While we are pretty familiar with our dogs sniffing, we can only really spectate from the sidelines, not really comprehending their experience.
There really isn’t too much comparable for us. Perhaps getting really involved in a good page-turner, getting lost in some absorbent music or perhaps studying a painting, moving back and forth to adjust our view, take it all in, marvel in its wonder.
For dogs, the joy and intense sniffing that comes from non-contrived, non-human-led randomly coming across some spot extra-smelly is out of this world.
We were a good ten minutes or so at this sniffy-spot. You can see how intensively he is gathering information and the repertoire of olfaction related behaviours, along with sniffing.
Watch him press his nose right in, track and trail, sniff and taste, dig to stir up even more information.
This really is a Mona Lisa level sniffing spot…whatever’s been there.
We are all about appropriate enrichment for dogs. We’ve got the whole 100 Days of Enrichment program free and available for dog owners everywhere.
But, do you ever think why we must put so much effort into such elaborate and contrived enrichment programs just to provide for our dogs’ needs.
Dogs are domesticated animals and surely domestication should better prepare dogs for life with humans. But, it’s more complicated than that…
There are all sorts of contrived ways to provide dogs with sniffing opportunities, from home-made sniffing puzzles, to store-bought toys, to formalised nosework sports and training.
No matter, dogs must sniff and most of their sniffing should be dog-led and non-contrived, surely.
Most pet owners are probably not engaged in providing their dogs with lots of extra and contrived sniffing opportunities. So most dogs probably only have outlets naturally available to them.
While extra opportunities to sniff are appreciated, and may be important for dogs who can’t get out and about, and are fun outlets for both humans and dogs, less contrived and more natural sniffing is vitally important.
It doesn’t need to be elaborate, this clip is just us sitting on a log in some woodland. All that air sniffing is absorbing, as he monitors his world, intensively taking it all in.
Eager to Please?
A myth traditionally and commonly perpetuated about dogs is that they are eager to please us, that they will work for us, that they just want to do things for us.
Of course, this really isn’t a thing; dogs, like all animals, have evolved to be pretty selfish, innocently so, but selfish none the less.
There are all sorts of discussions we could have about this because there are certainly dogs that have been developed to be more engaged with humans, but they are doing that for some sort of pay off…to get something or to avoid something.
But, it’s easy to see how this myth and attitude toward dogs has gone from strength to strength.
When dogs were first developed to work alongside humans as landraces or types, later to become breeds, dogs were selected on the basis of their ability to do the job.
To do the job that they were made to do. That they did because they were intrinsically motivated to do so.
Although we presume this to be because they are doing it for us, because we seem to make every interpretation anthropocentric and anthropomorphic, these jobs satisfied their needs. Dogs had outlets for their natural behaviours.
Over time we refined their performance through selection, and dogs got to do their job better and more.
Now think of the behaviours we want dogs to do…
Loose leash walking is an example of a relatively simple sequence of behaviours but something that requires a high rate of reinforcement or strongly aversive tools to suppress normal dog behaviour (walking faster than us, sniffing, stopping, going where they want to and so on).
Whichever is employed, both are generally required over a longer term to establish behaviour we find desirable.
We often talk about upping the ante on the value of extrinsic reinforcers to get behaviour, increase our rate of reinforcement. All to get dogs doing behaviours we want and they clearly may not.
There are ethical questions we need to ask here.
I am a big fan of purpose bred and functional dogs. Dogs that will require some refinement to do their job because it’s intrinsically fulfilling for them.
Not only are they coming with the right genetic and epigenetic package, but also being matched to the right environmental conditions.
Most of the dogs I work with have been chosen as companion dogs, and very often, they do not come with the right package to do this job, in what is usually, under very challenging environmental conditions.
Choosing & Placing Dogs
Dogs are not interchangeable and unfortunately, love is not enough to provide for their welfare. Dogs have needs at species level, at breed/type level and at individual level.
How easily will a dog’s intrinsically motivated behavioural needs be met?
How much intervention will be required to provide that dog with skills to live a welfare-rich life in their new world?
While breed and breed history and function is important, a lot of breed history is mythic. We really want to know what are the behavioural tools they possess, in built, that allow them to do the job they were made for.
And it’s not just about breed.
We also want to consider the possible effects of epigenetics, despite it being a very immature area of study. What sort of environmental conditions have this dog’s relatives endured over generations?
A dog whose lineage has lived in rural areas, as dogs who got to potter about all day, who didn’t have to cope with the constraints of suburbia, may require a lot of support to maintain their welfare in a regular family living in a semi-d in a housing estate.
And on top of that, what sort of rearing experiences was this puppy expose to? We really only have a few weeks at the beginning of a puppy’s life to equip them with the skills they will need to cope with the world as they age.
These early rearing experiences are just refining the genetic and epigenetic package, already in place.
What function will this dog need to fulfill? Real, straight forward companion dogs are not easy to come by…
I don’t have the answers
I’m just thinking out loud really. I don’t have the answers but I do think we should examine this.
Today is literally a day of contrived sniffing on the current run of #100daysofenrichment, Day 55. And most of that program includes contrived examples of ways to help meets dogs’ needs.
My breed has a history of blood sports, although AmStaff lines are somewhat watered down relative to their ancestors’ bloodsport past. I am not into providing dogs with those sorts of outlets, regardless of function! But, my dog is from a lineage of sporty companions who have lived this life for generations.
And I do consider outlets for the behavioural tendencies he comes with, that helped his ancestors do their gruesome jobs, important and make up a lot of what we do.
We can provide dogs with appropriate enrichment and want to do more and more of that, but also need to consider the ethics, ask the difficult questions, pose the whys and listen for the answers.