Dogs Will Be Dogs (If You Let Them)

Have you ever thought about why you like dogs? Or, better yet, why you got a dog in the first place?

When asked, most people will list reasons such as: for companionship, for protection, as motivation to exercise, as a playmate for the kids, as a sport partner, or for assistance/therapy. All of these reasons are valid, but also extremely human-centric. Very rarely do people respond by saying, “I like the dogginess of dogs.”

In fact, we humans spend a heck of a lot of time and energy tamping down our dogs’ actual dog behavior and, if the dog is lucky, replacing it with something we deem more suitable. For example, dogs like to roll in smelly dead things. It appears to give them immense pleasure. We humans generally disapprove of this behavior and will do our best to thwart it via punishment (scolding, ostracizing, or worse), management (“No off-leash romps for YOU at the beach!”), or training (super-duper, fancy, lightening-fast recall action). It’s always, “Don’t eat that! Get off! Don’t sniff THERE! No, no, NO!”

I’ve always found it kind of sad that we try to fit canine square pegs into the round puzzle of human existence without also providing them with regular doggy-downtime just to be a dog.

Perhaps people are afraid to uncork the force of nature in our canine companions for fear it will “unleash” the inner beast in our docile doggy sidekicks, relegating them to a lesser status than “Man’s Best Friend”. Or perhaps some people really aren’t aware of what normal dog behavior is thanks to Disney movies and the widespread anthropomorphisation that we humans are so prone to project. Regardless, it doesn’t have to be this way, dogs are really rather adaptable and very good at cross-training. This means we can indeed provide them with species-specific activities without saying sayonara to having a civilized dog. If anything, providing a dog with appropriate outlets for their canid yearnings will help them to settle-in to our lifestyle and expectations because they’re no longer little canine-pressure-cookers. It’s easier to live with a sated dog who’s tapped out on all things dog and can now focus on the tasks at hand.

One of the best ways I’ve found to “release the hounds” is by engaging in some sort of scent games for dogs. Dogs are primarily olfactory-based creatures and a good way to think about it is that dogs smell the world the way we see it. Sniffing is how they gather information and also one of the main ways they derive pleasure.

Watching a dog revel in a following a track, air-scenting, or drink-in a scent on the ground is to witness pure bliss. It’s like watching a being with super-powers. Super Sniffer to the rescue!

Most dogs have been deterred from indulging in this, their most natural behavior. They’ve been told not to explore the kitchen, to keep moving and their heads up on walks, and to keep their noses out of trash cans and people’s crotches. Many dogs learn to tune out their sniffers and to stop exploring their environment lest they get in trouble. If we’re going to ask them to give us their full attention most of the time, it’s only fair to give them a time and place for sniffing and exploring rather than saying, “You’ll never sniff in this town again!”

Helping your dog to rediscover this pure pleasure is one of the greatest gifts you can give your canine companion. It’s also a wonderful way for you to learn more about your dog’s awesome natural abilities and inclinations. Students of scent work learn how to observe their dog’s body language and intention-actions.

While it may be a no-brainer to understand that your dog wants to sniff, through teaching SIRIUS® Sniffer classes I’ve also discovered how much scent work helps in lessening other common behavior problems. Major bonus! Through nose work I’ve seen shy dogs become outgoing, fearful dogs gain tremendous confidence, reactive dogs learn to focus and relax. It seems that relieving some steam from the pressure cooker expectations we impose on our canine companions helps them overcome tremendous hurdles and alleviates all sorts of issues.

Fortunately there are plenty of ways to help your dog get a whiff of this doggy-style action. The National Association of Canine Scent Work has made serious sniffing accessible to dogs of all shapes, sizes, and age via their Fun Nose Work curriculum and NACSW competitions. There is also tracking available through most kennel clubs, search and rescue, and even a lost pet detection program.

So go ahead and get your sniff on! Your dog will thank you for it.

About Kelly Gorman Dunbar

Kelly Gorman DunbarKelly Gorman Dunbar is a cofounder and the executive editor of the and a contributing editor at

She is the President of Open Paw, a non-profit organization devoted to addressing the unwanted animal problem in a whole new way, arming communities worldwide with valuable user and animal friendly training and behavior information with the goal of keeping cats and dogs out of shelters by keeping them in their original homes. Kelly lectures internationally on the principles of Open Paw and consults for animal shelters regarding layout, and staff-and-animal training protocols and procedures.

She is a Director of the Center for Applied Animal Behavior, a multi-faceted business that focuses on teaching people how to train their dogs to be the best canine citizens possible. She is a Director for the K9 Games Corporation, a venture dedicated to bringing fun and games to the process of dog training in order to make it easy, entertaining, and accessible for all people, including children.

Kelly is also a Certified Nose Work Instructor through the National Association of Canine Scent Work.

5 thoughts on “Dogs Will Be Dogs (If You Let Them)

  1. It is so interesting to let your dog sniff and explore the world through their nose. It is when you realize what awesome creatures they really are and how disconnected we are from that world of scent. I can only “awe” when we track or do nose games. Doing nose work with your dog is the ultimate partnership, and they will love you for it.

    • While I haven’t done any formal nose work with my dogs, it is on my list. I love watching my dogs explore and I allow them to use their noses on our walks so they can do what dogs do. I always wonder why it seems that people don’t like their dog to sniff while on walks.

  2. One of the reasons I like tracking with my dogs so much! It’s a great sport when the dogs get to be in control for a change.

  3. Nose work sounds like so much fun – and a benefit for us is that you don’t need to be in one location for an organized class or have a lot of equipment to do it!

  4. Thanks Kelly for conveying the needs and benefits of giving dogs ways to do what they do best. Use their noses!

    And I love your reflection on people “doing scent work learn how to observe their dog’s body language.” I find it fun to set up a “Find It” game for our rescue dog, Sydney. He often hunts for his meals with me tagging along.

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