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Sniff Everything! Why is Your Dog So Preoccupied During Walks?

Veterinarian Reviewed by Dr. Janice Huntingford, DVM on August 6, 2018
Posted in Behavior Management

Ever try taking your dog for a walk, only to have it stop and sniff every single tree, hydrant, sign post, lamp and anything else anchored to the ground? It’s a situation that can quickly lead to frustration—especially if it takes you 20 minutes to go just a couple of blocks!

Excessive sniffing is a trait that most dogs share because it’s an engrained part of who they are and how they communicate. For your dog, going on a walk and finding all sorts of new smells is like going on a treasure hunt and finding gold at every step of the way. The smells they’re picking up on are messages left by other dogs and hints of other interesting things.

By sniffing all of the scent-marked places on your walking route, your dog can piece together a lot of information that’s important to it, including what dogs live nearby, what types of other animals are in the neighborhood, how long ago a dog was at a certain area and much more. For your dog, these clues are part of understanding the world around it—specifically their “territory.”

Sending a message to the neighborhood

The best way to think of scent marking is like having a pen pal. You write a letter to a friend you might not ever see in person, they read it, then write back. Through it all you form a friendship, even if you never meet in person. It’s the same concept for your dog, only they have dozens of pen pals!

Unlike a letter to your pen pal, the messages your dog is exchanging aren’t heartfelt sentiments. Instead, they’re more of a status update. When your dog sniffs a tree, they’re getting information that helps them understand their surroundings—and when they mark that tree, they’re giving other dogs information. Some examples include:

  • If your dog sniffs the same tree over and over again each time you walk, they’re checking to make sure the same dogs are marking it. The same smells from the same gang of pups means everything is status quo. A new smell can indicate a new dog that’s foreign to the neighborhood!
  • Sniffing spots throughout the neighborhood can help reassure a dog that their ‘pen pal’ is still around, leaving them messages. Finding a friend’s scent throughout the neighborhood tells your dog that their buddy is still a member of the neighborhood pack. Likewise, the more stale the smell, the longer it’s been since their friend made a mark.
  • If your dog marks an area and comes back to find another dog’s scent there, it could develop a fixation with smelling and marking that spot. This might mean there’s a turf war going on and your dog is continually checking to make sure it has the final word.

When you consider that there may be dozens of dogs within a few blocks of your home, it’s easy to see how fixated your dog can get when it comes to sniffing on their walk! There could be dozens of messages at every tree or lamp post, with information that’s important to your pup as it concerns their neighborhood.

Keeping sniffing in check

If you’re sick of your dog stopping every 10 feet to sniff around, it’s important not to overreact. You might restrict your dog to a short leash and not let them sniff anything, but this can be cruel in a sense. Your dog just wants to know what’s going on! Not letting them sniff would be like taking you to the movies blindfolded.

The answer is a happy medium and there are a few ways to get your dog accustomed to the compromise:

  • Make it a point to stop at certain landmarks on your walk. Pick a point every couple of blocks where you encourage your dog to sniff around for a minute. Over time they’ll come to recognize these landmarks as their territory, instead of stopping at everything.
  • Use leash control to dictate how much sniffing is enough. Let the leash slack when it’s okay to sniff and tighten up the lead when it’s time to move along. Don’t jerk the leash or pull your dog away—instead, gently lead them away and praise them for following.
  • Try to walk consistent routes. It’s a good idea to have 3-4 routes you walk, so your dog becomes familiar with the “hot spots” in the area. Instead of sniffing everything, your dog will come to learn the places where dogs commonly mark and only pay attention to those.
  • Reward your dog for listening to you and teach them when sniffing is okay. For example, teach the command “leave it” when you want them to stop sniffing and reward them with treats or praise when they do it. Likewise, you may teach them “sniff” when it’s okay to sniff, to let them know they’re in the right.

Remember, a dog’s sniffer is thousands of times more powerful than yours—even a passing scent can grab their attention in an instant if it’s out of the norm! Be patient and understanding: your dog is just trying to catch up on the neighborhood happenings. Train them on a compromise and you’ll be able to enjoy your walk without stopping every few steps so your dog can get the gossip.

Read also: 5 Reasons Your Dog Might be Itching Excessively and What to do About Them

Our Expert

Dr. Janice Huntingford
Janice Huntingford, DVM, has been in veterinary practice for over 30 years and has founded two veterinary clinics since receiving her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine at the Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph. She has studied extensively in both conventional and holistic modalities. Ask Dr. Jan

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