March 26, 2013

Pet Connection: There's not much a dog can't sniff out

Is there anything for which a dog can't use its nose to figure out?

Is there anything for which a dog can't use its nose to figure out?

Dogs have long been used to sniff out escaped felons and missing children (think bloodhounds), birds and animals for hunters (think spaniels, retrievers and hounds), and even truffles (think poodles).

In recent years, trainers have come up with all kinds of new ways to use a dog's extraordinary sense of smell. Here are a few you perhaps knew – and a few more we bet you did not:

Drugs: Dogs can be trained to sniff out all kinds of illegal drugs, finding them not only on people but also in massive cargo containers, long-haul trucks and school lockers.

Plant matter: Since fresh fruits and vegetables can bring carry insects and diseases that have the potential to cause great damage to agriculture, dogs are used to detect foodstuffs in the luggage of people coming through customs. Dogs are also used to sniff out invasive weeds in fields, so the plants can be eradicated before they take hold.

Insects: Termites? No problem. Dogs are also used to detect the resurgence of bedbugs in big cities.

Mold: It's not just the mold that bedevils homeowners, but also the mold that puts vines at wineries at risk from disease.

Explosives: Meetings of high-profile public officials likely wouldn't occur without the diligent work of bomb-sniffing dogs.

Cows in heat: A lot of money depends on being able to artificially inseminate a cow without wasting time guessing whether she's ready. While a bull could tell, he's not always available, as his contribution usually arrives on the scene frozen. A dog can tell when the cow is most fertile – although it's a good bet the dog couldn't care less.

Cancer: While cancer detection is still in the trial stage, it looks promising that dogs can spot a malignancy. Some day your doctor may order a "lab test" and send in a Labrador retreiver!

Chemicals: Dogs have been known to look for items as varied as mercury and the components of potentially pirated DVDs.

While most of us tend to think scent work is the near-exclusive province of a handful of breeds – bloodhounds, German shepherds and maybe a Labrador retriever here and there – in fact, a wide range of breeds and mixes are trained to detect various scents.

Because of their fine noses and friendly dispositions, beagles are used to work airports by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and any manner of mixed breeds – lucky dogs pulled from shelters – have been used for other kinds of detection work.

If you're looking for something fun to do with your dog, teach it to work with its nose, starting with the game of finding which cardboard box contains a treat.

Also, trainer Nina Ottosson has developed a line of puzzles for dogs that encourage them to work with their noses. Check online for her food puzzles – your dog will love them!

Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and journalist Gina Spadafori. The two are also the authors of several best-selling pet-care books. Email them at petconnection or visit

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