the hand also carries a lot of sweat glands and can be sufficient to gather the information that they need to satisfy them.
- reward heavily with praise when your dog reacts to the hand. Food treats will also encourage sniffing hands rather than crotches. Timing, as always, is key. Give them enough time to sniff and immediately offer the treat.
If you have a more insistent dog, start with placing your dog on a leash. If they are trying to get to the crotch and will not accept the hand you can stand still, keeping them back. Do not yank them back. The only pressure being applied on the leash should come from your dog. Allow them to calm down a little. Maybe walk them around and retry, showing them a hand when returning to the visitor.
If they get to a crotch before you can prevent them, the owner of the crotch should gently push them away while turning. Once you have control of your dog, repeat by offering the hand and rewarding your dog’s decision to sniff that instead.
The idea is to indicate to your dog how you want him to behave. When your dog sniffs hands instead of crotches, always give him a signal that this is the right thing to do (“good dog” or ”yes”). Most dogs understand within a few months that hand sniffing is more socially acceptable than crotch sniffing and that it will result in special praise from you or a tasty treat. After some time consistently training this, hand sniffing becomes conditioned over crotch-sniffing.