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By Gina Spadafori
Pet Columnist

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A Dog's Sense of Smell Reveals a World we can hardly Imagine

Is there anything a dog can't use his 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).
But 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 into the country 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 being 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 the 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's looking pretty promising that dogs can spot a malignancy. Some day your doctor may order up a "lab test" and send in a Labrador! 

  • 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 him to work with his nose, starting with the game of finding which cardboard box contains a treat for him. Trainer Nina Ottosson has developed a line of puzzles for dogs that encourage them to work with their noses as well. Check online for her food puzzles -- your dog will love them! - By Dr. Marty Becker and Gina Spadafori
Stock up on remedy for spring 'skunking'
Q: Our dog has been skunked twice in the last month. We've tried the tomato-juice recipe (and even added tomato sauce for extra "oomph"), but the smell remained. Any suggestions? -- via email
A: Skunks become very active as the weather starts to warm, and that means more skunking. Over the years, the universal skunk remedy has been widely accepted as the canned red stuff in your pantry. However, as reported in the Chicago Tribune several years ago, a chemist by the name of Paul Krebaum discovered what turns out to be the hands-down best solution for eliminating odor on dogs who have been skunked. You can probably find the ingredients in your cupboards. And yes, it really works!
Here's the odor-blasting formula: Take 1 quart of 3 percent hydrogen peroxide, 1/4 cup of baking soda and 1 teaspoon of liquid hand soap. Mix and immediately apply to the stinky pet. Then rinse thoroughly with tap water. For a big dog, such as a Labrador, you may need to double the recipe to improve coverage. Common sense dictates keeping the mix out of sensitive areas like the eyes and ears. Also, don't allow your dog to ingest the mixture, because hydrogen peroxide can cause vomiting.
Obviously, you don't want to take the time to run to the store when you have a stinky dog, so buy the ingredients now and keep them on hand if you are likely to have a skunked dog situation! But remember -- don't mix them until seconds before application.
Skunks are a common carrier of rabies -- and, obviously, if your dog is close enough to get sprayed, a bite is always a possibility. Double-check with your veterinarian on your dog's rabies vaccination status. If it's not current, bring it up to date immediately. You do not want to take a chance on rabies, ever, since it puts both pets and people at risk. -- Gina Spadafori

Why cats are attracted to the feline-averse

  • Why, in a room full of people, will a cat make a beeline toward the one person who is not paying attention? One possible answer: That's the only person who's playing by the cat's own rules for proper behavior. Cats don't like eye contact from strangers. When a friendly cat wanders into a room full of people, he may be intimidated by a new person's stare. So, he heads instead for the people he thinks are being polite -- those who aren't looking. The cat doesn't realize that these people may not be looking because they don't like cats or are allergic. In the end, it's a bit of a cross-species miscommunication. That's one theory, anyway. It could also turn out that rubbing cat fur on the slacks of a cat hater is just the ultimate feline fun.

  • A Maryland man has died from rabies contracted from a transplanted kidney he received from an organ donor. It is the first fatal case in that state in almost 40 years. Raccoons, skunks, bats and other wild animals are the most common carriers of the virus, thanks to widespread vaccination programs in dogs and cats. In a typical year, five people die of rabies in the United States. 

  • No matter how thoroughly your cat or dog licks the food dish, it's not clean enough to use again without washing. That goes for water dishes, too. Pick up your pet's food dish after every meal, then wash and scrub with hot water and soap. The water dish should get the same treatment on a daily basis. You can also run them through the dishwasher. Stainless steel or heavy plastic "crock-style" dishes are best: They stand up to frequent cleaning and last for years. -- Dr. Marty Becker and Gina Spadafori

Date Published: 3/25/2013 9:51:00 AM
Date Reviewed/Revised: 03/25/2013


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Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of Dogs for Dummies, Cats for Dummies and Birds for Dummies. She is also affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her at

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