The Dog's Language of Smell

All dogs use the language of smell. While we speak with our voices, they speak with smell. Theirs is a rich and complex language we only barely understand. Having a pack gives us a unique opportunity to observe and learn about this magnificent language of smell. It is a complex language and part of the fabric of the social structure of dogs. It takes knowing the pack intimately to really sort this information out and there will always be gaps in our knowledge. It's not something for casual observation because it can change based on the circumstances.  The language of smell is a large part of a dog's life - just as our language is a large part of who we are. So on to a few observations:

  • Dogs that are weak or ill, and puppies, will always pee and poop near the back door (entrance to the den). The strongest, healthiest dogs will poop around the perimeter of the yard - laying scent markers that "this is OUR property" - which makes sense because you want your biggest and burliest at the entrance to your establishment.
  • Male dogs will make a scent "claim" to a female by urinating on top of where she just urinated. If he considers her his special girl, he will always search out and pee on her spot even if it's old. This does not necessarily mean "mate" but really more of a close familial relationship, though it can also mean "mate" as well.
  • The higher a male urinates on a tree (or post or just about anything) the higher he hopes to be in the pack. The more alpha-seeking males will always lift their leg higher than anyone else (almost to the point of falling over sometimes). The mellow, low ranking males may not lift a leg at all and just stand to pee. Lifting a leg is more an indication of attitude and desire rather than actual rank.  I've seen alpha-seeking males try and "one up" the Alpha male.  Riggs, though alpha, just stands - perhaps that's because he's neutered, but I think it's more because he knows he's alpha and doesn't need to prove it to anyone.
  • Everyone knows dogs smell each others butts - but why? They can tell everything about the recipient - his/her mood, health, pack order, and probably more. When a dog of mid rank returns to the pack the returning dog will stand perfectly still and allow the others to sniff them from head to tail (with special emphasis on butt, ears and eyes). This is a required protocol. Once all sniffing has ceased, they are "in" and can start playing and resume their place in the pack order. A dog that doesn't do this could be attacked or at the very least won't be accepted very well. A puppy or dog that is NOT a member of the existing pack will sometimes roll on his back in a submissive gesture. An established pack member that is not low ranking will not do this, they will just "stand for examination". Alpha's that return do not have to submit to the butt sniffing protocol unless they want to or have something interesting to share (not sure what that might be, but I've seen it happen sometimes and it's like they are sharing something - perhaps emotional?).  
  • When alpha dogs or higher ranked dogs return to the pack they are immediately greeted by face licking. This is a submissive gesture from the rest of the pack. The pack may smell the Alpha's butt - but very discreetly - much more subtle than "stand for examination".
  • Dogs can tell family relationships and genetic differences based on smell. It's quite obvious that there was some sort of double standard going on with Gracie and Chevy who were not genetically "related" to our other dogs. While Chevy was accepted to a degree (probably because of his disability, clueless ness and sweet nature), it's been different with Gracie. In all honesty, I can smell the difference (I have a pretty sensitive nose) so I can imagine the differences they smell. If one dog plays with a member of the pack not liked by others, the "bad karma" can rub off on him literally. For example, Jazzy does not like her sister Pod. But her puppies Superman and Mocha play with Pod all the time, and Superman is with Pod more than Jazzy. When Jazz has the opportunity to be around Superman, she gives him the third degree and acts like she doesn't trust him immediately, and only after several minutes does her animosity toward him cease when she realizes Superman is her puppy. But he has Pod's SMELL on him. This is the same once-over you get after visiting a friend's dog. You smell like a different pack and they have to check you closely to make sure you are still you.
  • Pod likely used smell to warn us that Chevy had an impending epileptic seizure. It's being found dogs can sniff out everything from infections to cancer. No surprise there as we've noted for a long time Riggs is our early warning system when it comes to illness. I take special note when he sniffs another dogs ears, eyes or breath because often it means something is amiss.
  • Have you ever noticed a dog sniffing your breath after you've eaten?  It's not because you need a breath mint - they just want to know what was for dinner - probably a throwback to asking the alphas to "throw up dinner" for them as puppies.

Dogs have a whole world of smells they use to their advantage.  It's probably something we will never fully understand, but should always be aware of.