How Does Your Dog Smell?

January 8, 2009 at 1:04 am 5 comments

No, I’m not blogging about canine olfactory processes. I’ll leave that to Ken over at Did a Cat Sh*t in Here

I’d like to talk about how you recognize and judge the scent of your four-legged friend.


Back in 2000, Queens University psychologists Deborah Wells and Peter Hepper published a study in Perception titled The discrimination of dog odours by humans.  The study examined the ability of humans to identify individual dogs by smell. From the abstract:

Most of the participants (88.5%) were able to recognise the odour of their own dog. They showed no significant bias, however, in responding which of the odours they thought smelt the strongest or most pleasant. The results indicate that dogs produce odours that are individually distinctive to their owners, and highlight the fact that humans can recognise members of another species using olfactory cues — an ability presumably acquired without conscious effort.

Even though the importance of our sense of smell has historically been grossly underestimated, we’ve known for some time that humans, like other mammals, can discriminate between kin and non‐kin by olfactory cues alone — so these findings shouldn’t be terribly surprising.  Still, after stumbling onto the abstract I was curious to know more.  Since the article is only available (at least to me) by paid subscription, I thought it was a wonderful stroke of luck that Scientific American published an article about it  just this week. Here’s their description of the study and an interesting side note on the results not included in the abstract:

In this study, twenty-six dog owners were given a blanket to place in their dog’s bed for a period of three consecutive nights. (One rule was that the dogs couldn’t be bathed for at least a month before the study began.) The owners then returned to the laboratory with this blanket, were blindfolded, and asked to take a deep whiff of two comparison blankets. One blanket was from their own dog’s bed and the other was from the bed of a foreign dog matched for age, sex, and (wherever possible) breed. Remarkably, 88.5% (23 of the 26 participants) correctly identified their own dog’s odor—a finding that the authors attribute to familiarization. However, somewhat surprisingly, the study failed to show that owners preferred this particular smell over the other one.

So… pet owners can differentiate the scent of their dogs from those of strange dogs (which is, by the way, not the same thing as being able to identify our dogs by smell) – but we don’t necessarily preferour dogs’ odors. Why not?  Well first, as SciAm noted:

One possible reason for this null finding on the preference dimension may be that the study did not control for quality of attachment between the owner and his or her dog.

They probably also didn’t control for variations in personal or cultural attitudes toward odor or for factors affecting the general aesthetic quality of the odor of the dog (i.e., gingivitis, skin problems, flatulence, ear infections etc.) Pheromones may be an important factor as well.  While we may recognize and/or be attracted to the body odors of potential mates and our offspring, it would make evolutionary sense that we wouldn’t necessarily respond positively to the pheromones or body odors of an animal of another species — even one that we care deeply for.

I enjoy the smells of my dogs (for the most part at least) and I’ve always been able to tell them apart by scent.  Just for you I very carefully and methodically smelled both my dogs about the head, shoulders and hips so I could report what they smell like.  Zip has a very soft, light, powdery (and very undoglike) scent with hints of lemon and ear wax.  This is her scent, not her shampoo — she hasn’t had a bath in several months (and no, I don’t use doggy colognes).  Audie has a much stronger, saltier scent with an earwax topnote and basenotes of intact boy dog urine and raw meat.  

I have to say that even though Audie is my darling mamma’s boy, I much prefer Zip’s scent to his.


Entry filed under: dogs, science. Tags: .

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Audie's Gramma  |  January 8, 2009 at 4:38 am

    Lilly had a unique pleasant smoky scent, as if she’d been sitting by a campfire, always.

    Mel just smelled like clean fur.

    Pip has a bit of the Frito-feet odor all over. Not bad.

    Moe smells like earth and winter.

    Ken says that Rosie is always slightly stinky. I don’t smell it. She sleeps on my head half the time, so I’d expect to notice. Right now she seems odorless to me.

    Sophia smells a little bit like “dog.” And my foster guy, Gary, is quite doggy, and may get a bath before heading for his new home. Nothing compared to the smell of unwashed hound, piss, and despair that he came here with.

  • 2. Baaaa  |  January 8, 2009 at 9:41 pm

    I was (strangely) just thinking about my dog’s smell this morning. She’s a bit on the new side, but definitely has a warm pleasant smell with hints of sweet pear. Certainly better than the “shelter/dirty crate” smell she had when we picked her up- it took my breath away.

    A few years ago, I brought in a new goat from Texas to join my herd. I noticed, while handling her, that she smelled distinctly different than the rest of my does- until I smelled a “different” smelling goat, I hadn’t even noticed that they smelled a particular way. After a month and a half or so, she started to smell like the rest of my herd, making me think that her smell must have had something to do with her diet.

  • 3. Jill  |  January 9, 2009 at 3:44 pm

    Oh, cool. This is like wine-tasting, with tones, and notes and lingerings and muskiness and fruitiness ….and how I am a SUCKER for a specialized vocubulary.

    what I really want to read is hermine’s description of how her dogs smell. nirvana.

  • 4. Lori  |  February 19, 2009 at 2:14 pm

    I have had dogs all my life but my newest (9 mos. – had her since 8 weeks old) literally smells like some kind of wild animal! She eats the same food as my other dog but she has a distinct odor, sort of what I would think a opposum would smell like. It is such a bizarre smell that I joke that she was a inter-species experiment. Never smelled anything like it!

  • 5. brenda  |  October 5, 2010 at 6:58 am

    my 5 year old half collee and fiest started to smell about a year ago, her glands keep clogging up after she was spayed, we love her she just stinks Any suggestions would be great?

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