Talking Animals

Sniffing Out Revelations About the Canine Sense of Smell

Alexandra Horowitz, author of Being a Dog: Following the Dog Into a World of Smell: ‘ a study found that dogs can detect the difference in concentration of odor from footstep one to footstep five of someone who had left hours—in some cases, days—before.’
Alexandra Horowitz, author of Being a Dog: Following the Dog Into a World of Smell: ‘ a study found that dogs can detect the difference in concentration of odor from footstep one to footstep five of someone who had left hours—in some cases, days—before.’


Anyone who’s spent much time with dogs understands that when it comes to our four-legged friends, the nose knows.

After reading Alexandra Horowitz’s Being a Dog: Following the Dog Into a World of Smell, it turns out that many of us may have severely underestimated just how much that nose knows.

Across 273 pages that are as breezy and gripping as your favorite mystery novel, Horowitz delivers revelation upon revelation about what a marvel the canine sense of smell is, detailing what phenomenal feats the dog schnoz is capable of.

As one measure of how astounding this olfactory action can be, especially when it comes to detection dogs, Horowitz reveals that there is a pooch in Puget Sound whose gig is detecting the scat of killer whales.

Alexandra Horowitz explains how dogs ‘see’ with their noses

“This is a group of researchers in Washington, who are wildlife researchers,” Horowitz explained in a November 16 Talking Animals interview, “and they want to find wildlife populations—and sometimes, those populations don’t want to be found.

“But they all poo. And one of the communities they were studying was orcas, the resident killer whales in Puget Sound. This group, Conservation Canines, uses scat detection dogs to find these populations.

“And there’s one dog, Tucker, a black Lab who comes on the boat with them, and can detect the orca scat at a nautical mile away.”

That certainly constitutes a major bragging right. But did you hear about the dogs that can tell time?

These canines aren’t wearing fancy wristwatches.

But they are wearing a complex instrument on their beaks, and these instruments appear to enable the dogs to determine, for instance, when they should expect you home from work.

“The tracking dogs are tracing the distant presence of someone, but has left some odor behind in their footsteps, because we leave odor behind wherever we’re going—we’re always sloughing off odor, and dogs can detect that,” Horowitz said.

“And essentially, in one research program, this study found that dogs can detect the difference in concentration of odor from footstep one to footstep five of someone who had left hours—in some cases, days—before.

Alexandra Horowitz discusses Being a Dog: ‘I think for dogs smells are mostly just for information.’

“In other words, in two seconds, the sixth footstep concentration of odor represents the newer footstep, and the first footstep is the older footstep, and the odor degrades with time. “

“It’s very possible that dogs are kind of telling the time of day by the diminishment of your odors over the day…

“I think what’s mind boggling about it is we don’t see smell having that many dimensions at all. That the dog can see it in such miniscule amounts that he can detect time, or the passage of the day, is still surprising.”

Horowitz laces Being a Dog with several such disclosures that are likely to astound most readers, except those who are themselves canine olfaction experts &/or members of the Horowitz household, including the family dogs, Upton and Finnegan.

Sure, the book addresses dogs that detect cancer, bombs, termites, truffles, and missing people, dead or alive, and orca scat.

Most of us aren’t surprised to hear there are dogs trained for these jobs, though Tucker was an eye-opener, as were some of the skills Horowitz added to these canine resumes, like detecting illicit cell phones in prison or illegally-obtained shark fins hidden in suitcases, and so on.

But part of what makes this book such a captivating achievement is that Horowitz, who teaches at Barnard College and runs the Dog Cognition Lab there, doesn’t merely catalog these impressive smelling talents, but explains how they work.

Conversations with History host Harry Kreisler welcomes Professor Alexandra Horowitz for a discussion of her book, Inside of a Dog. Professor Horowitz discusses her formative experiences, her interest in cognition in animals, and what led her to focus on dogs. In her analysis, understanding dogs requires consideration of wolf ancestry, cognitive skills and anatomy, and the ways in which dogs interact with humans and how that interaction has affected their evolution. Series: “Conversations with History” Running time: 59:48. (6/2013) (Visit:

For example, there’s a notable weapon in their sniffing arsenal called stereo olfaction. “Dogs get a slightly different odor picture from each nostril,” Horowitz said. “They can use their nostrils separately—research has shown that they do.

“They start sniffing primarily with their right nostril, and if it’s something they recognize, then they start sniffing with their left nostril. But if it’s a new or aversive odor, they continue with their right. So they’re using their nostrils differently.

“And they get a little odor picture of the world from each nostril, just as we get a slightly different picture from each eye, and then the brain reconstructs it into a stereo picture of where that odor source is.”

Horowitz, whose previous books includes the Number One New York Times bestseller Inside A Dog, further distinguishes the new book with a literary gambit that’s fascinating, often fun, and illuminating.

She spends a portion of Being a Dog undergoing various efforts to test, and improve, her sense of smell–to raise her olfactory game and test the potential of the human proboscis.

This enterprise included Horowitz enrolling in a semester-long class with a perfumer, studying with a sommelier, and training with animal trackers.

At the World Science Festival. Alan Alda hosts Alexandra Horowitz discussing animal behavior

Some of this involved more autodidactic efforts. Horowitz taught herself to thrust her nose, dog-like, into an array of items to take the measure of those items in a different way.

Recognizing the virtues of being closer to the ground, she also began getting down on all fours occasionally, some of those times when she was walking Upton and Finnegan (which raised some concerns, and eyebrows, amongst her neighbors).

Addressing the rationale for those experiments, and opting to fashion them into a central component of the book, Horowitz noted, “I thought there’s only so many details of science that I could reveal about dogs that would give me a real understanding, or give the reader an impression of what that might be like to be that olfactory creature.

“So I can say, ‘Gee, the dog has hundreds of millions more receptor cells in their nose than we do.’ And we can find that impressive, but not really feel what it’s like to experience that. I thought I had to embody a little bit what it would be like to be an olfactory creature. I tried to do that by, essentially, starting to smell the world.

“We have perfectly decent noses. Not as good as dogs’, to be sure, but we use them so little. But going from what I usually smell, to bringing things to my nose and intentionally smelling, that was quite transformative…”

“Because I look at the behavior of dogs, “ she continued, “and I try to infer from their behavior and experiments and observations what they might know about the world—what their cognition is—I now use olfaction in most of my studies.

“In other words, a lot of the early studies in dog psychology looked at ‘Gee, can dogs follow our pointing,’ and things like that.

“And now my studies are a lot more about trying to understand what the dog knows through smell.”

I think Horowitz is referring to what the nose knows.

I’m pretty sure this is where we came in.

Follow this link to the Nov. 16 Talking Animals, featuring the interview with Alexandra Horowitz



About the Author: Combining his passions for animals, radio, journalism, music and comedy, Duncan Strauss launched Talking Animals at KUCI in California in 2003. Since late 2005 the show has aired on Tampa’s WMNF. Producer-host Strauss lives in Jupiter Farms, FL, with his family, including four cats, two horses and one dog. He spends each day talking to those animals, and maintains they talk right back to him, a claim as yet unverified by credible sources.

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