Animal Attraction

June 10, 2010 at 12:33 am 14 comments

I like to experiment with essential oils. I love perfume. Good perfume, not cheap drugstore stuff.  And essential oils not only give me a way to experiment with different scent combinations, I can also use them make my own scented soaps and cleaning products.

One day as I was playing around with mixtures of different scents while surrounded by a pack of curious dogs I thought “I wonder what the dogs think of these?”.

Anyone who’s spent a bit of time with dogs understands that they don’t make the same kinds of value judgments about smells that we do.  Seriously.  In case you have not already noticed the obvious, your dog adores smells like shit and week old garbage and rotting flesh and he probably thinks that smells like fabric softener and Glade air freshener are utterly revolting (just one more thing the dogs and I have in common).

It’s easy to find places where dogs and humans disagree on scent. I was interested in finding places where the dogs and I agreed.  So I collected a dozen or so vials of essential oils and four dogs (the number I had here at the time) and conducted an informal experiment. I put a drop of each oil on a small piece of paper then held the sample out toward each dog in turn and let each one decide whether they wanted to explore it more intimately or not.

The results were interesting.

Being courteous beasts, the dogs politely and carefully sniffed each sample I offered them. They seemed to react neutrally to most of the scents, generally taking a quick, cautious sniff or two then looking at me inquisitively*. All four turned their noses up at eucalyptus and preferred to avoid it. Three expressed similar distaste for tea tree oil and two for violet.  Wintergreen made one dog sneeze and the other three refused to sniff it. I didn’t force the issue.  They showed a somewhat marked interest in sandalwood, patchouli and ylang-ylang, taking a few extra sniffs and pausing between them as if to process the aromas.

The dogs were all mesmerized by three of the scents – vetiver, frankincense and oak moss with vetiver being the clear winner.  All four of them were entranced by it.  They didn’t just take a few polite whiff of the sample – they inhaled slowly and deeply then paused to process the aroma between each sniff. Charlie even tried to follow the bottle into the cabinet.

It was an interesting little experiment but I didn’t intend to follow up on it. That is, until last week. I was browsing aisles of beauty products while waiting for my stylist and while I don’t spend much money on that kind of thing (generally preferring utility to luxury) I sometimes like to check out scent products.

A row of bottles in the Aveda aisle caught my eye. Being somewhat paranoid about most over the counter scented products I sniffed each one cautiously. Most of were a lot sweeter and more citrusy than the scents I tend to prefer, but one hit the jackpot.  Chakra 1 is a blend of vetiver, frankincense (olibanum) and patchouli.  Strong and woody but not overpowering, it wasn’t something I’d ordinarily buy, but it was relatively inexpensive and given the results of my recent experiment I suspected that the dogs might enjoy it. So I brought a sample home.

I’m glad I did. Chakra 1 has been a big hit with the beasties. When I put it on they sniff me like a freshly decorated hydrant. And if I spritz a little on one of the dog beds, the boys will roll on it in apparent ecstasy.

I tend to prefer somewhat masculine grassy and woodsy fragrances rather than the fruity or flowery scents that dominate the market. Because the dogs and I seemed to have somewhat similar tastes, I decided to do another experiment and test their reactions to my perfume collection. While they were distinctly unimpressed by most of the products, Muschio di Quercia was everyone’s paws down favorite and young Charlie displays a clear and consistent interest in Privet Bloom**.

Most people probably think that testing animals’ reaction to perfumes is an odd idea, but it appears that I’m not the only one doing it. Or even the first to do it. Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal has the details:

Zoos have long spritzed perfumes and colognes on rocks, trees and toys in an effort to keep confined animals curious.

In 2003, Pat Thomas, general curator for the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Bronx Zoo in New York, decided to get scientific about it. Working with 24 fragrances and two cheetahs, he recorded how long it took the big cats to notice the scent and how much time they spent interacting with it.

The results left barely a whiff of a doubt. Estée Lauder’s Beautiful occupied the cheetahs on average for just two seconds. Revlon’s Charlie managed 15.5 seconds. Nina Ricci’s L’Air du Temps took it up to 10.4 minutes. But the musky Obsession for Men triumphed: 11.1 minutes. That’s longer than the cats usually take to savor a meal.

The results of Thomas’ investigation spread quickly through wildlife biology circles and now “Obsession for Men” is widely used in zoos and field investigations. It also appears that dogs aren’t unique in their interest in selected scent products. Perfumes are regularly used to attract and entertain cougars and other big cats, and footage from scent-baited camera traps indicates that coati, tapir and peccary were drawn to “Obsession” as well.

Ann Gottlieb, the “nose” who helped create Obsession for Men, thinks there could be a number of factors in the fragrance that wild animals might find irresistible.

“It’s a combination of this lickable vanilla heart married to this fresh green top note—it creates tension,” she says. The cologne also has synthetic “animal” notes like civet, a musky substance secreted by the cat of the same name, giving it particular sex appeal, she adds. “It sparks curiosity with humans and, apparently, animals.”

According to the online perfume reference guide basenotes, “Obsession for Men” includes topnotes of mandarin and bergamot;  heart notes of lavendar, myrrh, sage, clove, nutmeg and coriander and base notes amber, musk, sandalwood, vetiver and patchouli.

Combining Obsession’s formulation data with the results of the informal research on my dogs, I’ll say that if I was interested in animal attraction I would experiment with scents featuring simple sweet heart notes like vanilla, orange and lemon combined with strong animal and woody basenotes. Based on this hypothesis and a quick perusal of reviews at basenotes the perfumes I recommend for biologists and zookeepers are:

These products are all even more expensive than “Obsession for Men” so I doubt they’ll replace it in zoos and wildlife surveys. But if anyone wants to send me samples I’ll be happy to try them on the dogs and report the results {-;

* These “neutral” scents included blue tansy, tangerine, bergamot, clary sage, cedar, rose absolute, hay absolute, peppermint, agrimony, lavendar, orange and fir.

**Privet Bloom contains topnotes lemon, bergamot, verbena; white hyacinth as a middle note and base notes sea grass and cucumber.

Entry filed under: dogs, wildlife. Tags: , .

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14 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Rob McMillin  |  June 10, 2010 at 3:47 pm

    Eau de boeuf works great on our three.

  • 2. YesBiscuit  |  June 10, 2010 at 4:01 pm

    How interesting! Now you must repeat the sniff testing w/other breeds, including scent hounds of course.

  • 3. Rob McMillin  |  June 11, 2010 at 1:08 am


    Wondering how long it would take some enterprising spammer to hit this.

  • 4. SmartDogs  |  June 11, 2010 at 9:24 am

    Spam has been nuked.

    Those spammers are busy people. They hit every post I write here with multiple comments. Somebody needs to get a life…

  • 5. Amy@GoPetFriendly  |  June 11, 2010 at 11:33 am

    Very interesting – I’m going to have to check out Chakra 1. Perhaps they make it in room deodorizer? That would come in handy in the Winnebago. Right now it smells of Eau de Dog.

  • 6. PoochProfessor  |  June 11, 2010 at 7:54 pm

    I admit to liking woodsy scents much better than floral, too. But what I prefer most is clean scent. The way laundry smells coming out of the dryer after having been washed in Gain and Gain fabric softener is the best scent in the world next to the smell of meat grilling or onions and peppers on the stove.

    I suspect dogs pretty much hate clean scents. But if one is to believe Patricia McConnell, who wrote in “The Other End of the Leash” that dogs seem to be able to “turn off” their scent focus so to as not be overwhelmed by scent all the time, I suspect our pets are pretty good at tuning out our attempts to cover B.O.

    (Actually, I have no problem with normal B.O, especially my own or my loved ones.’ Strangers’ B.O. is pretty gross, especially if it’s the I-haven’t-bathed-in-a-week B.O. So my liking of the clean scent is not so much that I hate B.O., but that I just like the clean scent.)

  • 7. SmartDogs  |  June 11, 2010 at 8:04 pm

    I’m fairly neutral about clean scents. But I do love woody, grassy, herbal and animal scents. A sweaty horse. Old saddle or leash leather. Dirt after rain. Freshly mown grass. Grilling meat. Freshly cut wood.

    One of my favorite things is crushing small bits of leaves and flowers from my garden just to smell them in the morning when the air is cool and scents linger.

    Fake fruit smells are a huge turnoff for me. As are fake popcorn, pie and other food smells. I feel an almost irresistible urge to bolt once I get within smelling distance of those mall stores that sell scented products like candles and lotions because cheap, obnoxiously strong aromas like those so utterly dominate them. Being locked up in a place like that is pretty much my idea of hell.

  • 8. SmartDogs  |  June 11, 2010 at 8:06 pm

    I bet you could look up recipes for home-made room deodorizer sprays on the internet and just substitute whatever amount of Chakra 1 you like for the essential oils to make your own.

    In fact, I may have to try that…

  • 9. Rob McMillin  |  June 11, 2010 at 9:21 pm

    Actually, now that I think about it, I should see how Maddy reacts to these …

  • 10. LabRat  |  June 12, 2010 at 10:52 am

    I’m fairly neutral about clean scents. But I do love woody, grassy, herbal and animal scents. A sweaty horse. Old saddle or leash leather. Dirt after rain. Freshly mown grass. Grilling meat. Freshly cut wood.

    I’m assuming you’re as big a fan of Demeter Fragrances as I am, no?

  • 11. SmartDogs  |  June 12, 2010 at 11:36 am

    Sadly no. Given the very wide range of nontraditional scents Demeter sells I wanted to like them, but the only one I’ve tried that I like at all is Dirt. And I don’t like it much. Their scents all strike me as being very synthetic and not so subtly wrong.

    Their products also tend to feature strong topnotes that fade very fast. I prefer more subtle, lasting scents.

  • 12. H. Houlahan  |  June 13, 2010 at 6:52 am

    Interesting about the Dirt perfume.

    Hunters buy “cover scent” that smells exactly, astoundingly like dirt.

    It is roughly $3.50/ounce vs. $20/ounce. I wonder if there is a difference?

    Knowing what I do about the olfactory acuity of animals who live by their noses, I laugh heartily at the religion of “cover scents.”

    It sure doesn’t slow down the dogs one bit.

    I have one scent strategy for hunting — I just know what the wind and sun are doing to air currents, and position myself accordingly. If I’m successful and the conditions don’t shift, I get a parade of oblivious deer who never know I am there.

  • 13. H. Houlahan  |  June 13, 2010 at 6:52 am

    Have you ever read the novel Perfume by Patrick Susskind?

  • 14. SmartDogs  |  June 13, 2010 at 7:47 am

    It’s on my ‘to be read’ shelf waiting until this fall when I’ll need entertainment.

    I liked Chandler Burr’s “Emperor of Scent”. Not for the science or politics of peer review but for the vivid and fascinating ways scents are described in it. Smells can be incredibly hard to describe accurately and Turin, via Burr, (or vice-versa) did it better than anyone I’ve read.

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