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Can Dogs Smell Water? What Science Tells Us

Jana Blagojevic

By Jana Blagojevic

Dog smelling water

Dogs are fantastic companion animals with many unique characteristics. One thing that dogs can always rely on is their sense of smell. If you have a dog, they’ve probably dragged you, one time or another, to some random scent they picked up while walking. This assures us that dogs’ sense of smell is powerful, but is it so strong they can smell neutral things like water?

The answer is both yes and no, as the topic is a little complex—if you want to find out why, stick with us.

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Why Dogs Have Such a Great Sense of Smell

We must return to dogs’ roots to understand why they have such a fantastic sense of smell. As you probably know, our domestic dogs descended from gray wolves whose Latin name is Canis lupus.1 Gray wolves are predators that live in packs and need to develop their sense of smell to survive. They use their urine to mark their territory, just like dogs, but they use their sense of smell to recognize if the scent comes from their pack member or a different pack.

Another fascinating characteristic of gray wolves is that they have been seen tracking their prey for many miles, so a good sense of smell is a must.

close up dog nose
Image Credit: LUM3N, Pixabay

Working Dogs

Most of the time, we think of dogs as loyal pets, and we love them for it, but we can’t deny that they make fantastic guard animals and great trackers. Dogs are often used in the military or as police dogs for their smelling abilities. In the military, they are trained and often used to find a missing person. They can also be used as messengers to bring information from one place to another. With the police force, they are often used to find illegal substances at borders or during in-house investigations.

Some new studies even suggest that dogs might be able to detect cancer in some people just by “sniffing” that region of their owner’s body.

Characteristics of Water

Before mentioning the smell of water and whether dogs can sense it, we must distinguish between completely clean water and water that we use or find outside our homes. The structure of water, when it’s completely clear, is made of only oxygen and hydrogen. However, the water we use in our everyday lives can often contain other things of inorganic nature, such as chlorine, sodium, or magnesium.

Even with their extraordinary sense of smell, dogs can’t smell neutral water—water without other properties. However, if the water is not clear and it has other chemicals or compounds, dogs can probably smell it. For this reason, dogs can also smell through water, and some dogs are even specially trained to smell underwater to locate people and bodies, drugs, and various other things. Dogs can also smell water in lakes and rivers with plenty of inorganic and organic components like vegetation or animals.

Dog Head Under Pool Water
Image Credit: 825545, pixabay

A Dog’s Sense of Smell

A dog’s sense of smell is so strong that it is estimated to be 10,000 to 100,000 times better than a human’s. Dogs have significantly developed olfactory systems, which are the structures that serve the sense of smell. Below you can find some of the fascinating characteristics of a dog’s olfactory system, which gives them an indisputable advantage over humans. We need to explain this system so that you can learn how intricate the structure of a dog’s nasal cavity is, allowing them to perceive smell in a fascinating way.

The olfactory epithelium contains two types of cells, with millions of olfactory receptor cells and supportive cells. Supportive cells have different roles, but the most important one is protecting the epithelium from various damages. On the other hand, olfactory receptor cells are responsible for the odor that dogs sense. Every cell has one olfactory receptor, and it’s estimated that dogs have about 220 million olfactory receptors.

Dogs have a certain organ, known as Jacobsons’ organ, which has a role in smelling, but its primary role is detecting pheromones aiding in reproduction. The olfactory bulb makes up a very big portion of a dog’s brain and is responsible for processing different scents, and the olfactory cortex is a part of the brain cortex that helps dogs make conscious decisions based on that scent.

Why is My Dog Smelling the Water Bowl?

Water is not entirely odorless, especially in water bowls. Your dogs can gather plenty of information from a water bowl just from being replaced or moved around. If you notice your dog smelling its water bowl, it can probably sense a small amount of food that accidentally ended up in the bowl. Dogs can smell odors around their food bowls, such as other pets using it or even your smell from touching the water bowl. Their water bowl can also have some residual dish soap, making it unappealing to dogs as it can irritate their nose.

dog drinking in the water bowl
Image Credit: SamaraHeisz5, Shutterstock

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Final thoughts

Whether or not dogs can smell water, we know for sure that their smell is out of this world. A dog’s sense of smell is estimated to be 10,000 to 100,000 times better than that of humans, so you can only imagine everything they can smell without us even noticing. While dogs can smell certain components in water, they cannot smell pure, neutral water itself. Next time you’re walking your dog, remember this article and take notice of all the things they can smell. You’ll understand the behavior of dogs so much better once you learn their capabilities.

Featured Image Credit: Thu Vũ, Pixabay

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