Sniffing. Dogs do it constantly; and we can only pretend to understand what all they are gathering from their world as they move about, nose to the earth. A typical dog person probably doesn’t think much of this behavior, but dog sport people have long thought of sniffing as their nemesis; something to never encourage, something to fear. A sniffing dog is not heeling heads-up. A sniffing dog is not weaving, jumping, or retrieving. A sniffing dog is not focused.
Except he is focused. He is focused on processing his own world. It is estimated that dogs have 220 million olfactory receptors while humans have a mere 400. I am sipping a cup of spice tea right now and I smell just that; spice tea. My dog lying next to me can likely detect every single spice, the plaster the mug is made from, the paint on the mug, the water itself, and probably even more things I am not even aware of. We humans literally do not have a sensory equivalent.
And yet, dog trainers come up with complex punishment procedures to eradicate sniffing. These procedures range in intensity, but they are all insidious. To punish out a behavior is to disrespect that all behavior has a function. To punish out a behavior that functions in a way we can never grasp–never, because of our different biology–is the height of egotism.
So what do we do? We actually do need our dogs to work without sniffing, don’t we? Here are a few ideas that respect the myriad functions sniffing likely serves:
Decide what you want and pay for it
Seems simple, but the quickest way out of a sniffing issue is to get clear about what you’d like the dog to do instead of sniff, and pay for that. Want the dog to keep his head up in heeling? Reinforce that behavior heavily and frequently. Need your dog to dive into the weave poles without dropping her head to sniff? Reinforce that first set of poles like they’re the solution to all of your problems. Rather than waiting for sniffing and reacting to that, try replacing moments where sniffing might occur with high rates of reinforcement. You might be surprised.
You’d also be surprised that just relaxing, allowing your dog to sniff, and waiting for her to be ready to work is usually the ticket out of sniffing hell. As a general rule the more you nag, the bigger deal you make out of this natural behavior, the more your dog will do it. Why? Because being nagged is stressful, and dogs soothe themselves with sniffing. You know what I do when my job stresses me out? I look at Facebook. It’s kind of like that. So calm down, wait a minute, your dog will check in with you eventually. Pay him when he does.
Reinforcement history never lies
Behavior that is reinforced strengthens. That’s not some fairytale dolphin trainers made up; its real. If a dog chooses sniffing over another behavior in any given context, that’s about reinforcement history. Your job, as the trainer, is to provide such a rich and complex reinforcement history for the behaviors you desire that your dog rarely considers other options.
Confusion is yucky
If your dog is confused, that icky feeling must be dealt with. Think about the last time you were confused. Was that fun for you? Did you desperately grasp for something to make you less confused? That something that makes confusion feel better for dogs is sniffing. It makes sense; they probably gather most of their information through sniffing. So while we might hit google, a friend, or a book when we are confused our dogs hit the air, the dirt, and everything in between with their noses. If your dog is sniffing a lot during sports, consider if this is culprit.
I hope I have convinced you; be nice about sniffing. Don’t try to punish it out, and don’t fear it either. Embrace it as a very special and specific part of what dogs are.