"Scent" and "walk" are probably two of the most common words in a dog-lover's vocabulary. In the past, you might have thought of them primarily as separate pup-related concepts. A well-trained hound can sniff out a specific scent on cue, for example, and all dogs love a good walk. But, if you're keeping up on the latest in doggie trends (which, of course, you are), then you've probably started to see these two buzzwords paired together more and more often. Scent walks, also known as decompression walks, are growing in popularity, and awareness about these important outings is growing among pet parents everywhere.
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If you still feel a little lost about the ins and outs of scent walks though, have no fear, because we have all of the info you need right here. Scroll down for everything you ever need to know about scent walks and why they're important for your pup.
What is a scent walk/decompression walk?
Let's start with the basics: What is a scent walk, exactly? It's really simple and just what the name implies: It's a walk that's dedicated to scents and sniffing them (in fact, scent walks are also sometimes referred to as "sniff walks").
Now, if you're thinking, "Well, in that case, every walk is a scent walk," think again. Yes, it might feel like every time you walk your dog he has to stop and smell the world around him every thirty seconds or so, but if you discourage that behavior—whether it's with a "leave it" or a gentle tug on the leash to let him know this walk has a purpose and that purpose is not sniffing—then that walk is not a scent walk. What sets scent walks and sniff walks apart from a regular walk during which some sniffing happens is the intention behind it and the time sniffing.
During a sniff walk, you as the pet parent have set a clear intention that this is time set aside for sniffing and you've committed to letting your pup sniff the ground to their heart's content.
Why are scent walks important for dogs?
Okay, so now that we've covered what a scent walk is, let's talk about why they're becoming more and more popular among pet parents. A sniff walk might sound frivolous, or even like a waste of time (especially for people with demanding schedules who never feel like that have enough time for walks as it is), but they're actually really important because they can play a vital role in your dog's mental health.
Sniffing is a dog's primary way of getting information about the world around them, which makes scent walks an important source of mental stimulation for pups—especially dogs that are cooped up indoors a lot. In fact, many experts now consider sniffing as important as physical activity and social time for dogs' overall well-being.
Scent walks may even be good for curbing behavioral issues, as using their nose provides dogs with mental stimulation. This can curb destructive behaviors by helping your dog feel less bored and lowering their stress levels.
How long should a scent walk last?
The short and obvious answer is: As long as you're willing for it to last. The more helpful and specific answer is that it's best to aim for at least 15 minutes. A regular 15-minute walk won't do much to tire your dog out, but a scent walk that lasts the same amount of time can offer enough mental exercise to do the trick. If that sounds hard to believe, consider just how mentally stimulating sniffing is for dogs.
As the Continental Kennel Club explains, "The effort it takes to sort and identify individual elements of an odor requires a lot of work. It's a little like us trying to solve a tough logic problem—the required mental energy is tiring."
The science behind sniffing
Sniffing is an absolutely vital component of your dog's mental health. The reason boils down to dogs' sense of smell, which is so powerful, it shapes the way they experience literally every aspect of life. To put just how powerful pups' noses are into perspective, consider this: Humans have an average of 5-6 million scent receptors in our noses. Dogs, on the other hand, have upwards of 100 million scent receptors, depending on their breed. And bloodhounds (you know, the dogs literally known for taking a whiff of a scrap of clothing and then hunting down the source) have a whopping 300 million scent receptors. This makes smell a dog's primary source of information about the world—more important, even, than sight.
"What the dog sees and knows comes through his nose," affirms Barnard College professor Alexandra Horowitz in her book Being a Dog: Following the Dog Into a World of Smell. "The information that every dog — the tracking dog, of course, but also the dog lying next to you, snoring, on the couch — has about the world based on smell is unthinkably rich."
Dogs' biological predisposition to sniffing doesn't stop in their big, cute, wet noses though. The importance of the sense of smell is also wired into dogs' brains, the smelling section of which is 40 times larger than that of a human's. According to the AKC, a full one-eighth of a dog's brain is dedicated to interpreting odor, which is larger than the portion of the human brain that's focused on interpreting sight (our primary source of information).
Walks are obviously important for dogs for a number of reasons, from exercise and play to taking care of nature's calls. But, if you're rushing your dog through walks or discouraging sniffing, you could be doing them a serious disservice because sniffing is an important aspect of a dog's life and plays a huge role in maintaining their mental well-being. So go ahead and let spot stop and smell the roses—or whatever else his nose desires.