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Scent Sensibility

Just what are they smelling?
By Rebecca Wallick, September 2012, Updated June 2021

Here’s what I want: a device on the end of a long stick that detects scents on the ground, displaying on a smart phone-like screen in my hand what the scent is, breaking it down like a dog’s brain does. In other words, I want to know what my dogs’ noses know, without using my own nose to figure it out.

This idea came to me recently after observing a common set of behaviors while walking my dogs. We’ve all been there: we’re walking along and want to keep moving, but our dogs come to a screeching halt to smell something on the ground, the grass, a tree, a fence, a hydrant. You tug on their leash and encourage them to come along, but they dig all four paws in, refusing to lift their noses away until they’ve fully investigated the scent, learning all information each particle imparts.

Here’s what happened on that walk. First, I take Maia and Meadow, my two Malamutes on what I call The Old Ladies Stroll through my neighborhood. After passing a man near a bank— “Whoa! Awesome dogs!” he says after being startled by us—both dogs pull me toward a shrub in the bank’s parking lot landscaping. Earlier on this walk, I marveled how these two dogs will put their noses side by side to smell something interesting. Normally, they rarely invade each other’s personal space (it’s a Malamute thing), but when there’s a scent to detect, those rules go out the door and they’ll literally go nose-to-nose to get to the richest source of a scent.

This bank shrub held more than normal appeal. The girls pull quite forcefully to get to it. First they sniff high, noses on the small leaves. Then they simultaneously work down to the trunk, angling their heads under the lowest branches and spending a good 30 seconds inhaling deeply and repeatedly. Finally they sniff the dirt about four inches from the trunk, where a couple of old cigarette butts litter the space.


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I observe this much detail because I’m aware that the man in front of the bank is watching us closely. I want the girls to keep moving, but this particular scent source is just too compelling.

After thoroughly inhaling all important scents on or near the shrub, the girls—as one—lift their heads and take a few steps along the sidewalk. Then Maia steps back onto the dirt and pees.

This sort of behavior fascinates me. I always wonder what the scents they’re attracted to are telling them about the world. Surely there’s information I might also be interested in, if only I could discover and interpret it as they do.

An hour later, I’m walking my Aussie Finn along the same route. We pass the bank (the man is gone), and Finn pulls me over to the same shrub, almost as forcefully as the girls did. He gives it an identical work over—first high up, closely scrutinizing the leaves, then moving down to the trunk, really inhaling deeply, finally coming to the spot on the dirt where the cigarette butts are. Finn doesn’t live by his nose to the same extent that the girls always have, so I realize that this particular shrub has some very interesting scent stories to tell. I’m really feeling left out.

Finn finishes collecting data and steps away from the shrub. A couple of strides down the sidewalk, he stops, briefly sniffs the adjacent dirt, and pees—right where Maia had.

I don’t want to actually smell everything my dogs find olfactorily fascinating. I have no interest in the scent of canine hind ends. Sometimes I’m aghast at the scents my dogs find so appealing that they smear them on their cheek or shoulder like a slimy version of dog perfume: dead and decomposing animals or fish are perennial favorites. (Why, oh why do they like having those particular scents – that are so awful to our sensibilities—on their coat? Depending on locale of application, the freshly applied perfume can make for an excruciatingly long and odiferous car ride home!) In other instances, the girls follow their noses to deer or elk bones strewn in the forest by scavengers, the bones clean enough to be odorless to me but sufficiently smelly to them to be prized treasure hunt discoveries they delight in showing off.

And I will be forever grateful that Maia can detect the scent of bears in the woods wafting through the air, warning me with her body language to change direction so that we see them only from afar.

No, what I would really love to know is what my dogs are detecting and discerning when they stop to smell an interesting scent on the ground in our neighborhood, something I can’t see or smell but tells a local story. Imagine how much richer our own experience of life would be if we could obtain the same information our dogs do on our walks—the gender, health and mood of neighborhood dogs and people and how recently they came this way; whether a cat, raccoon, coyote or other critter has recently been through; how long that road kill squirrel has been dead—simply by hovering a small electronic smelling device over a spot on the ground and reading an interpretation of the information on a screen in our hand. Of course, unless my fantasy scent sensible device works like a metal detector, pinging as it gets near certain odors, we’ll still need our canine companions to lead the way, showing us with their own noses where the good stuff lays.

What interesting smells—good, neutral, or horrible—have your dogs led you toward recently?





Rebecca Wallick, was long-time contributing editor for The Bark magazine and retired family law attorney, she lives with two dogs and runs mountain trails at every opportunity.