I smell trouble
I picked up the phone on my desk at work and smelled cheap men’s cologne. The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end, my animal instincts on high alert. I am ordinarily the only person who uses that phone. My husband, who doesn’t wear cologne, is the only man who works at our office. It was first thing Monday morning — so either this cologne-wearing, phone-using guy had snuck in sometime in the last few hours and left before I got there, or there was some other, logical explanation. Unlike my gullible husband, I am not a believer in paranormal phenomena.
A nagging, creepy, unsettled feeling was seriously disrupting my concentration. I smelled the strange odor again, this time, on my own hand! I definitely had not shaken hands with some cologne-wearing guy. And then realization dawned: I had run out of my own soap in the shower that morning, and instead, used my teenage son’s Manly-Man body wash. Despite this realization, the smell still managed to waft to my nostrils at intervals throughout the day and send a heightened sense of awareness, “Something’s off!” to my busy brain. So, although I was clean, the tradeoff was feeling like I was being stalked by an old man all day. I will never, again, use Manly-Man body wash — solemn promise.
One of the most primitive and powerful senses we possess is olfaction (sense of smell). Odor receptors in the nose send signals via nerves to various areas of the brain. The frontal cortex allows for conscious detection of smells (“I smell bad men’s cologne”). The hypothalamus and amygdala,when stimulated, trigger emotional reactions to smells (“Why has a man with bad cologne been at my desk using my phone?!” Fast heartbeat, goosebumps, sweaty palms.) The hippocampus helps us recall odor memory (An image of a greasy, smarmy salesman appears, unbidden. Ugh, gross!),
We simple humans can detect an estimated 10,000 “odorants” and can discern some scents in concentrations as weak as a few parts per trillion. Sound staggeringly impressive? Sure, it’s pretty good. But not compared to dogs. While we have approximately 5 million odor receptors in our noses, dogs have approximately 220 million. As a result, scientists say dogs are estimated to be able detect and discern odors anywhere from 10,000-100,000 times more sensitively than humans. It’s like we smell in staticky shades of gray and dogs smell in super-deluxe, high-definition, 4K technicolor 3D, with night vision and X-ray vision combined.
Dogs have jobs that put this fantastical superpower to good use. Anybody who’s flown back to the USA from overseas will have seen the US Customs and Border Control’s Beagle Brigade sniffer dogs wearing their handsome vests — employed happily and enthusiastically to find and help intercept contraband foods, fruits and other things people attempt to smuggle into the country in their luggage. In fact, US Homeland Security uses dogs to detect all manner of illegal goods, including narcotics, hidden humans, currency and explosives.
Dogs love sniffing things and enjoy being rewarded for a job well-done; their talent and willingness to serve makes them ideal candidates for the jobs at hand. Dogs are employed to sniff out gas leaks in areas with underground pipelines — and can alert people to leaks many feet below solid ground. Dogs are used to find people buried in the wreckage of a collapsed building. They can track lost people or criminals for miles using their senses of smell. Some avid enthusiasts teach their dogs to track various scents for fun — there are recognized AKC titles for the best in the tracking dog sport. Dogs are being employed to sniff out cancer in humans. And their noses have been shown to be more reliable in some instances than traditional screening tests. For real. And way-cool.
So, is it any wonder that my dachshunds have destroyed more than a few lunch bags and backpacks to acquire the half-eaten sandwiches, bags of cookie crumbs or morsels of candy contained within? And woe to the hapless rabbits within 100 yards of our back door when a dachshund nose catches its scent.
Dogs’ noses are wondrous things we humans cannot begin to appreciate or understand. Since dogs don’t really discern between good and evil, those that are free to use their super-sniffer gift at their own discretion do what comes naturally: sniff out whatever’s good for a dog. While my dogs and I do not necessarily agree on the likability of some scents over others, I am certain that if my dogs were bathed in Manly-Man body wash, they’d run right outside to mask it with the earthy scents of nature … like something long-dead … and its excrement.
Daverio is a veterinarian at Williamsport West Veterinary Hospital. Her column is published every other Sunday in the Lifestyle section. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.