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How Your Dog Sees (and Smells) the World

Rottweiler Dog Nose Close-up
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Have you ever pondered how dogs see the world? It’s much different than you do. We’re not talking about whether dogs see color or not, we’re referring more to about how dogs function and perceive things.

A dog’s life may seem like something so simple to the outside observer. Your dog eats, sleeps, wags his tail when he sees you, barks at strangers, and loves time outside chasing sticks. It’s an easy life, but it’s a life guided by a myriad of smells, from the scent of the squirrel running through the backyard, to the smell wafting from the cupboard where you thought you were hiding treats from Fido.

Human Perception

Humans perceive most things through sight. While not everyone has this ability, for those who do, it’s one of the strongest of the senses. Humans also use their sense of taste, touch, hearing, and smell to function and maneuver through life.

When you walk into a room, you see what is there, first of all. Children focus on their sense of touch, as they develop their sense of sight. (Seeing the world is a new thing to them, so it isn’t the first sense to register.) After you look over something, you may use your sense of touch and smell to understand your experience better. Taste mostly seems to come in handy when humans are eating. But, enough about people.

A Dog’s Perception

For dogs, the sense of smell is located at the top of their chain of senses. Your dog knows you by smell, they know home by smell, and they “see” through their nose and register where they are and what’s going on around them. When they sit at the table or couch and beg, it’s not that they see you eating, they smell what you’re eating, and they want some of that yummy-smelling kibble too.

When your dog smells something new, or something he likes, he’s going to get his nose right in there. For you, it may seem a bit intrusive. For the dog, it’s just his way of doing things.

Even the smells that don’t please you are attractive to most dogs—like dead animals and poop. Because your dog’s sense of smell is an essential part of how he “sees” the world, your dog is sometimes going to be particular about how he smells. Perfumed shampoos aren’t a preferred aroma for pooches. To cover that scent, your will dog roll in gross things. It’s instinctual.

Curious to understand better how a dog sees things? Close your eyes! Of course, your sense of smell isn’t as finely honed as that of a dog, but you will get a better idea when you take a deep sniff through your nose. Noise-canceling headphones can help in the process, as well to make your sense of smell the one sense you focus most on.

Dogs know when they’re in a room or outdoors. Of course, you’ll still know that, but you want to be guided by the smells around you, good and bad. (Although, what smells wrong to you may smell good to your dog.) You’ll want to focus on the smells in the kitchen—those that may attract your dog when he’s hungry. Notice the smells outdoors, too—there’s a lot for dogs to sniff in the great outdoors. (Just beware if you haven’t cleaned up your dog’s poop in a while; you don’t want to step in a pile of poop, and you definitely don’t want to get too deep a whiff of it either.)

Dog’s Still See Through Their Eyes

Unless your dog has a visual impairment, he still sees everything. When you walk into your home, your dog sees you, but he uses his keen sense of smell to tell that it is you who just walked in the front door.

Let’s talk about the eyesight of dogs. While dogs don’t see the full array of colors that we do, they also don’t only see in black and white  (as once believed). Yellows and blues are the primary colors dogs see (according to behavioral tests).

What Your Dog Can Do with His Sense of Smell

police dog in training
Leeloona/Shutterstock

That miraculous sense of smell dogs have has gotten them some pretty impressive jobs. Humans put dogs to work in some creative ways, enabling the dogs to use their noses to catch bad guys and find people who have gone missing.

Here’s a breakdown of some of the neat gigs dogs do with their noses:

  • Sniff Out Drugs – Some dogs are trained to recognize the smell of various types of illegal drugs. You’ll sometimes see these dogs in places like airports.
  • Smell Bugs – Dogs can also be trained to sniff out bugs. From finding bedbugs in hotel rooms to sniffing out moths and beetles in museums, dogs are great bug detectors.
  • Find Cancer and Other Diseases – Dogs can detect cancer cells in a person’s breath and urine! They can sense when seizures are coming on as well, due to the scents emitted from the person. This strange ability is why dogs make one of the best choices for medical service animals.
  • Hunt for Food – Not only do dogs make great hunting partners when it comes to wild game, but they can also be taught to sniff out non-animal food, like mushrooms.
  • Search for Missing People – Bloodhounds have been used for centuries to help find missing people, alive or dead. They also aren’t the only dogs enlisted for this job.

The reason dogs can smell things you can’t is that they have a vomeronasal organ, which isn’t found in humans. This special canine organ helps them smell out pheromones from other canines and more. They can also smell separately through each nostril!

Amazingly, a dog’s sense of smell is so honed that he can tell what’s been in the yard while he was inside dreaming of chasing rabbits. He knows when a skunk came through the lawn, and he even knows where it exited the lawn, all with his nose. It’s because a dog’s nose is a thousands times stronger than ours. His wet nose helps with his sniffing ability as well—enabling scent particles to get trapped in the dampness.

A dog’s love of stinky things extends to you. Humans are sweaty, stinky people, and dogs like that about us. It’s our smell that tells dogs when we’re afraid of them, too!

Dogs Do More Than Sniff Butts to Communicate with Each Other

Another interesting fact about dogs and their noses is that they use urine to spread messages to other dogs. When you take your dog outside for his daily walk and he’s busy sniffing his environment, he’s actually learning what other critters have shared his path and discovering which territories belong to other dogs.

Yvonne Glasgow Yvonne Glasgow
Yvonne Glasgow has been a professional writer for almost two decades. Yvonne has worked for nutritionists, start-ups, dating companies, SEO firms, newspapers, board game companies, and much more as a writer and editor. She's also a published poet and a short story writer. Read Full Bio »