Dear Labby: How Much Should I Let My Dog Sniff On Our Walks?

Woman walking with Labrador Retriever

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Dear Labby,

When I take my dog for a walk, he’s thrilled to get outside and exercise, but he often stops to sniff. If I don’t try to keep us moving, he’ll stop and sniff everything he can find, and he’ll spend a good amount of time doing it. Why does he love to sniff so much? Should I hurry him along? Or should I just let him do his thing and get a nice whiff of whatever we come across? Would he be happier following his nose, or would he be better off burning some energy with a vigorous, uninterrupted walk? Please give me some advice.

Sincerely,

Nonstop Olfactory Sense Encumbers Ambulation, Nose Delay Getting Old

Man and his dog having fun.

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Dear Nonstop Olfactory Sense Encumbers Ambulation, Nose Delay Getting Old,

Your pup is not alone in his love for all things odorous. Dogs need to sniff. It’s the primary way they experience the world around them and make sense of everything. They have 50 times as many scent receptors in their noses as humans, and they even have an additional organ above the roof of their mouths called the vemoronasal organ that helps trap scents. So asking a dog to go on a walk without sniffing is like asking a human to go for a walk without looking at anything except for what is exactly in front of them. That might be good exercise, but it would be pretty boring, right?

Beagle in forest

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Dogs use their sense of smell to interpret everything. It lets them know what has happened in a certain location, what is happening now, if there are any other dogs in the area, if there are any threats nearby, and so much more. Think of it as their form of Google. They get all the information they need through their noses. That’s why your dog is so intent on stopping every so often to get a thorough sniff. It’s a tremendous source of mental stimulation that lets your dog use his brain.

As for what happens on your individual walks, there are a few things to consider. Walks serve many purposes. They give your dog a chance to go potty, to get some mental stimulation with a change of scenery, and to get some physical stimulation through exercise. All of these things are important for your dog’s well-being. A dog that can’t go potty when necessary, doesn’t get mental stimulation, and suffers from a lack of exercise will get bored, anxious, destructive, and unhealthy pretty quickly.

Mid adult woman training her dog to sit on rural road

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Your walk has to serve all of these purposes, which means you have to strike a balance. Too much time sniffing and your dog won’t get enough exercise. Not enough time sniffing and your dog will be bored and anxious. So what do you do? Well, every dog has different needs. One of the ways you can determine your dog’s needs is to monitor their behavior and mood after a walk. Try going for a walk with only a little sniffing and check to see if they seem more anxious afterward. Then try going for a walk with a lot of sniffing and check if they seem like they haven’t burned off enough energy. Then make adjustments accordingly. This trial-and-error approach can help you determine the right balance of walk time and stop-and-sniff time.

Instructor giving direction to a line of owners with their dogs during a dog training class.

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Another thing you might do is try some nose work classes. These will train your dog to use his sense of smell and get rewards for doing so. This might provide your pup with enough stimulation that he feels less of a need to stop and sniff on your walks. On the other hand, you might try agility training or vigorous play sessions to provide physical stimulation, then reserve walks for sniffing time. The approach is really up to you.

You may also want to use your dog’s love of sniffing as a reward for training while you’re on your walk. Try having him sit or stay, then use a command like “sniff” that lets him know he’s done well and is allowed to sniff for a bit. When it’s time to move on, say “leave it” and go. Later on in the walk, you can repeat the process until he understands that you are in charge of when to walk and when to take a break, and he’ll figure out that he’ll be rewarded if he follows your lead.

Most of all, walks should be a chance for you to bond with your dog and take care of his mental and physical health. So pay attention to what happens before, during, and after your walks. This will help you make adjustments to your routine to better suit your dog’s needs. There is no perfect ratio of walking to sniffing that fits all dogs, so it’s up to you to find that balance for your pup.

Well, N.O.S.E. A.N.D. G.O., hopefully that helps you smell what’s cooking in your dog’s brain when you’re out for a walk. It will take some work before you find the balance that you’re both comfortable with, but keep at it. Use this as an opportunity to strengthen your bond and sniff out each other’s needs better.

Does your dog stop and sniff on your walks? How do you make sure they get a chance to sniff and enough exercise all at the same time? Let us know in the comments below!

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