The sense of smell (or olfaction) is recognised as a very primitive senses which has a strong emotional involvement in pleasure or aversion. As humans our other senses eventually become more dominant as our sight, sound and touch senses become more proficient. However we still retain the ability to recall memories from our previous exposure to different smells. I know myself having attended the Lockerbie disaster with my search dogs the smell of aviation fuel brings back the memories of that time. The smell of garlic in early June in woodlands has a similar recall due to a tragic find one of my search dogs made many years ago. Our dogs also have the ability to associate odours to events which can have a significant impact on their behaviour and responses.
Certain odours can have a very definite effect on behaviour in dogs. We all see in our dogs the effects of body secretions, such as the smell of urine that other dogs have left on trees and posts and the need for our dogs to mark these locations. Male dogs also show a significant interest in the blood discharge of a passing female in season. When we go for our morning walk Drifter shows great interest in the night time activity of the wild life such as badgers, hedgehogs and other nocturnal mammals that have passed down the lane.
Puppies get significant levels of mental stimulation through their olfactory system as do adult dogs. Giving puppies the opportunity to problem solve by hiding toys and treats around the house and garden helps their mental development. Laying food trails at feeding time can also be a fun event in a puppies day with the food bowl hidden at the end of the food trail. It also helps to develop relationships and is play without high levels of excitement which can lead to unwanted behaviours.
Drifter from eight weeks has enjoyed scent games and this has led to him being able to discriminate between different humans scents at eight months of age. (see his video at Denwyn Drifter Border-Collie on Facebook). This training has been in preparation for his future as a SAR dog, but is an enjoyable exercise and extremely stimulating for any young dog.
There are even more subtle effects that smell has on behaviour. Studies have shown that the release by other dogs of pheromones, chemical communicators similar to hormones can have a considerable impact on dog behaviour. We cannot due to our poor sense of smell identify these communicators, but for our dogs these occur at a subconscious level triggering a reaction by our dogs towards other dogs caused by the chemical secretions the other dog releases. This would suggest a reason why sometimes our dogs react differently to different dogs.
Drifter is now nearly nine months old and as he has enjoyed exposure to other dogs and numerous humans since he was eight weeks old he is beginning to have a measured response towards different dogs and humans rather than a generalised response to the particular species. Until recently he would rush up to people and dogs in what was at times an inappropriate manner. If we were not quick enough in anticipating his reactions some adult dogs would growl to express their view that his approach was not appropriate canine etiquette, his response being to move away and find another interest. We have ensured that these encounters were only with dogs we knew and had good socialisation skills being forgiving of the behaviours of young puppies. Exposing him to unknown dogs would have been irresponsible and could easily have led to him developing an aggressive response to other dogs.
Drifter has built up a library of experiences that has allowed him to understand through the body language and the chemical secretions of other dogs how they will respond to him. With this more controlled and measured response we now find it much easier to call him away from other dogs helping significantly in his preparation for the stock and obedience test to train as a search and rescue dog.