Issue 110

How Strong Is a Dog’s Nose?

If you've ever wondered about your own dog's senses, then you might be interested to learn that a new study has discovered just how strong a dog's nose is and that dogs can also learn to categorise smells, grouping similar scents together. They can even apply this to scents they have never encountered before!

Pretty cool, right?

The scientists who worked on the study, with input from the US Navy, hope that their findings will help shape how sniffer dogs are trained in the future.

So how does it work?

The study, led by researchers at the University of Lincoln, found that dogs are able to categorise odours on the basis of their common properties. This means that dogs can behave towards new smells from a category in the same way as smells that they already know.

How dogs vs humans smell

As humans, we do not have to experience the smell of every fish to know that it smells ‘fishy’; instead, we use our previous experience of fish and categorise the new smell in the correct way. And this new research reveals that dogs can do the same.

Understanding how strong a dog's nose is

To begin the research, the team separated the dogs into two groups and then trained them to respond to 40 different olfactory stimuli – or smells – half of which were accelerant-based.

The dogs in the experimental group were trained (through a reward) to offer a behavioural response, for example, 'sit', when they were presented with smells which fit a specific category but to withhold that response for other non-category stimuli. The remaining dogs were trained on the same stimuli but were not rewarded for the categorical variable.

The researchers found that only the dogs in the group who were presented with smells in specific categories (the category group) were able to learn the task. Even more significantly, when presented with completely unknown smells, the dogs were able to place them in the correct category and to remember the odours six weeks later.

The researchers concluded that this means that dogs can apply information from previous experience to novel – or new – scents in order to apply an appropriate response.

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Dr Anna Wilkinson from the School of Life Sciences at the University of Lincoln said, “As humans, we are very good at assigning different things to different categories; for example, we know something is a chair because there are identifiable aspects such as a flat space to sit on, or four legs. Categorising odours works the same way, and we were keen to discover whether dogs would be able to learn those skills.

“This was an extremely hard task for the dogs as the odour stimuli varied in strength, so animals were never trained on exactly the same stimulus. As such, it is even more impressive that the experimental group dogs learned and retained the information.

“These findings add substantially to our understanding of how animals process olfactory information and suggest that use of this method may improve performance of working animals.”

Researchers hope the findings of this research may be able to shape how the next generation of sniffer dogs are trained, which could help to save many more lives in the future.

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