Why Dogs Need To Sniff And Why We Should Let Them - Canine Compilation

Why Dogs Need To Sniff And Why We Should Let Them

If We Do This One, Simple Thing, We Will Improve Our Dogs’ Lives: Let Them Sniff

When I think back to all the mistakes I’ve made as a pet parent, I’m amazed my animals have turned out as well as they have. Thankfully, we can always do better, and learn how to care for our dogs better. Understanding this one fact – why dogs NEED to sniff – has guided many of my actions over the past couple of years. This article suggests ways you can incorporate letting your dog sniff more into its daily life.

thumb image making a snuffle mat guide
The Ultimate Guide To Making Snuffle Mats

Why do dogs need to sniff?

I think many of us underestimate just how important sniffing is to a dog. For most humans, vision is our principle way of exploring the world. Can you imagine what it would be like, if after looking at something for a split second, someone averted your eyes – and that this would happen constantly? Can you imagine how frustrating that would be for us?

“Not allowing dogs to sniff can be seen as a form of sensory deprivation that robs them of vital information they need to navigate their surroundings… and to figure out what’s happening in their world”

Marc Bekoff Ph.D., Psychology Today

For dogs, they explore and ‘see’ the world principally through their noses. But ask yourself, how much opportunity to indulge in his sense of smell does your dog have? Could it be better? Could you do more as a pet parent to enable this?

Do you drag him along the road to get to the park on his daily walk? Do you tell him off for sniffing every post? I know I’ve made this mistake in the past: I wanted to get somewhere so my dog had to go at my pace. And of course, sometimes you do genuinely need to be somewhere else.

But most of the time, that’s not case, is it? Being able to stop when he senses a really interesting smell is part of how our dog understands the world around him. Not only that, it satisfies both his mental and physical needs.

Learn the science – sniffing is a dog’s superpower

We all know that dogs are employed to sniff out drugs and other items, for instance at airports. But did you know that their amazing sense of smell means they can also tell when we humans are sick, pregnant, stressed or scared? They are even being used to identify the COVID virus.

What’s more, when they smell our fear, they get scared too.

Researcher and author Alexandra Horowitz explains in the video below just how good a dog’s sense of smell is. A dog has 50 times more olfactory receptors than we do, making them capable of distinguishing a splash of perfume in an enclosed space the size of a stadium.

Another incredible fact she shares with us: dogs smell separately with each nostril – they smell ‘in stereo’. This allows them to quickly determine the direction a particular smell has come from.

Well worth the watch!

If you enjoyed the video, try Alexandra Horowitz’s books:

How Sniffing Is Good For Your Dog

So, accepting that dogs need to sniff, here’s another gem: it’s good for their health. The act of sniffing lowers a dog’s pulse rate. Studies showed that this was more effective when on a longer lead and even more so when loose. The more intense the sniffing, the more the pulse rate drops.

Sniffing lowers the dog’s pulse, even whilst walking.

The higher the sniffing intensity, the more the pulse will lower.

Sniffing reduces stress

All of the dogs in the study experienced lower pulse rates when sniffing, whatever their age, size or gender. You can see just how effective it is in this short video by Dog Field Study.

Effect of sniffing on Dog's Pulse - DogFieldStudy

Tap twice to load then open Video...

Dogs who aren’t allowed to sniff on walks may have higher stress and anxiety levels than dogs who get to sniff whenever they like. They might be over-excitable or reactive. They may be constantly alert, looking out for things with their eyes. Sniffing is calming and can help lower this stress.

I certainly saw this with Toxa, my girl who is reactive to other dogs. We joined a socialisation group walk to help us manage her reactivity. She had never done a group walk before and the difference in her level of sniffing as the weeks went on was very obvious.

On the first walk, I don’t think she smelled a single leaf or blade of grass. She was on constant alert and didn’t indulge in any sniffing. With each consecutive walk, I watched as she gradually relaxed more in the environment and began to sniff. Eventually, she would stop and sniff whenever she noted something of interest.

Teach your dog to sniff

This sniffing activity was something we actively encouraged for reactive dogs. If you observe your dog and realise that she doesn’t sniff much either – perhaps she is too busy scanning her surroundings for potential problems – there are things you can do to help her disengage from what’s going on around her, and start sniffing.

Start at home where there are fewer distractions. Teach her some simple nosework games, and let her have a go at some easy enrichment Free Work. Make a snuffle mat and hide treats in it. There is a huge range of snuffle mats to buy, if you don’t wan’t to make one:

Sprinkle treats on the floor in the house, to encourage her to search and walk. Do the same in your garden, if you have one. You can do this same exercise of ‘scatter feeding’ out on a walk in a quiet place. Praise her when she does stop to smell something, and give her time to do it.

Re-think the dog walk

By dragging our dogs away from an interesting fence post or patch of grass that they want to sniff, we are depriving them of a basic need.

But there are 7 days in a week, so how about, on some of those days, we get the walk to be what we want it to be, and on the others, we let our dog guide us? Or, part of the walk is for us, and the rest for them?

I wrote about the notion of ‘re-thinking the dog walk‘ some time ago and I proposed then that we look at the dog walk as satisfying different needs, for both us and our dogs, but not necessarily all on the same walk.

These needs vary from mental stimulation, socialisation and exercise, to engagement in natural doggy activity.

Do you drag your dog away from every tree and post? Here's why you shouldn't

How to change the dog walk

Rather than march out of the house, in the same direction as always, how about we just pause once outside? Our dogs, accustomed to us leading the way and controlling the decisions, might be confused by this at first.

Let your dog decide where to go, allowing her to stop as often as she likes. You might need to encourage her initially, perhaps praise her for sniffing, showing her that it’s OK to do so. I certainly found this was the case with my girl. It took her some time to relax enough to sniff, rather than just pull like a train, but over the course of several walks I saw her enjoy sniffing more and more.

I use the word ‘slowly’ with my dogs to let them know that this will be a period of loose lead walking that they get to dictate (my girl always follows my boy, so in fact it’s him who gets to dictate!).

Continue like this for 30 minutes and you will most likely find that she is more satisfied and calmer than she would have been after twice as long walking.

We live such hectic lives that just wandering aimlessly down the street might be difficult for some of us too. So while your dog is enjoying sniffing, you could take the opportunity to simply observe your dog more closely. Or take a moment to look around you and appreciate nature. Did you know that nature is good for our mental and physical well-being?

I find that it also helps if I set out with no specific distance in mind – I just let my dogs go at their pace within the time I’ve set for the walk.

Quality over quantity

The whole notion of what a dog needs from her walk was brought into the highlight recently by the new German legislation requiring some dogs to be walked for 2 hours a day. However, I would argue it’s not the the quantity so much as the quality of the walk, that matters. (Indeed, most aspects of a walk can be replaced by other activities anyway).

If your dog is frog marched round the streets for an hour it will get physical exercise but may not get much more than that.

Why dogs NEED to sniff and why we should let them

The importance of sniffing for dogs stuck at home

Let’s remember too, that sniffing is all the more important for older dogs or dogs that are recuperating or have a health condition with restricted mobility. My oldest, Mino, is unable to walk very far unaided these days. I give him something to eat and play with every day that involves sniffing. This provides him with some all-important mental stimulation.

Toys and games to encourage sniffing at home

There are lots of things things that we pet parents can do to increase our dog’s sniff capabilities and opportunities, for instance playing scent games and providing toys that involve sniffing.

Toys such as these are fantastic because our dogs get to use their brains and their noses, so it is a very enriching experience for them. There are also lots of things you can make yourself at little or no cost though. After all, your dog doesn’t mind how it looks!

Empty toilet roll tube stack

Perfect for recycling fans! Save up your loo roll tubes and stack them up on their ends in a shoe box, cardboard box or plastic tub, and then drop treats in to the bottom. Watch as your pup sniffs out the treats. Don’t worry if she just tips the whole thing over, she’ll still be enjoying herself.

make a cheap dog toy out of recycled stuff in your home - a box of loo roll tubes
Fill an old shoe box with loo roll tubes
make a cheap dog toy out of recycled stuff in your home - a box of loo roll tubes, with dog waiting
Toxa waiting patiently to begin
Mino playing with the Toilet Roll Tube Stack dog toy

Towel roll

Lay out an old towel (or even a flexible mat or rug) and place treats haphazardly across it. Roll the towel over the treats until the towel is all rolled up with treats in it, like a sausage shape.

Then give it to your dog and watch and watch her enjoy sniffing out the food… Some dogs may just toss the towel around, rather than unroll it. That’s OK too – it’s all entertainment and fun for her and she will get to sniff!

an old towel rolled up with treats in it.
Start rolling up an old towel with treats in it
an old towel rolled up with treats in it.
Continue rolling and popping treats in as you go
a dog with an old towel rolled up with treats in it.
Hand over the goodies to your beastie


Also called a forage box, enrichment box, busy box… basically any container filled with items such as empty plastic bottles, toilet roll tubes, scrunched up paper. Don’t fill the box too much – you don’t want it to be Mission Impossible to sniff out the treats!

Toss some treats into the box so that they are hidden amongst the items, then encourage your dog to sniff and find the treats.

For some dogs, the movement and noise of things moving around as they forage can be unnerving. If this is the case, try removing some of the items from the box so there are fewer things to sniff through. You can always put more items in again once your dog is comfortable with the game.

Play the noisebox game at home with your dog
Play the noisebox game at home with your dog

Snuffle mats

I use snuffle mats every day with my dogs. They are such fantastic nose work games for dogs. My toe dogs both sniff really loudly when using their snuffle mats. I consider this to be really good quality sniffing!

Just sprinkle some treats into the folds of fleece fabric and your dog will do what he does best – sniff!

There are lots of snuffle mats available online, from simple ones, to fold up ones, even to entire nose work activity mats. Any of these will provide your dog with many future hours of cheap sniffing entertainment and valuable mental stimulation.

Make your own snuffle mat

You can also easily make a snuffle mat for your dog. See how to make one in this step-by-step article. The standard snuffle mat is suitable for dry and dehydrated treats.

If you feed raw though, a fleece snuffle mat is not suitable. For raw feeders, you can follow this simple tutorial to make a snuffle mat suitable for raw food. If you’d like to try making your own standard snuffle mat, rather than buy one, check out this photo tutorial.

Enrichment Free Work

If you haven’t tried it yet, take a look at this article which explains how to get started with free work – it’s so easy, and apart from being great for your dog, it also gives you a chance to understand your dog better. Oh, plus it’s a perfect replacement for a walk on days that are too hot / cold / rainy to go out.

It can incorporate many of the activities we’ve already looked at to encourage sniffing, and it can satisfy your dog’s mental and physical needs.

Hide and seek (with people)

Try a game of Hide and Seek with the human members of the household hiding. Have someone hide somewhere in the house, eg a wardrobe, and then encourage your dog to find them. Some dogs know the names of the humans in their family, in which case you could say ‘Where’s Pappy?’ for example. Begin to look for the person and encourage your dog if she needs help. When she finds her human, give her lots of praise. Start again in a new hiding place!

Hide and seek (with treats)

This nose work game encourages your dog to sniff, but instead of sniffing every lamp post on its walk, she can sniff out some treats in the house!

Hide a few treats around the room. Put some in obvious places and each time you play, gradually build up to more challenging hidey spots. You could pop some inside used toilet tubes and fold the ends over, but leaving them on view.

Pop treats under rug edges, cushions, behind curtains. Vary where you leave them each time you play or you’ll find your dog will run straight to the usual spots.

You might find your dog has to learn to sniff around for the treats – some get it right away and others need a little help. If you need to help her to get started, point to where you have hidden a treat, or lead her over towards it.

If she isn’t food motivated, but loves toys, play the game with her favourite toys instead.

Under cover

Put some paper or plastic cups or bowls upside down on the floor. Hide treats under most, but not all, of the cups / bowls. Encourage your dog to sniff out the treats. You might need to push the cups around a little to show your dog what to do.

Some dogs might be nervous about tipping the cups over, and will need to be gently encouraged. If this is the case, you could try lifting up a cup so the treat is visible, and encourage her to gradually get the treat on her own.

Scatter feeding

The Scatter Feeding game for dogs is fantastic for sniffing out food. It’s also one of the simplest ways we can provide our dogs with sniffing activities.

Just throw a few treats over the floor (or the lawn) and invite your dog to find the food. Lay scent trails around the garden or indoors, and allow your dog time to investigate on her own.

Many of us are depriving our dogs of this essential thing to their wellbeing - are you?

Tasty treats to sniff out

You can of course use your dog’s normal dinner with these toys and games, or you could make some healthy dog treats. Check out some of our dog treat recipes:

Turkey and fruit dog biscuits recipe

Fruity Oat Balls recipe

Pumpkin Pupcakes Recipe


Science helps us understand why it is so important for us to let our dogs sniff. Dogs need to sniff. So let’s try to not prevent our dogs from using their primary tool in understanding the world around them – their sense of smell.

By providing sniffing activities for our dogs to engage in, or by allowing them to sniff when out on a walk, we don’t deprive them of this essential need.

How much happier do you think your dog will be after incorporating some of these ideas? Maybe you have some others you can suggest?

Lickimat recipe book
Lickimat toppings and recipes for dogs – free recipe book


Psychology Today



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