How Dogs Can Smell When You’re Leaving—and How to Make It Easier on Them

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If you’ve ever left the house early on what promises to be a hot summer day, you’ve noticed a certain scent. It’s warmth and lazy days and fun all wrapped together. Or perhaps you’ve smelled the scent of cold when you open the door for your winter evening dog walk.

To know a dog is to be interested in what it’s like to be a dog. And that all begins with the nose. – Alexandra Horowitz

Seasonal and temperature differences are about as deep as our inferior human noses will allow us to delve into time. Dogs, on the other hand, measure their days in scent. And, because their lives revolve around our presence, the longer dogs are alone, the more responsibility we have to assure that they’re comfortable and busy.

Smelling in stereo

Alexandra Horowitz, founder of the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College, describes it as “stereo-olfaction”—the ability to discern completely different scents with each nostril. A dog’s nose enhances smell the way a fancy high-definition television enhances your visual experience.

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How? The canine nose has hundreds of millions more receptor cells than the human nose, including many of which the human nose simply doesn’t contain. 

This spectacular ability to smell is a primary factor in your dog’s ability to understand the passage of time. The strength of your scent on the air of your home, for example, can indicate how long ago you left the house. The weaker your smell, the longer you’ve been away.

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How dogs smell time

To dogs, time quite literally smells different throughout the day. Morning has a different scent from afternoon, which smells different from night-time. The canine nose is so sensitive that dogs can determine the difference between 5pm and 6pm, the time when your partner’s car rolls into the driveway every weekday.

This sensitivity also helps explain why dogs have excelled at hunting and retrieving over the centuries, and why they benefit tremendously from scent work.

Of course, most dog guardians know their dogs love to smell! We also know that the longer we’ve been away, the more excited our dogs are to see us when we return.

Swedish researchers have done us the favor of confirming this is true. A study conducted in 2010 found dogs left alone for longer than two hours greeted their guardians more intensely and remained more attentive after their return.

How we can help a lonesome dog

These types of studies on canine behavior are a good reminder about how our behavior affects our dogs. But since most of us don’t have the luxury of quitting our jobs or keeping our dogs with us at all times, it’s our responsibility to make our absences as painless as possible for our canine loved ones. Try these solutions the next time you anticipate a long (or even a short) day away:

Ease anxiety

  • The ThunderShirt, which acts as a tightly-wrapped swaddle, can help some dogs to relax while the family is away.
  • DAP (Dog Appeasing Pheromone) products mimic the calming scent of a nursing mother dog. DAP is available as a collar, plug-in diffuser, or room spray.
  • Classical piano music (check out Through a Dog’s Ear) can help a dog to relax while you are gone.
  • Some dogs are made anxious by external noises. White noise, whether a stand-alone device or a free app or website, can help to block those external sounds better than television or radio.

Puzzle toys occupy bored dogs.

Relieve boredom

  • Puzzle toys go a long way towards engaging your dog’s brain while you are away. There are huge selections of puzzle toys out there. Check out our top picks here.
  • If your dog doesn’t suffer from isolation distress or separation anxiety, a number of new toys on the market allow you to periodically interact with your pup while you are away. For instance, by sending them a treat (the Furbo lets you see your dog as well as give them a treat; you can learn more at their site) or powering up a remote-controlled ball. If your dog does suffer from severe panic while you’re away, these products, unfortunately, are likely to make your problem worse.
  • Audio-visual experiences such as DogTV or a custom DVD show images of birds, squirrels, toys and other beloved doggy treats and may entice some dogs into watching the boob tube while you’re away.
  • Creative enrichment involving scent and taste is enough to change your dog’s life from boring to amazing. Check out shelter enrichment for some awesome inspiration.

Get help from a dog sitter, doggy daycare provider, or dog walker

This is self-explanatory. Find a companion for your dog, and the daytime hours will pass more quickly!

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