Whole Dog Journal's Blog March 7, 2018

Do Dogs Recognize Us With Smell More Than Sight?

Posted at 04:35PM - Comments: (12)

We've probably all seen it - dogs who don't seem to recognize obviously familiar people until they get a good sniff of them. Why is that?

Have you seen this video†-†the one where the guy was in a hospital for five weeks and is now home, and his dog doesn’t recognize him at first? The dog is released from somewhere off camera, and there are enough voices that you can tell that there are a number of people gathered, so it’s understandable when the dog comes running toward the group and is barking and a little alarmed. The man remains sitting, and talks to the dog a little, and the dog, spooked, approaches slowly and suspiciously, and carefully reaches his nose toward the man for a sniff – and the SECOND he smells the man, his face LIGHTS up and his body explodes with joy. "IT’S MY OWNER!" Everyone laughs as the dog goes crazy with happiness, rolling around in the man’s arms.

I can’t tell you how many times I have watched this video, because my two-year-old dog Woody has done the same thing to me and some of my friends – in fact, a number of times. I’ve even seen him put up his hackles and growl, approaching someone he knows well, looking spooked, and the MOMENT he sniffs them, he transforms instantaneously, seemingly overwhelmed with delight. "My FRIEND! OMG IT’S SO GOOD TO SEE YOU!"

Do dogs have really poor vision? Is there such a thing as an eye chart or a vision test for dogs? What is up with this?

Has this ever happened to you?

Comments (12)

Yes, I believe they do have poor eyesight, or are reluctant to depend upon it vs their nose. When I have been gone for awhile, and I want my Labradoodle, Cheyenne to know it's me, I open my arms wide, which is a large, easily seen gesture, and she comes running.

Posted by: Cheyenne's Mom | March 12, 2018 8:35 AM    Report this comment

Absolutely. Of course dogs can have poor sight - exactly as some humans do! I had one dog who I an sure had dreadful eyesight. She would alarm at perfectly ordinary things. She was my most difficult dog, too. But I did learn from her the importance of "check it out!".

Posted by: Jenny H | March 9, 2018 7:03 PM    Report this comment

I have an approx. 6 1/2 yo MinPin who was terribly firghtened when turned in to rescue for that very problem. He had been found alone in the middle of a nighttime rainstorm. I fostered him and eventually adopted him because he didn't rehab enough to be adopted anywhere else. He has been with me for nearly 5 years now and still acts as though he doesn't recognize me if i do anything unusual, make a strange (to me) noise, wear a hood or hat, etc. On a leash he clings near me and is quite good but off the leash I have to make him go in his crate in order to catch him. If I am sitting or lying down he seems to feel safer and will come to me voluntarily (but not when called).
He's a beautiful dog but I think he was traumatized terribly, probably as a puppy, and then not socialized.

Posted by: sarosomo | March 9, 2018 12:00 PM    Report this comment

3 of my dogs have no problems but one hides under the table every time I (or anyone else) walks in the door, even though the others are doing cartwheels. He stays there until I come over and pet him. Then he gives me a good sniff & goes crazy too. Weird!

Posted by: 4LilDoggyz | March 8, 2018 3:06 PM    Report this comment

@califgrl our dog has fear issues too and i have noticed something similar when we rescued him, he would get scared if i was carrying a laundry basket or a bag or box. We started behavior therapy for the fear issues and one of things that we are doing a lot recently is playing with him, with toys, food and personal play which involves jumping around our bodies, touching and wrestling with us a lot. We feel like that has really helped him be more comfortable with us, haven't noticed him being scared of us.

Posted by: srimoyee | March 8, 2018 2:25 PM    Report this comment

Could it be that it partly depends on the breed? Some breeds (like my miniature schnauzer) seem much more prone to sniffing EVERYTHING.

Posted by: karenginTX | March 8, 2018 12:55 PM    Report this comment

I've read that dogs recognize us visually by the way we move rather than our features. As long as we are static, it's harder for them to tell us apart from the crowd. Movement from far & smell close up gives us away.

Posted by: waldo 245 | March 8, 2018 12:41 PM    Report this comment

I wonder how much of this is due to sensory memory? Because dogs depend on olfaction to understand their world, and because the sense of smell is the first to develop and the last to go, it may be imbued with a better "memory" than are the lesser senses of hearing and sight. And they can discern so much more through odors than we can ever imagine - identity, sex, age, health, passage of time etc - and more than we can through our primary sense of vision. The dog's olfactory sense is truly remarkable~

Posted by: mcjean | March 8, 2018 12:33 PM    Report this comment

Thanks, WDJ, for explaining something thatís puzzled me lately. My dog, who has fear issues, seems to have more and more trouble recognizing me. Sometimes itís just a slight change like me wearing a hat that seems to flummox her. But she always responds that my voice? Sheís getting older (turned 9 yesterday), so Iíve worried she may getting dementia. Now I wonder if my own aging has changed how I smell to her.

Posted by: califgrl | March 8, 2018 12:13 PM    Report this comment

A well balanced dog will typically use itís nose first before reacting to itís environment. This dog was reactive first and then got around to finally using itís nose..... cute video!

Posted by: Herd_em_up | March 8, 2018 12:00 PM    Report this comment

I find this to be far more common with dogs that have low fear thresholds. Dogs with social issues tend to require a greater degree of validity that the subject they are approaching is safe.

Posted by: Steve R | March 8, 2018 11:59 AM    Report this comment

My dog is the opposite. Unlike my prior dogs, he does not use his nose to recognize me. When we play hide and seek he comes right up to me and still can't find me. If he sniffed, he'd know I was there like my other dogs used to do when they played hide and seek.

Posted by: googie | March 8, 2018 11:08 AM    Report this comment

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