Favorite Stops on Our Smell Walks

Golden Cali and Lab Koala agree to sniff deeply at a grassy spot
Pooling the “sniff” budget pays off

“Smell walks” with Cali and Koala are undergoing an update. It’s going better than I expected, actually.

Smell walks follow a suggestion from Alexandra Horowitz’s book Being a Dog. Basically, they are walks where the human actually lets the dog stop to sniff things. Since in the dog’s world, that is the one and only purpose of a walk, they tend to be mystified and frustrated by the large number of humans who seem to think walks are about walking.

Koala takes the concept beyond the extreme, though, sniffing Every. Single. Tree. And rock, blade of grass, and other, ickier stuff. After realizing that my usual 20-minute morning walk with Cali takes well over 45 minutes when Koala joins us, I knew that changes were needed.

I decided that each dog could choose 3 spots for long, deep sniffing sessions. The rest of the time, we’d walk. There’s one other rule: The deep sniffs do not include other dogs’ droppings.

I explained these rules to them carefully, and off we went. I counted each stop and told them how many they each had remaining in the bank. Even so, on the first modified walk, they seemed surprised and, yes, annoyed when I hustled them along after their 6 deep sniffs.

But they caught on pretty quickly. Soon, they started choosing their spots together, rather than taking turns. I could see one turn to the other, the other give a look — and both dive in. I think this approach provides them both with a greater return from their sniff budget.

They have started to return to the same spots, walk after walk. I’m guessing that those are spots favored by our neighborhood deer friends as well as the numerous other dogs who stroll the sidewalks.

Koala is quickly mastering the “walk-by sniff” — she samples an area with a quick sniff-survey of the air as we approach. Before we’re even there, she’s rejected it as a stop, quickly collecting all the information she needs without even slowing down.

Koala is efficient in another way: She often combines a deep-sniff session with other business needs. I appreciate that she frequently does that near one of the two trash cans on our usual route.

We’ve almost settled into a new routine. I can predict 3 or 4 of their stops already. Maybe they are weighing the others and will make their choices soon. Or perhaps they will always reserve 2 spots for impulse stops. Even dogs need some variety in their routines, after all.

Smell Walks

Jana sniffs at a fascinating odor

I’m reading Alexandra Horowitz’s new book, Being a Dog. I’ve just started it, so the review is a ways off. But it’s good. It focuses on smell. How it feels to live your life, as dogs do, in a world dominated by smell. I’ve read a lot of her work — she’s the researcher who debunked the “guilty dog” look, for example — as well as just about anything else about dogs that I can get my hands on.

I know, from listening to the “Fresh Air” podcast where Terry Gross interviewed Horowitz (it’s called “From Fire Hydrants to Rescue Work, Dogs Perceive the World Through Smell”) that dogs don’t necessarily categorize smells as “good” and “bad.” They just are. This seems evident when we think about the things that dogs spend the most time sniffing … but I digress.

Horowitz describes something that she calls “smell walks.” And, while I have never seen or heard such a specific description of a “smell walk,” I have actually engaged in something similar with my dogs for years. The idea is that the walk is the dog’s time to catch up on the important news of the world. Dogs do this by sniffing.

In Jana’s case, this requires sniffing every blade of grass, twig, stone, or millimeter of sidewalk. These are very slow walks. In fact, they are not walks so much as “stand here awhile, move a foot or so, and stand there awhile, then repeat”s. But that is kind of a mouthful, so we’ve stuck to the wishful shorthand of “walks.” My version has been to let the girls (Jana) sniff on the way to the park and at the park, then actually walk on the way home. I’ve had mixed success with this approach. Jana has a very strong and effective set of brakes.

But now I feel guilty even about that (the “walking on the way home” part). I’m not far enough into the book to know whether all walks have to be smell walks or just one a day, or what. I also don’t know whether there is ever justification for breaking the rules. Because, you see, what I do know is that pulling the dog away from what she is sniffing is not allowed on smell walks.

Another missing piece of information (because Terry Gross didn’t ask) is this: When the dog progresses from smelling to tasting, has the dog broken the rules? And if so, is pulling her away and reprimanding her permitted? If not, how do we keep her from eating really sickening things (in both the “I find it gross” and “it will make her sick” senses of the word)?

Horowitz does not have a golden retriever or a Lab, so she might not have this problem. Still, I would love to hear her answer. I am hoping to find it in the book.

In any case, the idea is to let the dog sniff to her heart’s content. With this approach, Jana and I might never actually get across the parking lot to the sidewalk ever again. I don’t follow this rule. Horowitz warns of dire consequences: Pulling dogs away from smell-rich environments might make them lose their predisposition to smell. This is why, she theorizes in the interview, dogs started attending to pointing and other gestures. I have lots of thoughts on that (based on lots of research) but suffice it to say that Jana, the heavy-duty sniffer, does really well with gestures and pointing. And Jana has survived 13 years of being pulling contests, where her brakes often defeat my efforts to separate her from whatever she is sniffing. Cali, whose nose just might be broken, never got the memo that said dogs, even very young puppies, attend to human gestures, follow pointing, and attribute some significance to the way the human is facing, pointing and gesturing, especially when all three match up. Maybe Cali is secretly a wolf. Or a chimpanzee. They don’t follow gestures either.

The first chapters of Horowitz’s book talk about how delightfully smelly humans are and how dog noses work. It also describes how dogs’ self-awareness is defined: by their scent, of course. I’m really enjoying the book, even if it has triggered enormous guilt about the walks. I’ll have to keep reading to see if and when I am allowed to take the dogs on what Jana calls “forced marches” — no-sniff walks with the goal of exercise or getting somewhere (or both). At least Cali enjoys those!