Your Dog's Sense of Smell: Sniffing out the Story

Your Dog's Sense of Smell: Sniffing out the Story

By Dr. Tracy Dewhirst for Exceptional Canine

Your Dog’s Sense of Smell: Sniffing out the Story

The human nose has approximately 5 million olfactory cells to deliver scents and smells to the brain, so delicious fresh bread, bad perfume, or perfectly ripened fruits never go unnoticed. Now, compare that with the average dog, which has 20 million cells, a specialized olfactory chamber called the Jacobson's organ and a larger olfactory bulb in the brain to process incoming odors.

Dogs may not be bionic sniffers, but they have the closest thing to a $6 million nose. For many law-enforcement departments, canine units are an invaluable asset, helping to save lives and hundreds of man-hours each year.

The drug-detecting dogs of Cocke County
Cocke County, Tenn., has a history of outlaws hiding out in mountain "hollers" and bootleggers running moonshine during prohibition. Today, the county has local notoriety for marijuana growers and meth labs. The reserve deputies of Cocke County are therefore using their best tools -- tracking and narcotics dogs -- to locate drugs and round up local criminals.

Narcotics dogs are so efficient that they can uncover illegal substances and drug offenders just by walking around vehicles at a motor checkpoint, says Deputy Coordinator Chuck Evans. Drug dealers are afraid of the dogs because even the faintest residue will set off the barking alarm.

Chris Gregg, a paramedic and reserve deputy, has trained his bloodhound Gracie for this work and more. Gracie was fully certified as a tracking dog by 7 months of age after starting early in "puppy trails" and going through a five-month, $2,500 tracking program, in which dogs learn to focus on specific smells over a variety of terrains.

Gracie tracks crime evidence and individual people. Gracie can trail over water by the scent contained in small droplets of oil. Gracie's nose has located lost children, missing elderly, mentally ill persons -- even the bodies of suicide victims.

Gregg's main concern is Gracie's safety. "Most drug dealers would not think twice about hurting my dog, not when the threat is losing hundreds of thousands of dollars and going to jail," he says. Because the county does not fund Gracie's budget, Gregg is raising money for a canine protection vest.

My own hero dog sniffer
Owners of "average" dog sniffers recount tales of lost dogs finding their way home from miles away or alerting them to smoke in the house. I learned the value of my dog's nose when our rabbit's home was tumbled one night amidst a threatening storm. After an hour of searching the farm, I called my bird dog into action. I took Kaia to the rabbit's cage and commanded, "Find Lucy." Within less than a minute, and in gusting winds, Kaia located the terrified bunny under a bush, saving Lucy's life and my daughter's heart.

Test your dog's nose
To test your dog's abilities, give your pal a whiff of a treat, and then hide it. Reward success with praise. Hide-and-seek is a game that dogs love, especially when playing for something yummy and with their favorite human.

Dr. Tracy Dewhirst, a graduate from the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine, practices small-animal and equine medicine in Knoxville, Tenn. She is a long-time columnist for the Knoxville News Sentinel. Dewhirst also sits on the East Tennessee Peer Review Board. Dr. Dewhirst blogs frequently for Exceptional Canine.