It is important that our dogs are able to focus on us and it is fundamental to our relationship that they can fit into our environment and activities to at least some degree. But what about fitting into theirs?
I often find a desire in people for their dogs not to sniff or engage with other dogs and to basically walk with their owner, at their owner’s pace, to their owner’s destination without deviation. Unsurprisingly this often causes frustration between owner and dog when the dog has other ideas. But, rather than simply train the dog into mechanical compliance in situations like this, part of the training process is to open the owner up to making the walk enjoyable for their dog too. How? In part, by embracing the sniff.
Dogs don’t sniff to annoy us. Sniffing, in-fact, is a vital part of a dog’s interaction with the world. It’s how they identify with and get information about their environment, it’s also part of their greeting process. A dog sniffing the ground upon approach to another dog is displaying calming signals, a dog sniffing the grass or the air is discovering clues to its surroundings, a dog sniffing another dog’s bum as it passes on a walk is meeting a possible new friend and excessive sniffing is a dog showing that they are stressed.
So, what happens if we take the sniff out of these scenarios? The dog will be unwilling to demonstrate an important calming signal, it will be less informed about its surroundings, it will be deterred from an appropriate dog social greeting and there will be one less insight into how they are feeling to help you progress their training. Preventing sniffing outright creates a dog that has a greater potential for stress, that is more likely to be surprised by its environment and that is given less of a social vocabulary.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that trainers can’t help with the sniffing. It just means that we approach it from a management perspective rather than a prevention one. Instead of preventing it we put it on cue, we train a verbal “move along” prompt that lets the dog know it’s time to keep walking and we can also use it as a reward when it is a strong motivator. Sniffing is good, sniffing can help you train and calm your dog, sniffing is your friend. Embracing the sniff will put you on the right path to raise a robust and social dog and if your dog happens to be fearful or soft, sniffing will help reduce their stress and help you interpret their feelings. Embrace the sniff!