Fire Department

Have you ever been in a situation where you put three Milky Bones into your pocket with an intention to treat your dog, and when the pooch is busy devouring the second one, your phone rings. You answer it, talk for a few minutes, get distracted, and forget all about the Milky Bone and your pooch. You go about your business only to discover later that Fido had been following you everywhere, his eyes fixed on your pocket. You look down at him incredulously and in return he regards you with a glance that pretty much says:

"OK buddy, you and I both know that there is one more Milky Bone in that pocket of yours, and we both know that you’re not gonna eat it so pass it on, will you?"

First understanding hits you, and then... this really weird, spooky feeling... Fido knows how to count. At least to three.

Math, however, is not their thing. Their noses are. In the wild, the canines’ highly refined sense of smell is a key to their survival. They depend on it to find food, detect danger, and communicate. Although the majority of our domesticated pooches don’t have to preoccupy themselves with survival issues nowadays, their noses remain their major source of information about the world around them. As my friend observed:

"When you take your dog for a walk and he methodically stops to thoroughly examine every single lamppost and every single hydrant, it’s not to annoy you - he is simply finding out what’s going on in the neighborhood. In other words, he is checking his p-mail."

Canines possess capabilities that humans cannot begin to duplicate, or often even comprehend. While you were impatiently tapping your foot on the pavement waiting for Fido to finally quit examining the smelly fire hydrant, he was actually getting 411’s on all recent visitors to the area including their sex, diet, health, and even emotional state. Important stuff. If you think about it, it’s quite incredible. It took Fido all of about 30 seconds (even though it felt more like ages to you) to sniff out all that info. How much manpower, time, and resources do you think would some human-staffed agency need to complete the same task? Exactly. That is why dogs with their incredible resources - oops, I mean - noses make such exceptional partners in law enforcement agencies, fire investigations among them.

Besides being so irresistibly cute, dogs’ noses have approximately two hundred million nasal olfactory receptors, somewhere between 20 to 40 times more than humans. The receptors detect and identify the tiny odor molecules, and through the olfactory nerve pass the information to the brain. No rocket science here. Our noses work the same way. The similarities end here, though. To illustrate the finer points of the superior canine olfactory system lets picture the following fictional though realistic scene.

Exhausted and slightly annoyed after patiently accompanying Fido to all the local lampposts and hydrants, you are finally walking back home. Fido trots happily, satisfied with the highly stimulating and informative sweep of the neighborhood. You look down at Fido and wish he would at least stop wagging his tail. It’s dinnertime, your stomach is growling, your feet are killing you, and you just missed your favorite TV show. Hey, but you made it. You’re only a short distance from your house, your couch, your remote control - and as things start to look up, a heavenly smell fills your nostrils. Wow! You say to no one in particular -- and your stomach replays: Wow indeed!

From the look and smell of things, you conclude that one of your neighbors - a cat owner no doubt - is just serving dinner. You register the smell and wonder which of your neighbors is the lucky owner of a cat and the mouth-watering meal. While trying to control the over-stimulated saliva glands, you conclude that the smell comes from either The Smiths’ house on the left, The Johnsons’ on the right, or The Morellis’ across the street. Proud of your deductive and analytical skills, you remain completely oblivious to the fact that Fido already figured out not only that it is, in fact, The Morellis’, but also, that they are actually eating Filet Mignon - your favorite.

At home, you decide to skip cooking and go for a take-out. For some weird reason you are craving Filet Mignon, so you grab the phone and order your favorite dish. Twenty minutes later, you open your dinner container and it strikes you that the wonderful smell filling your nostrils right now is EXACTLY the same you encountered only 30 minutes earlier while passing The Smiths’ house.

If Fido could read your mind or chuckle, he would chuckle at your silly thoughts. Pathetic really. The sorry excuse for filet mignon you’re devouring so happily smells absolutely nothing like the tender dish Mrs. Morelli’s family is enjoying. For one, Mrs. Morelli used fresh rosemary, freshly ground black pepper, and home made chicken stock -- not the powdery stuff that they use in restaurants. Fido sighs the dog equivalent of a sigh: "Humans, you’ve got to love’m."


If it sounds to you like a low budget, unsuccessful joint venture between The Animal Planet and the Sci-Fi Channel, don’t be fooled. Just read on, my friend.

We are, indeed, perfectly capable of detecting a presence of odor (although sometimes we wished we weren’t). When it comes to identifying the direction from which the odor is emanating, however, our ratings go down. Way down.

The dog’s brain can determine which nostril has the greatest concentration of odor. You’ve seen a dog lifting his heads up and sort of flaring his nostrils. When the odor is more intense in his left nostril, he knows, the odor comes from the left. By the same token, when the smell is more intense in his right nostril, it comes from the right. When the intensity is balanced in both nostrils, the dog knows the smell emanates from the front. Pretty cool, hmm? Don’t try this at home, though. Trying to outshine your dog? Com’n man, you will only embarrass yourself. Besides you will look silly flaring your nostrils left and right. Take your olfactory inferiority like a man, will you? Besides, Fido couldn’t care less. He will love you forever, bad nose and all. Digressing, am I?

OK, so we know how Fido "nailed" Mrs. Morelli; but what about the rosemary, black pepper, and home made chicken stock? How did the smarty-pants figure this one out, you ask? Prepare to be amazed.

Dogs are capable of something that we, inferior humans, call odor layering. Simply put, if we walked into Mrs. Morelli’s kitchen, we would smell her wonderful filet mignon. Fido, who’d undoubtedly follow us, would, on the other hand, smell the meat, home made chicken stock, fresh rosemary, freshly ground black pepper, salt, balsamic vinegar, two cloves of garlic (minced) and 1 tablespoon of butter (optional).

Given only a few minutes, and a chance to walk around, Fido could also distinguish the individual scents of all the Morellis’ around the table including their deodorants, hair sprays, and yes, BOs. You get the idea.

This incredible olfactory potential combined with just the right training can turn a lovable pooch into an invaluable (and still lovable) work partner. To find out how the CCFD Investigations Division works hand in paw with these amazing creatures, click here.


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