The nose knows

Canine scents and sensibilities

Fastened to a long line clipped to his harness, Slugger surged forward, following an unseen trail. Nose to the ground he worked the field, through tall grasses, past a shrubby copse — and stopped. Something was wrong. Slugger raised his head, sniffed the air. He went a few steps forward, then back; he wandered in a tight circle, sniffing, sniffing. There! He turned right and continued on, his nose working furiously.

A few minutes later, after two more turns, the big Akita stopped again, this time to nudge at a wallet on the ground. Tom picked up the leather billfold and Slugger continued on to the marker flag and a successful run in an American Kennel Club tracking test. After today, he would be known as Littlejohn's Major Leaguer TD for Tracking Dog.

Tracking is a sport; the tracking dog test demonstrates the dog's ability to follow a trail and find a dropped object. A tracking dog can rest on his laurels or go on to train for Tracking Dog Excellent, a more difficult trial to prove his natural scenting skill.

Tracking is also a serious business for working dogs. Canine noses ferret out drugs, bombs, fire accelerants, and contraband; escaped criminals; lost children; and victims of disasters. They work at airports, military installations, police departments, fire departments, immigration points, and in search and rescue teams.

The canine nose is an awesome organ, perhaps a million times more sensitive than the human nose. Fido's nose can discern the presence of a friend or foe, find a submerged dead body, sniff out a bomb or drug cache, and locate objects bearing the scent of a particular person. L. Wilson Davis, writer, trainer, and one-time AKC tracking consultant, described the incredible depth and breadth of a dog's sense of smell in his book Go Find! Training Your Dog to Track:

“If a skunk sprays your rose bush, you will be unable to smell the roses. If the assumption that the dog's sense of smell is simply keener than ours is correct, certainly the odor of skunk would obliterate any other odor even more for him than it does for you. This is not true. Tests have been made with skunk odor and it has been proven that a dog trained in scent work is capable of correctly designating a particular article among a number of articles, all of which have been sprayed by a skunk.”

The source of this incredible ability is a nasal cavity rich with blood vessels and nerve endings that connect to a highly developed olfactory center in the brain. This combination allows Fido to gather information from minute particles of scent and to translate it into action.

Odor can travel depending on climate, weather conditions, and terrain; but Fido's keen sense of smell is seldom fooled. Whether following the odor of crushed grass mingled with prey scent or seeking the telltale odor of contraband or a dead body, the dog's nose leads him to his quarry.

It hardly seems possible that the leathery patch at the end of a dog's muzzle could be such an important communication device, yet it is with his nose that Fido becomes acquainted with his surroundings. It is also his nose that makes him useful as a hunter, tracker, police dog, military dog, search and rescue dog — and a fascinating family pet.

Here are some facts about your dog's nose:

Nose games are great fun for pet dog owners. A dog that finds his toy, a treat, or his owner by using his nose is a dog that looks forward to interaction with his family and is less likely to be destructive when left alone. Training begins by placing the object in plain sight; then, as the dog understands “find it,” moving the object further away. The goal is to be able to hide it completely between sofa cushions, inside a shoe in the closet, under an upholstered chair, etc. and send the dog to look. A variation on the game involves placing a dog biscuit under one of three or four upturned flower pots or plastic cups, then telling the dog to “find it.”

A pet can learn to find his leash, find Billy, or find the toy he left in the back yard. Pet owners interested in more than fun games at home might think about teaching their pet to track. For information contact a local breed, all-breed or training club

Norma Bennett Woolf

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