Do Golden Retrievers Have a Good Sense of Smell?

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Many people are surprised to learn that Golden Retrievers are born with their eyes and ears closed at birth. As such, Golden Retriever puppies must use their sense of smell early on to navigate their tiny worlds. Not surprisingly, then, Golden Retrievers develop a good sense of smell, considering it’s their primary sense right from birth. 

Golden Retrievers have a great sense of smell and were bred to locate and retrieve game birds for hunters, a task that requires a highly developed nose. A dog’s sense of smell is 10,000 to 100,000 times stronger than ours, and they have up to 300 million olfactory receptors, compared to our 6 million.

Dogs have an extraordinary sense of smell. Much more powerful than a human being. Not only that, but the part of a dog’s brain that is responsible for analyzing smells can do so at a rate of 40 times greater than ours. 

That remarkable ability to analyze smells is due largely to dogs having up to 300 million olfactory receptors, whereas humans only have 5 to 6 million. Notice I said, “up to.”

Some breeds like the bloodhound have the maximum amount, other dog breeds were not bred to be as scent-focused, and they do not.

The sporting dog group or hunting dogs, such as the Golden and Labrador Retrievers, are also well known to be great scent dogs. Retrievers were bred to locate and retrieve downed waterfowl or game birds, often in water or brush, which requires a powerful sense of smell.

If you’re curious about the differences between a Golden and Labrador Retrievers, then take a few minutes to read this article I wrote: Golden Versus Labrador Retriever: Which is The Better Dog?

That powerful sense of smell makes dogs exceptionally suited for tracking objects or people, sniffing out drugs or contraband, and finding cadavers. In addition, dogs can be taught to smell gas leaks along pipelines and even detect cancers, diabetes, and possibly even the coronavirus. 

The Golden Retriever’s sense of smell makes it well suited to tracking, search and rescue, and nosework. 

According to James Walker, former director of the Sensory Research Institute at Florida State University, a dog’s sense of smell is a magnitude of 10,000 to 100 000 times more powerful than ours (source).

To illustrate the magnitude of that olfactory powers, Mr. Walker compares a dogs smell to vision: 

If you make the analogy to vision, what you and I can see at a third of a mile, a dog could see more than 3,000 miles away and still see as well.

Wow, that is a powerful nose. In combination with the traits discussed in the previous section, it’s no wonder Golden Retrievers make such good trackers. 

Why Do Golden Retrievers Sniff Everything?

If you are a Golden Retriever owner, you have inevitably noticed your dog’s nose to the ground or its propensity to sniff everything. But, if you’re like me, you’ve probably wondered why do your Golden Retrievers sniff everything? 

Golden Retrievers sniff everything to gain information about the world around them. A Golden Retriever’s sense of smell is more developed than its other senses, including vision, taste, or hearing. Therefore, sniffing objects provide more environmental feedback than other senses.  

Consider this analogy to appreciate just how developed a Golden Retriever’s sense of smell is. 

In her book, Being a Dog: Following the Dog Into a World of Smell, Alexandra Horowitz, a dog-cognition researcher at Barnard College, uses coffee and sugar to illustrate how well dogs smell.

If we had a cup of coffee with a teaspoon of sugar in it, we might notice that; however, a dog could detect that same teaspoon of sugar in a million gallons of water or an equivalent of two Olympic size swimming pools. 

According to veterinarian Lynn Buzhardt, blind dogs can adapt more quickly than blind humans because their noses are so powerful (source). 

“The dog’s sense of smell is so adept that a blind dog has much less difficulty adjusting to the loss of vision than a human does.”

So, a blind dog would be the Daredevil of the canine world (comic book reference for those Marvel fans out there). 

So, what is it about the dog that gives it the superpower of super smell?

As discussed earlier, the part of the brain that processes smell is 40 times faster in a dog. One-eighth of a dog’s brain is dedicated to processing odors. 

But, that’s not all.

Dogs also possess a second olfactory system that we humans do not have. The vomeronasal organ, also known as Jacobson’s organ, is located at the bottom of the dog’s nasal passage.

The Jacobson Organ allows Golden Retrievers to smell pheromones or chemicals that animals transmit to communicate mating readiness and sex-related information. 

Now you know why dogs smell each other butts. There’s a lot of information transmitted from those areas. 

Not only that, but dogs can smell when we’re scared or stressed. According to veterinarian Lynn Buzhardt, we release adrenaline in response to the flight or flight response when we’re afraid. Dogs can smell those chemicals, even though we cannot. 

So, when you think you’re Golden Retriever is picking up on your energy, or it knows when you’re sad, depressed, happy, or mad, in a way, it is. It is smelling chemicals that are released when you’re feeling intense emotions. 

Pretty impressive, eh? Well, that’s not all. Dogs also breathe differently than we do. Or put, more aptly, their noses are different than others. 

Whereas we humans breathe and smell with the same airway, a dog’s nose separates the function of breathing and smelling. For example, researchers found that a fold of tissues just inside the nostril separates breathing from smelling when a dog breathes in.

In other words, when a Golden Retriever breathes in the air, it splits into two functions – one for smelling and one for breathing. 

Your Golden Retriever sniffs everything because its nose and brain have evolved to be its primary sense when navigating the world around it. 

How Far Can Golden Retrievers Smell? 

Golden Retrievers are great smellers. They can smell far better than humans, and their brains and nasal passageways are more highly developed. But does that great sense of smell translate to distance as well? Specifically, how far can a Golden Retriever smell? 

Under perfect conditions, Golden Retrievers may smell particular objects or people up to 20 kilometers away. However, that distance can be impacted by weather, wind, and the type of scent being detected. Dogs can also detect odors in 30 feet of water and 15 feet underground. 

According to animal expert, Dr. Susan Hazel at the University of Adelaide, dogs belong to the Carnivora family, including bears, skunks, and their arch enemies, the cat. Animals that belong to this family all have a great and well-developed sense of smell.

While Dr. Hazel notes that dogs can smell up to 20 km, the polar bear can detect odors up to 30 km away. 

Still, 20 km is pretty darn good, no!! 

A Golden Retriever’s sense of smell is so good that they can even detect human bodies in deep ground or water and small objects in grassy or treed areas. 

According to the Search and Rescue Association of Alberta, search and rescue (SAR) dogs can detect cadavers in 30 feet of water, bullet casings in short grass, blood spatter in cars, and they can search an acre of light brush or trees in 20 minutes – day or night. 

The Search and Rescue Association of Alberta also points out that Golden Retrievers are a very popular choice for SAR dogs for many reasons. If you’re interested in what those reasons are, then check out this post: Golden Retrievers as Search and Rescue Dogs: The Facts.

Research has shown that dogs are up to 95 percent accurate when detecting bodies up to 15 feet below ground (source) and within 15 meters of water (source).

Should I Let My Golden Retriever Sniff Things on Walks? 

I believe there is a benefit to letting my Golden Retriever smell things on a walk. When I take my Golden Retriever for a walk, I noticed that he seemed to be more tired on days when I allow him to smell objects versus if it’s just a physical walk or runs on that day. Why is that?

Golden Retrievers should be allowed to sniff things on walks. Smell is their primary sense, and sniffing objects on walks provide important information about the world around them and is an essential source of mental stimulation.

As discussed earlier, the Golden Retriever’s brain is wired for smelling things. Their sense of smell is how they get information about the world around them, and it is similar to how we use vision as our primary sense to navigate the world. 

Not allowing a Golden Retriever to smell things on walks is like blindfolding a person. It severely limits their ability to gather important information about the environment. 

Consider how dogs approach something new. For example, if they’re curious and not fearful, the first thing they most often do is smell it.

Or consider how dogs greet other dogs on walks. Smelling the hindquarters is the first thing they usually do because it’s an essential source of information about that dog. 

Here’s another example, our Golden Retriever dislikes male or female dogs that have not been spayed or neutered. I suspect he had a bad experience with one at doggie daycare.

However, how does he know that they haven’t been fixed yet? It’s not like he checks out their surgical scars or lack thereof. Nope, it’s all done by smell. 

By the way, it would help if you got your Golden Retrieve neutered or spayed. There are many benefits, mainly controlling the dog population as number one. However, there is a “best” age to do it. 

To find out what age is best and why, along with other common questions regarding spaying or neutering a Golden Retriever, check out these posts: Spaying A Golden Retriever: What You Need to Know, and Neutering a Golden Retriever: Common Questions Answered.

Now, of course, when going on walks, it is not feasible to allow the dog to smell everything. A 60-minute walk would have minimal actual “walking” as your dog would spend most of its time smelling hydrants and trees.

Golden Retrievers are highly active dogs and need around 60 to 120 minutes of exercise per day. So, a walk can’t be all about smelling things.

Our Golden Retriever gets most exhausted on days when we provide a good mix of exercise such as walking and running and mental stimulation in the form of play and nosework (smelling things). 

It’s best to balance stretches of loose leash walking with short breaks for your dog to sniff things. In this way, the dog gets its physical exercise (which is essential) while still allowing time to exercise its nose and brain (mental stimulation).

To balance walking with sniffing, it’s a great idea to teach your Golden Retriever the “leave it” command. The leave-it skill is a critical one.

The “leave-it” command teaches your dog to leave something alone when asked to do so.

Maybe it’s feces, some dangerous food like a grape, a cat, squirrel, or whatever. “Leave it,” tells the dog, nope – don’t touch. If you’re interested in learning the “leave it” command, then check out this post:  Golden Retriever Training: The “Leave It” Skill.

The leave it skill is also a great way to get or keep the dog moving when it’s been distracted by smelling something. 

You can also teach another command such as “let’s go.” Let’s go teaches the dog that it’s time to get going.

I use “let’s go” when I’m allowing our Golden Retriever a sniff break, but it’s been long enough, and it’s time to get going. I use “leave it” when Bailey is about to smell something that I don’t want him to, or it’s time for walking, not smelling.

Final Thoughts

Golden Retrievers, like other dogs, are wired for smell. Their nose and brains are made for it. 

So, when going on walks, make sure to let your Golden Retriever occasionally stop and smell things. In addition to getting physical exercise, you’ll probably find it’s much more tired afterward, too, from using that nose and brain.

Golden Retrievers are a breed that is very well suited to scent activities. Most dogs that were bred for hunting have highly developed scent detection.

After all, a keen sense of smell is a handy thing to have when you have to locate a game bird in the grass or find it in the water. 

Suppose your Golden Retriever is particularly scent-driven. In that case, you might want to consider fostering that acute sense by taking up scent-related activities for your Golden Retriever. 

It could be nosework or tracking. You can teach it yourself or enroll in a club. If you’re interested, I detail it all in this post: Golden Retrievers Make Good Tracking Dogs! (Here’s Why).

The key takeaway is this. Golden Retrievers have a great sense of smell, and it’s one of the most important (and enjoyable) things they can do. Smelling is how they interact and process information about their worlds.

So, let your Golden Retrievers smell and sniff to their heart’s desire. After all, it’s what nature intended for them to do!


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