Sniffing it out
Smelling is part of a dog’s natural behaviour, both instinctually for survival and to make sense of the world around them. A typical dog’s nose contains 300 million olfactory receptors (also known as odour receptors) compared to the 6 million found in a human nose. This means a dog’s nose is 50 times stronger than ours at picking up scents. What dogs can sense with just their nose is truly remarkable – they’ve even been known to save lives with their nose!
It’s true! Cindy Otto, Director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Working Dog Center, is currently training eight Labrador Retrievers to sniff out COVID-19. If the study is successful, dogs will be able to screen people for coronavirus in airports, hospitals and other public gathering spots. While these dogs won’t serve as a replacement for tests, they can be used as a non-invasive alternative similar to how dogs are currently used to sniff for explosives in airports, yet we still have to go through security.
Dogs have an extraordinary ability to track down people by smell, which is why they are used in missing person searches. “Trained search and rescue dogs can follow a scent from footstep to footstep, and can even catch scents in the air,” says Dan Morris from PetNPat. “This is invaluable to us in the task of locating those who are lost because we simply have nowhere near the same capabilities.” Some breeds of dogs are better than others at tracking people, but because of dogs’ olfactory abilities that have adapted over time to ensure their survival, their ability is always better than humans.
“Scientists have confirmed that dogs can smell cancer in its early stages, specifically lung and breast cancer,” explains pet expert Peter Laskay. The cancerous tumour produces proteins that dogs can smell in urine. They can sense several types of cancer including lung cancer, bladder cancer, prostate cancer and breast cancer. Dogs even help out in clinics during the early stages of diagnostics.
Ovulation and pregnancy
Since dogs are sensitive to the smells in our urine, it would make sense that they can smell our hormones as well. With all the hormonal changes in a woman’s body during pregnancy, dogs are typically able to pick up on those differences. “Of course, hormonal changes are also accompanied by changes in body scents that dogs can smell, even in the early stages of pregnancy,” claims Laskay.
Dogs often understand our emotions better than we can. “When we have changes in our emotions, our hormones change as well (think of stress hormones like cortisol or adrenaline, or happy hormones like oxytocin),” says Jen Jones of Your Dog Advisor. “These hormones are detectable by dogs in our breath and in our sweat.” Since dogs are astoundingly in tune with our smells, and they can detect very minuscule changes to our hormone levels, letting them when we are happy, sad, stressed or scared.
Bed bugs produce an odour from their scent glands that is only noticeable to humans in very large quantities like when you have an infestation. “Many new forms of pest control involve bed-bug sniffing dogs who, with their incredible noses, can detect this odour in its earliest stages,” explains Jones. “This helps rid homes of bed bugs before an infestation gets out of control.
“New research conducted by scientists at Lund University in Sweden and Lorand University in Hungary have discovered that dogs actually have sensory cells at the ends of their noses that act as sort of infrared sensors,” says Jones. “These cells allow them to detect (or essentially smell) very minute changes in temperature.” This will alert the dog to when people, other dogs, or even predators are nearby.
You may have noticed that your dog acts differently when a big storm is approaching. Observations have shown that dogs are able to smell even the slightest changes in the air in addition to changing temperatures, leading them to predict large weather events like a cyclone or a tornado.
If your dog loves to snuggle during a storm, you may have one of the 11 most affectionate dog breeds that love to cuddle.
Scent detection dogs are conditioned and trained to detect a certain chemical. “This scent largely goes undetected to our weaker noses,” says Russell Hartstein of Fun Paw Care. “However, a dog’s strong sense of smell and large olfactory gland is perfect for detecting these minute levels of chemicals.”
Dogs are able to detect a change in blood glucose levels just from a person’s breath which can be especially crucial to those with diabetes. There are even dogs that are specially trained to assist those with severe diabetes to warn them when their glucose levels drop too low.
Sign up here to have Reader’s Digest’s favourite stories delivered straight to your inbox.