See What I’m Saying:

The Extraordinary Powers of our Five Senses


Chapter 3: You Smell Like a Dog


Photo: Lawrence Rosenblum Model: Mari Sanchez

Humans, like dogs, can scent track using the difference in odor intensity between the two nostrils.


        Sometimes to truly understand a surprising perceptual phenomenon, you must experience it first hand. At least this is what I tell myself as I crawl, devoid of sight and sound, across the lawn of my university.

        My graduate students and I have decided to try to replicate an experiment demonstrating that humans can successfully track scents, like dogs. My students have blindfolded me, occluded my ears with plugs and industrial ear protectors, and placed thick gardening gloves on my hands. They’ve spun me around to disorient me, and have guided me to the ground to a crawling position. They have also positioned me toward, and about five feet away from, a 40 foot rope they’ve laid across the ground and secured with garden stakes. This rope has been soaked in peppermint oil for a few days. It is my task to crawl to the rope and then follow its angular path using only my sense of smell.

Once I get over the disorientation from the spinning and absence of vision, hearing, and touch, I concentrate on my scent experience. As I slowly crawl with my nose about four inches from the ground, I get a very strong odor of grass and earth. It’s very familiar and comforting scent, reminiscent of childhood summers. But no peppermint. I lift my head and stick my nose in the air as I’ve seen dogs do, but it doesn’t help. I place my nose back down and continue crawling forward.

Then I get a brief whiff of peppermint. It seems far off and ephemeral, but noticeably spicy, and very different from the earth and grass I’ve been smelling. I continue forward and the peppermint smell becomes stronger. And then I realize that I’ve arrived: I am over the rope. I move my head just beyond the point of strongest smell and detect the odor weaken a bit. I move my head back, turn my body parallel with what I believe is the rope, and start crawling along the line of strongest peppermint odor.

        As I crawl forward with my nose about four inches above the rope, something interesting happens. I have an almost tangible experience of being inside a shallow trench, or gutter, whose shape is defined by the strength of smell. The bottom-most path along this imagined trench contains the strongest peppermint smell, and the sides are composed of an increasingly weakened smell as they rise from the ground. If my nose moves too far to the side of the trench, it’s as if the gradient of smell draws my nose back down the side slope, toward the path of strongest scent—the rope. Perhaps this is what it’s truly like to smell like a dog.

        But then the scent stops. I move my head to the left and right with no luck. I realize that I must be at one of the corners placed in the rope path by my graduate students to make the task more challenging. I crawl back a few feet, swing my head from side to side and realize that the path angles to the right. I continue to follow the rope, guided by my imagined scent trench, until one of my graduate students taps me on the shoulder indicating that I’ve reached the end.

        I stand up, take off my blindfold and see about fifteen undergraduates and a few faculty looking at me and smiling. There is also a student’s small dog standing in the grass next to the rope. One of the faculty asks, “What on earth are you doing?”.

The dog looks at me and cocks his head.