If you’re a dog owner, you probably already know how important a dog’s sense of smell is, and it should come as no surprise when you catch your dog regularly sniffing the air and looking up.
We’ve come up with this list of 14 common reasons a dog will sniff the air and look toward the ceiling. But let us first acknowledge that this behavior is normally rooted in a dog’s biological drive to investigate and communicate. Specifically, much of what dogs know about their environment is discovered using their sense of smell.
Continue reading to learn more about this peculiar behavior.
1. Your Dog Heard Something Curious
A dog’s hearing is far more sensitive than a human’s. They can hear shifts in sound that humans can’t detect without sophisticated equipment. You might see your dog’s ears perk up when sitting in a seemingly silent room. Your dog is listening to something out of the range of your hearing.
Typically, if a sound is familiar to your dog, such as a car door slamming in the driveway, your dog might show excitement. Perhaps your spouse is home, or your dog heard a familiar voice outside. However, another sign that your dog has caught onto a new sound is sniffing the air and looking up.
An unfamiliar sound could put your dog on alert to investigate. For example, they might hear a bird scratching at glass, a dog barking down the street, or unfamiliar voices. These things might be nonexistent to your human ears, but to your dog, they demand attention. Sniffing the air is an attempt to collect more information on this new, curious sound.
2. Your Dog Caught Sight of Something New
New sights are just as stimulating to a dog as an unfamiliar sound. However, it’s more likely your dog will react to a new sight when you’re out and about as opposed to sitting at home. For example, they might respond to seeing a person cross the street, a dog at a dog park, or a lawnmower on the grass by sniffing the air around them and looking up.
Any sight that’s potentially unfamiliar to your dog will cause them to engage their other senses as a means to investigate. For example, when your dog sees a new person, they might start sniffing the air and looking up as a way to draw in the scent of the person or dog. Combining these two senses will allow your dog to become familiar with the new sight.
3. Your Dog Might Be Stressed
Increased sniffing can be a sign of stress, especially when coupled with pacing or sniffing the ground. If your dog catches an unfamiliar scent, is put into a new environment, or is overstimulated, it may communicate the associated feelings by sniffing the air.
This type of behavior frequently occurs in places where you’re likely to find a large number of dogs that may be experiencing similar stress levels, including:
- Veterinarian’s offices
If your dog starts sniffing and appears nervous, you can take a few moments to soothe them. If you’re at the vet, it might be difficult, but a scratch on the head, a treat, or soft words might be able to bring your dog’s stress level down a bit.
4. Your Dog Scented a Body Change
Studies show that dogs may have the ability to detect diseases such as cancer due to the smell of the compounds released when cancer cells are dividing. Medical service dogs detect many physiological changes in the human body using their noses, allowing them to perform the following services:
- Alert a person with diabetes to a blood-sugar change
- Detect an oncoming seizure
- Help alleviate
Although medical service dogs need training for these purposes, the training doesn’t work without pre-existing abilities. If your dog is sniffing the air, especially near your body, they might be picking up on a physiological change in your body and using their nose to investigate further.
This behavior might also appear if you’re upset or dealing with hormonal changes, such as pregnancy or menopause.
5. Your Dog Is Excited
Dogs show excitement in many ways. Barking, whining, jumping, and running in circles are common signs that your dog is excited. Sniffing the air and looking up is also a sign that your dog might be excited about something. It could be the appearance of a friend, another dog, a favorite toy, or even food.
For example, if you recently pulled your dog’s favorite treats out of the pantry, they might lift their nose and excitedly sniff as they wait for you to give them a treat.
6. Your Dog Wants Attention or Is Understimulated
Sometimes when a dog needs your attention for something, it might sniff the air and look around while exhibiting another attention-seeking behavior. Your dog might jump in your lap to snuggle, nudge your hand for a head scratch, or stand at the door when it wants outside.
However, if the issue is too much time on its paws, you might notice sniffing along with some other classic hallmarks of boredom, including:
- Pawing at their nose
- Dry crying
In either case, giving your dog some attention could shift their behavior significantly. For example, you could take it for a walk, play fetch, give it a new chew toy, or take your dog to the dog park to burn some energy. The best way to prevent the behavior in the future is to make sure you’re providing ample opportunities for your dog to burn off excess energy.
7. There’s a Shift in the Weather
Have you ever been able to step outside and smell a rainstorm coming? It’s a distinct smell made up of a mix of petrichor, ozone, and, once the storm’s passed, geosmin. Regardless, that scent is enough to tell you it’s time to head inside.
If the day is looking gray and your dog has started sniffing the air and looking up, it could be a sign they’ve detected rain long before that mix of compounds hits your nostrils.
It’s a pungent smell, which could irritate your dog’s nostrils. In addition, since rain also often accompanies thunder, if your dog suffers from storm anxiety, their nerves might be rising in anticipation of a storm.
8. Your Dog Is Aging
As dogs grow older, their behaviors might start to change. Some senses might deteriorate over time, causing them to rely more heavily on those senses that still work. For instance, you may notice an older dog with failing sight scents the air more often to compensate for dim eyes.
9. Your Dog Smells Food
Dogs often have strong reactions to the scent of food, especially cooking food. Sniffing the air could signify that your dog has picked up on the smell of food and wants to investigate. This behavior will be familiar if you often feed your dog some of what you’re cooking.
In some cases, sniffing could also signify that the smell is overwhelming. A sign that this might be the case might be leaving the room or pawing at their nose.
10. Your Dog Smells Another Dog
Dogs tend to be hyper-aware of one another. So your dog might see, hear, or smell another dog before you’re even aware one’s nearby. When dogs meet, they often give each other a good sniff in greeting, allowing them to familiarize themselves with the new friend’s scent.
If you notice your dog sniffing the air, especially when you’re outside, another dog may be in the area. The best way to handle this behavior is to keep an eye out for the other dog, and if you think yours might be bothered by the new arrival, take your dog indoors.
11. Your Dog Smells a New Person
Your dog will also be very aware or curious about new human scents. A new friend coming over to your house the first time or a stranger encountered on a walk can prompt your dog to take a whiff.
In addition, your dog will likely show this same excited behavior if one of their favorite humans comes home. They might even be waiting at the door for you when you walk in after their nose alerted them to your arrival.
A dog’s ability to identify a person based on their scent makes dogs so valuable in search and rescue operations. For example, search and rescue dogs can detect and locate humans in collapsed buildings or track humans down based on their scent.
12. The Breeze Feels Nice
Have you ever noticed your dog lift their head and sniff when a warm breeze comes through a window? Or maybe you’ve seen them sit outside with their nose lifted, eyes closed as they sniff the air? Then your dog might be enjoying the feel of a soft breeze on its nose.
Sometimes, your dog’s sniffing behavior could be as simple as a sign of enjoyment. The breeze feels nice, but it also carries the scents of your dog’s environment. They’re likely taking in the smell of the people, animals, and other things as they enjoy some time in the sun.
Have you ever had to reprimand your dog? Then you might’ve noticed how they often turn away, lift their nose, and sniff when that happens. This turn-and-sniff behavior might also present if a strange person or dog approaches that your dog doesn’t want to interact with.
When your dog is sniffing in reaction to an unwelcome person or animal, you might see their behavior shift once the offender is gone. If that’s the case, you can take steps to keep your dog calm if you know you’ll be around that person or pet again.
If you notice your dog sniffing and looking up in a situation you think they might want to avoid, you can try removing them to settle them down.
14. A Sign of Health Issues
Dogs suffer from many of the same health issues humans do, including seizures, compulsive disorders, dementia, and eye problems. A common sign of these conditions is sniffing the air and looking up.
If your dog is sniffing and seems fixated on a specific object or point, pay attention. Your dog could be having a focal seizure, which would require immediate vet attention to rule out an underlying condition.
Your dog might also show signs of an eye problem or compulsive disorder if they seem to be fixating on a spot above them. If you notice behavior like this, you should contact your vet to get a firm diagnosis.
Dogs exhibit many behaviors that humans might see as peculiar or even frustrating. However, sniffing the air and looking up is perfectly normal. So when you see your dog showing this behavior, take a look around and see if you can locate the stimulus. Although it might indicate a problem, it’s more likely your dog is simply cataloging the world around them.