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Pantops Pet Salon & Spa
Charlottesville's Professional Dog Grooming

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(434) 293-2424
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504 Pantops Center
Charlottesville, VA 22911

The Sense of Smell

Tuesday, April 17th, 2007 by Mike Cronk

Put your dog in the back yard and watch his behavior—more often than not his nose will go up in the air and you can see him work his nostrils and begin identifying what’s out there.  Their olfactory bulbs (scent decoding centers) are four times larger than those of humans.  Depending on the breed, it has been estimated that dogs can identify smells between 1,000 and 10,000 times better than humans can.  With this in mind, we have trained our canine friends to sniff out drugs, bombs, cancer, lost children, escaped prisoners, and the list goes on and on.  It is what is behind what I call the “Butt Check.”  Feces, urine, and associated secretions not only provide an identity between dogs but also indicate a state of health, what was for dinner, am I pregnant?, size (how high on the tree did he hike his leg?), etc

The following story reproduced from “How Dogs Think” by Stanley Coren says it all:

“Another case of dogs detecting hydrocarbons occurred in 1974, when a newly buried natural gas pipeline was scheduled to open in the Province of Ontario in Canada.  Initial testing found that a quantity of gas was being lost in transit, which meant that the pipeline was leaking.  Using every bit of technology at their disposal, the engineers and scientists were still unable to find the leaks.  The chance of a disaster resulting from a leak was high, and yet the line was due to be opened in only nine days.  It was then that someone came up with the idea of contacting Glen Johnson, who trains dogs to do various types of scent work.  Working under time pressure, Johnson took three dogs that already had been trained to do other types of scent discrimination and in only two and a half days he reeducated them to dig for articles scented with butyl mercaptan, the chemical used to ‘odorize’ natural gas so that humans can smell it in high concentrations.  When taken to inspect the first 20 miles (32 km) of the pipeline, which was where the pipeline workers thought there might be three small leaks, the dogs actually found twenty the first day.  The engineers insisted that this was impossible and that the dogs were in error.  However, when the sections that the dogs indicated were dug up, the presence of leaks was confirmed in every instance.  This means that the dogs detected odors at a distance of 40 feet (12 meters) below the ground.  Before they finished their final inspection, the dogs had found more than 150 potentially dangerous leaks.”

We can’t even imagine a world shaped by this ability—yet depending on how we breed our best friend, we can either preserve or diminish this sense.  Obviously blood hounds and other breeds whose work is defined by this acute sense of smell will continue to be bred to enhance the ability.  Yet most of our companion dogs and those with shorter muzzles will lose some of their skill down the family tree as they are bred for different purposes.  With such purposeful breeding going on, generalities about dogs as a group will not be as rigid as in the past.

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