I Sniff, Therefore I Am

(A version of this article appeared in the PBGV Breed Column of the August 2009 AKC Gazette.)
Petit Basset Griffon Vendeen dog using his nose to sniff

There is a great but rather technical book on scenthounds, William Syrotuch’s Scent and the Scenting Dog, but unless you are involved in field work, tracking or the like, it may be a bit heavy for weekend reading. However, not too demanding of your leisure brain power is another book, How Dogs Think: Understanding the Canine Mind, by Stanley Coren. I call your attention to the chapter on the dog’s superior sense of smell that is called “I Sniff, Therefore I Am.”

Coren examines the five senses we have in common with canines and other mammals—smell, touch, sight, taste, and hearing—so we can get into the mind of the dog and understand how his thinking differs from ours. He concedes dogs use all five components to decipher their world, but of his five senses, his sense of smell is the most compelling.

The use of all five senses is necessary for survival in the wild, beginning with taste and one-celled animals and ending with mammals, including humans who rely primarily on sight to understand the world.

petit basset griffon vendeen looking up at his handler

Though canines have a good sense of sight compared to other animals, their visual system is inferior to that of humans. Humans see brighter colors, more shades, and better detail than dogs. However, dogs surpass humans in their sense of smell. With large noses, and noses with both special nerve endings and special chambers to store scent in order to further analyze that scent, the dog is equipped to do many services for man. This depth of scent perception may explain why some dogs seem stubborn, and some are disinterested in their surroundings or in pleasing us.

Praise/food treats for dogs has become the preferred method of training and has all but replaced old, harsh training methods. As psychologists learn what motivates canines, we have come to understand more of his world seen through his sense of scents.

Petit Basset Griffon Vendeen dog using his nose to sniff

What is it about the dog’s nose and nasal passages that enable him to excel in tracking, trailing, search and rescue, and drug location? And what is it that keeps him from keeping his head up in conformation, looking at every morsel found on the floor and acting stubborn in the ring?

The answer is in the nature of his nose. According to Coren’s research, every species has a dominant sensory system. For the one-celled animals such as coral, it is taste. Others, such as starfish and jellyfish, respond to touch best. Nocturnal animals respond to sound. Humans, birds, and monkeys respond to sight, but dogs and many other mammals respond to smell. The nose dominates the face, the brain, and thus, influences greatly the dog’s perception of the world.

Humans respond to most smells unconsciously, but smells only reach our consciousness if pungent or strong. Dogs are different. Dogs respond to many more individual scents and their minds work quite differently in processing information. This fact “makes the dog’s mind an enigma to us. If we could share a dog’s consciousness for a moment, it is likely that our familiar world would appear to be quite alien and incomprehensible” (pp. 50-51).

It is thought that the proportion of the dog’s brain that is devoted to smell is 40 times greater than that of humans, and further, that they can identify smells between 1,000 and 10,000 times better than their humans.

Petit Basset Griffon Vendeen dog using his nose to sniff

Dogs are different. Dogs respond to many more individual scents and their minds work quite differently in processing information.

The nose of a dog is complex. Nose leather is patterned with ridges and dimple-like crevices. Dogs don’t merely “allow” scent to the nose; they actually “gather” scent and “store it” for analysis. They wiggle their nostrils to determine from which direction scent is coming. Each nostril wiggles independently. When a dog sniffs, he suspends his breathing to trap the odor and places it in a small chamber or shelf for interpretation.

The human genome project has shown that humans have the gene for the Jacobson’s organ (that special organ for storage and interpretation of odor) but our organ is vestigial, no longer useful. It has very few smell receptors as compared to the dog (p. 58).

Petit Basset Griffon Vendeen dog using his nose to sniff

The dog’s nose is attuned to smells emitted from other animals, sort of personal smells, biologically generated smells. Pheromones are thought to be a communications system for a species among its own kind. These pheromones can give dogs information about the sex, age, health, and emotional state of another animal. Where humans have sweat glands in the armpit and groin areas only, animals, including dogs, have these apocrine glands spread over the whole body.

They also appear in the urine, which makes the nearest tree the “gossip column” and “personal ad section of the paper.” Dominance, it has been found, is important to males, so they spray above the ground so that it is carried farther by the air. They announce something about their size to other dogs as well. “Dogs’ ability to separate scents can be compared to our ability to separate visual objects” (p. 64).

He can odor layer or separate scents and detect them as individual ingredients. Chili, to your dog, claims Coren, is not a blend as we would detect it; your dog smells meat, tomato, onions, and each of the spices as individual ingredients.

Petit Basset Griffon Vendeen using sniffing a pink suitcase


I Sniff, Therefore I Am
Photos: © The Golden Hound

  • Though she owned an Irish Setter and a Belgian breed as a child, Kitty Steidel’s serious involvement with dogs dates back to 1967 when Kitty and her husband purchased their first Basset Hound from a show breeder. The breeder suggested they show her. So, to investigate showing, Kitty traipsed the countryside in Pennsylvania for two years with a Basset exhibitor, attending shows and observing the breed. After observing at shows, Kitty decided that her first Basset was not a show prospect; however, she did have one litter by her grandsire. Kitty and her husband attended their first National with a bitch from that litter when, after going third in the Bred-By Exhibitor Class, Kitty was hooked. She joined a steward’s club and attended every imaginable workshop/seminar on dogs, especially those sponsored by the German Shepherd Dog clubs, and she collected dog books and articles. Of particular interest were the various breeds that served a hunting purpose; scenthounds, in particular. One never knows what will spark the interest in our sport. Kitty and her husband have some 50-plus years of involvement in Basset Hounds, breeding under the “Sanchu” prefix. They have probably finished close to a hundred Sanchu-related champions. In the early ‘80s, a trip to Denmark to visit Basset fanciers and a side trip to the home of a Petit Basset Griffon Vendeen breeder ignited Kitty’s interest in the Petit Basset Griffon Vendeen. Realizing that this breed would take off in the US and concerned about its proper introduction here, she developed a newsletter and organized a club. The Inaugural Meeting, which founded the Petit Basset Griffon Vendeen Club of America, was held in Philadelphia at the AKC Centennial in 1984. Kitty became a Life Member a few years ago. Having served on the Board of the Basset Hound Club of America and on their Judges Education Committee for over 20 years, Kitty has also served on nearly every committee with the Petit Basset Griffon Vendeen Club of America, including the offices of President and Secretary. She has assisted more than once with the Petit Basset Griffon Vendeen Official Standard Revisions, chaired the committee to produce the CD, and developed many of the materials for seminars. In 1987, Kitty’s book, Understanding the Petit Basset Griffon Vendeen: Rustic French Hound (Orient), received a nomination for best breed book by the Dog Writers Association of America. Though there are now several Petit Basset Griffon Vendeen books, in 1987 it was the first book, written in any language, devoted exclusively to the Petit Basset Griffon Vendeen. Kitty judged her first Petit Basset Griffon Vendeen Specialty in Denmark before they were recognized in the US. She recalls quickly studying up on the Grand Basset Griffon Vendeen, the Petit Basset Griffon Vendeen, the Basset Bleu de Gascogne, and the Fauve de Bretagne, all part of the Basset Hound Club of Denmark. Over thirty some years later. Kitty is still learning and trying to get across the concept of “casual” with those Vendeen hounds. Kitty enjoys writing and has contributed columns to the AKC Gazette for the PBGVCA for years, and she serves as the PBGVCA Judges Education Coordinator to this day. Outside of parent clubs, she has represented the Channel City Kennel Club (Santa Barbara, California) as AKC Delegate for 14 years, served on the Board of the Scottsdale Dog Fanciers Association in Arizona, and coordinated the Scottsdale Dog Judges Workshop group for many years. Recently, Kitty was invited to membership in the Golden Gate Kennel Club. Her job is JEC for Rare Breed Seminars and she is a link to their Open Shows. With an interest in demonstrating the worthiness of another Vendeen Hound, the Grand Basset Griffon Vendeen, which was just admitted to the Hound Group in January 2018, Kitty serves on the BOD of the Grand Basset Griffon Club of America. In addition to having written numerous articles on Bassets and Petits and Grands Bassets Griffons Vendeens for various magazines and parent club education, she gives presentations to prospective judges of these breeds. Competitively speaking, Kitty has, for decades on her own and then in partnership in Basset Hounds with Claudia Orlandi of Topsfield Bassets in Vermont, co-owned and/or co-bred the Number One Basset Hound for several consecutive years. Kitty graduated from Wells College in Aurora, New York, with a major in English and a minor in Philosophy, and earned a Masters from Cornell University. She taught junior high for 15 years and sold real estate for several years in Pennsylvania. Kitty imagines it is obvious that sharing her time with other fanciers and judges is important in her life. She is approved for the Sporting, Hound, and Toy Groups, a couple of Herding Breeds, BIS, and Limited Juniors.

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