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The Scenting Abilities of Search-and-Rescue Dogs

Neuroscientists are researching how dogs can use their olfactory abilities to navigate terrain and find missing persons.

PBS News Hour looked at work being done by neuroscientist Lucia Jacobs at the University of California Berkeley. Dr. Jacobs is working with search-and-rescue teams to discover how exactly dogs can use their sense of smell to follow scent trails. The research lab looked at rodents as well and she is part of a nationwide group of scientists in a project known as Cracking the Code (COC). Other being studied, in addition to dogs, are cockroaches, slugs, hermit crabs and human beings.

COC began as an initiative sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the White House to decipher olfaction, which previously has actually been one of the most difficult senses for scientists to understand in terms of its relation to the brain. When a person or animal smells something, the scent is "encoded" somehow and understood by the brain as, for example, citrus or lavender, but how that happens is still a mystery.

With the search-and-rescue dogs, microphones are placed near their noses to measure the rate of sniffing and a GPS and Go Pro camera is attached to each dog as well. One of the behaviors they've observed with dogs that are trailing is circling, which happens when a scent they are following starts to dissipate, a behavior they have found as well in homing pigeons.

One of the interesting things the research group has found is that dogs may actually use scent much like dinosaurs. X-rays of dinosaur skulls reveal that they have a similar structure in terms of their olfactory bulb, which is an area that captures scents as they pass into the nose and move it to the brain. The scientists believe that the olfactory bulb in dogs may very well be the same size ratio to the overall skull as in dinosaurs. And both dinosaurs and dogs developed the ability to follow scents over long areas of territory, which would be a very useful trait for a predator hunting for food.

The full article contains many more fascinating descriptions of the work and findings of the COC. Since scent is such a primary sense for our dogs, understanding more about how it works and how it can be used to harness their attention and provide enrichment is an important facet of good training and overall care of our dogs.



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