Noses of note

2013-07-25 00:00

OUR pets may be cute and entertaining, but they also have certain capabilities that never cease to amaze, and one is odour identification. Sensitivity to scent is partly inherited. In the grand genetic canine design there is already an incredible scenting system in place, but through careful breeding, this ability has been enhanced to almost unbelievable levels.

The most powerful sense dogs have is that of smell. The average canine has about 220 million scent receptors in its nose, whereas we have about five million. If the membranes lining the inside of a dog’s nose were laid out flat, the total surface area would be greater than that of its entire body. Compared to a human, this would be about seven square metres, versus about a half square metre in us.

Last year, two adult male beagles, which had both previously completed my puppy programme, came to board for a month. I used the opportunity to conduct a simple experiment. After walking a visiting dog in a zig-zag pattern for about 100 metres at 9 am, I then let my pack run around the same area at about midday. At 5 pm, I gave the older beagle access to this spot and he followed the scent trail of the strange dog from start to finish. To make it more unbelievable, he did this at a brisk trot. I was stunned.

Military and law-enforcement agencies discovered long ago what a powerful tool they have in the dog’s superior sense of smell. For example, certain breeds are now utilised in the detection of buried land mines without having to go near the target areas. These mine detectors never leave their country of origin and in fact may be several thousand kilometres away. This is achieved by using specially adapted vehicles that travel along routes suspected of having been mined. Vacuum cleaners, which are mounted on either side, draw in air as the vehicle moves along. At designated points, the vacuum’s filters are removed, sealed, marked with GPS co-ordinates and then flown to the countries where the specialist dogs are located. The sealed filters are then laid out to be sniffed. Whenever one of the filters is singled out, the corresponding GPS co-ordinates are sent back to the target area, where the buried mines are found without fail. This process is possible because chemicals in the explosives evaporate above certain temperatures, thereby releasing particles into the atmosphere which are sucked into the filters.

One agency that has conducted extensive research into dog’s scenting abilities is the Army Mobility Equipment Research and Development Command at Fort Belvoir, Virginia in the U.S. It was concluded: “The canine can be trained routinely to function extremely well as a mine-detection system that is capable of operating in a vast expanse of climatic and topographical environments.” The final report in 1985 concluded there is no mechanical peer in explosives detection. During their experimentation, areas were ploughed, covered with petrol and set alight. Live and spent ammunition was scattered in the minefields, but none of these ploys consistently defeated the dogs’ scenting abilities. Badgers, coyotes, ferrets, red foxes, opossums and raccoons were all tested, without success. So, my pets are not just mutts. They are fascinating entities in so many ways and one can only wonder at their sophisticated design.

• Steve van Staden is a canine behaviour specialist and can be contacted at 083 340 8060 or visit

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