Every doggo has her own unique talent, but some truly wow us with superhero skills. And a powerful nose is one of the best examples.
Scentwork is one of the most valuable canine tasks, with our four-legged friends helping us tackle seemingly impossible feats, from sniffing out tiny explosives to uncovering survivors after disasters.
We’ll share which breeds have the best sense of smell, what it’s like owning them, and discuss scent work below.
Getting to Know Your Dog’s Nose: Putting the Spotlight on That Sniffer
Your dog perceives the world far differently than you do, with her nose doing a lot more legwork.
While humans are primarily visual creatures, dogs use sight together with smell to paint a picture of their surroundings, “seeing” a lot more than we can. This can include visitors that have long since left or hidden treats tucked away from view.
With such a superior sense of smell, it’s no surprise that dogs prefer to get to know new situations through their nose first!
So how is it that dogs developed this superpower? Well, for starters, dogs have more than 100 million olfactory cells compared to our measly 6 million.
These odor-oriented nerve cells are responsible for detecting and interpreting odors. Not only do they have more of these super-sniffing cells than we do, but dogs also have a larger portion of their brain devoted to processing the signals they send.
Dogs big and small are designed for sniffing, with your best buddy’s cold, wet nose made for handling scents. The moist nature of your doggo’s schnoz helps odiferous particles stick around, allowing for maximum processing of even trace remnants of a scent.
Some breeds have been molded into unstoppable sniffers through careful breeding. Called scenthounds, these breeds have broad nasal passages and long, scent-wafting ears that allow them to follow a scent trail for miles. They also generally have softer, droopier lips that trap scent traces to aid in tracking.
17 Dog Breeds with the Best Sense of Smell
We’ve herded up the breeds with the best sense of smell in the dog world. Let’s get to know each a little better and see if one might be the doggo of your dreams.
This droopy doggo is treasured far and wide for her impressive nose, sniffing out criminals and missing people alike. The breed has saved countless lives with her abilities, and she is one of the most commonly used police dog breeds.
She’s such a staple in the field that she’s actually earned the nickname “sleuth hound.” With upwards of 230 million scent receptors and legendary determination, this large scenthound can track for miles over rugged terrain and has the strongest sense of smell in the dog world.
The bloodhound’s superhero schnoz is almost matched in its power by her stubbornness. She’s not a good choice for new dog owners since she tends to be pushy. When she wants to follow a smell, she will, so never trust her off-leash. She does need to sniff around and flex her skills frequently, however, as this is just as instinctual to her as herding and retrieving are to other breeds. This is best met through sniffari walks on a long lead, sniffing games, or scent work.
2. Basset Hound
The basset strongly resembles a miniature bloodhound with her mile-long ears and elongated features. She has a reputation for being laidback, but when she’s onto a scent, she switches into overdrive to track it down. The steadfast determination can be a real headache if she wanders off, making a secure, fenced-in yard and supervision a must.
Originally from France, her name means “low,” referring to her short stature. Don’t be fooled by the name, as she’s a large dog on little legs, weighing in at up to 65 pounds. This unique frame is prone to back injuries, so keep her weight in check and don’t allow her to jump off high surfaces.
This petite pupper is often used to sniff out explosives, contraband, and even cancer. As with other scenthounds, she’s relentless once she’s onto a trail, often letting out merry barks (called bays) that can be heard for miles. With that in mind, she’s not one of the best dogs for city living. Her sweet temperament does maker her an exceptional pooch for homes with children and other animals, however.
The breed is well-known for her voracious appetite, making her highly food-motivated for training. This is both a blessing and a curse, as she also gains weight quickly. While it’s safe for your beagle to enjoy treats occasionally, it’s not a bad idea to swap some for low-calorie items (like little carrot sticks) in addition to maintaining her exercise regimen.
4. German Shepherd
The German shepherd is a breed of many talents, including scent work. She’s often found on search and rescue teams, though she’s a favorite with law enforcement as a drug and explosive detector too. The breed is also a trusted herder, military dog, protector, and seeing-eye guide. Such a smart, athletic dog requires daily physical and mental exercise that is best met through canine sports or a job.
The German shepherd is the quintessential Velcro dog. She thrives at her master’s side and is highly motivated by a deep need to please.
While this strong bond is great during training, it requires a great deal of interaction. Your shepherd will follow you from room to room like a shadow and may suffer from separation anxiety if left alone. This can be overwhelming if you like a little breathing room.
5. Labrador Retriever
This boisterous pup doesn’t just have a knack for retrieving ducks: She’s also skilled at sniffing out drugs, bombs, and other contraband. Paired with her intelligence and eagerness to please, she’s a top-notch working dog breed, who’s often tasked with performing search and rescue roles at the site of building collapses and other disasters.
The Labrador is undoubtedly one of the best family dogs, which is why she remains the most popular breed in the United States. She’s also one of the most affectionate canines you’ll come across, though she can be a bit much at times, especially during youth when she’s prone to jumping, chewing, and nuisance barking.
Help your Labrador thrive by giving her adequate exercise and attention, including daily walks or jogs and outdoor play.
6. Belgian Malinois
The Belgian Malinois has a nearly unmatched work ethic in the canine world. She’s a trusted police dog, using her athleticism and nose to pursue suspects, often through harsh conditions and at great risk to her own well-being. She’s also a frequent face on search and rescue and bomb-sniffing teams. The breed has recently started sniffing out cheetah scat to help with wildlife conservation too.
The Malinois is an impressive canine, but she isn’t a good fit for most households. She needs rigorous daily physical and mental exercise. This might include jogging, hiking, or biking, though a job or sport that combines the two, like herding or Schutzhund, is best for burning off all her energy.
7. Bluetick Coonhound
This southern sweetheart with an eye-catching coat uses her nose to sniff out game in the field. The breed is used to spending hours on a trail, often traveling in large packs of hunting hounds while pursuing raccoons, wild boar, and more across miles of rough terrain. As with other scenthounds, the breed bays when on a scent or excited. For this reason, we wouldn’t recommend living with one in an apartment.
The bluetick coonhound is famously stubborn, and at times lazy, so she’s not the best breed for novice owners or those seeking an enthusiastic listener. High-value treats and a sense of humor will be your best friends in training.
Always allow your bluetick coonhound to practice her sniffing instincts safely, whether it’s through leashed walks or exploring secure, fenced-in areas. Not only is it a great form of physical and mental exercise, but it’s also when she’s happiest.
8. Black and Tan Coonhound
This solid hunting hound was first bred to track game in America’s south, including squirrels and raccoons.
While she may not be the fastest on her feet, she’s relentless in her pursuit of scents, covering miles with dogged determination. Black and tan coonhounds aren’t used as frequently in police work as other breeds, though they remain one of the best hunting dog breeds, with a knack for sniffing out game.
The black and tan coonhound is a relatively hardy dog, though she can experience hip dysplasia, cataracts, and thyroid issues, so pay close attention to those areas, especially while looking at breeders. Her long ears are also prone to infection, making weekly checks and regularly cleaning a must.
9. Golden Retriever
America’s favorite furry golden girl is most often associated with her work as a seeing-eye or therapy dog, but she’s also a valuable contraband detector and search and rescue dog. Many golden faces joined in the recovery mission at Ground Zero, for example, including Bretagne. These dogs worked tirelessly alongside first responders to pull survivors from the rubble, using their noses to guide them.
With a legendary gentle nature, the golden is one of the best family dogs on this list. She loves being with her family, whether it features adults, small children, dog friends, or kitty siblings.
She does, however, need help channeling her rambunctious energy from an early age with daily exercise and obedience training. Otherwise, she can be a bit too rowdy.
This scrappy hunting hound originally went after badgers around the farm in her native Germany. Today, she’s still occasionally used as a vermin catcher, though she’s more likely to warm your couch (and heart).
Her strong sense of smell and digging instincts can be a lot to handle at times, with flowerbed destruction a common complaint of dachshund parents. To prevent this, offer her a safe digging space like a sandbox with lots of fun dog-friendly objects to uncover.
This breed loves being with her people and won’t tolerate long stints of alone time. She prefers to be snuggled up in your lap, preferably beneath a blanket she’s tunneled beneath. Her petite, elongated frame is certainly a head-turner, but it is prone to injury, so never let her jump off furniture or run up and down steep stairs.
11. German Shorthaired Pointer
This German gem is a lot of dog in one beautifully speckled package. She got her start flushing and retrieving birds for hunters and remains a prized companion for the task today. She’s picked up some other jobs along the way thanks to her athleticism and epic nose, including working on search and rescue and contraband detection teams.
The German shorthaired pointer is not one of the best dogs for first-time owners. She’s a high-octane hunting dog with huge exercise needs and is best suited for active families who partake in daily jogging, hiking, or biking. Canine sports like dock jumping and agility are even better.
She will get into trouble if not properly exercised, sometimes in ways that leave you speechless (and in need of home repair.)
12. English Springer Spaniel
This sporty spaniel’s nose has earned her jobs detecting drugs, bombs, and cadavers.
Originally a bird dog, she’s still commonly used in the field to flush and retrieve downed fowl. Her long coat can be clipped short to keep it more manageable, though you still need to brush her out after every adventure into the brush to free it of twigs and brambles.
The English springer spaniel is an incredibly playful pup who makes a great family dog, though she can be demanding of your time. This pup is wired to play, so ensure you’re ready for the constant thud of tennis balls in your lap. Daily exercise is required to keep her happy, including long walks or jogs and hands-on play.
The harrier is a lovey-dovey hound who dates back hundreds of years to England. She started out tracking hares during horse-mounted hunts, earning her name.
She’s not super common today, though she’s a treasured companion among breed fanciers, who have included George Washington in the past. She’s more of a slow and steady worker like the bloodhound, following scents over long distances at a persistent pace rather than sprinting.
The harrier is highly affectionate and does well with children and other dogs. She doesn’t know the definition of a stranger and will greet everyone with gusto. She is stubborn when she’s on a scent trail, however, and can’t be trusted off-leash. Her independent nature can be frustrating during training as well, with lots of patience and creative thinking needed.
14. Redbone Coonhound
The redbone coonhound has a so-called “warm nose,” leading to faster hunts than his “cold nosed” scenthound cousins, like bloodhounds, who can follow much fainter scents.
This powerfully built breed can cover a lot of ground fast to locate wild game, using her long legs to spring over obstacles with ease. This athleticism makes her an excellent jogging and hiking companion. Canine sports like tracking and hunting are a great way to exercise her natural abilities.
Redbone coonhounds are lovers at heart and adapt well to family life. The breed is highly affectionate and agreeable with other dogs, though your redbone needs early and ongoing training in obedience. She’s eager to please but will follow her nose, so make sure she’s always leashed.
15. English Foxhound
This happy-go-lucky social butterfly loves nothing more than chasing a scent across open swaths of land. The breed dates back hundreds of years to England, where she was bred to hunt foxes in large packs. Her roots as a pack hunter remain strong today, as she prefers to be in the company of other dogs or people.
She isn’t keen on alone time and won’t tolerate long stretches by herself. And this means that foxhounds are not the breed for everyone. These are one of the most independent of hounds, preferring to walk to the beat of her own drum more often than not. This clearly can be an issue during training.
Never correct your English foxhound harshly, as she has a gentle spirit under all that energy. Remain positive and use her favorite snacks to keep her on track during training sessions.
16. Treeing Walker Coonhound
The treeing Walker coonhound is a fast-moving hunter who will follow her nose after any good scent, letting out a happy bay and enthusiastic tail wags along the way.
As with other coonhounds, she began as a tracker of wild raccoons, chasing them up into a tree until the hunters arrived, a behavior called “treeing.” She’s still a prized hunting dog today, remaining a staple in the field.
While treeing Walker coonhounds are one of the more responsive scenthounds to training, the breed is still highly independent and prone to doing things her way. Focus on positive, reward-based training in short bursts to hold her attention, and always ensure she gets adequate daily exercise, including plenty of time for sniffing.
17. Scottish Terrier
This posh pup originated as a vermin killer on farms, taking on everything from rats to badgers. She would muscle through the rugged terrain to dispose of her targets, following them right into burrows or dens to finish the job if needed.
Her nose did the seeing when her eyes could not, allowing her to find her target, even underground. She’s still a prized ratter dog today, though most Scotties enjoy a life of leisure, including many that have graced the halls of the White House.
The Scottie is a sweetheart with her family, but she can be less than friendly with strangers. The breed has a notoriously short attention span, so always keep training sessions brief and to the point. Mixing things up is crucial, too, as she doesn’t tolerate repetition. As a tenacious terrier, she will ignore commands if you bore her.
Owning a Scenthound or Other Super Sniffer
While having a dog with super sniffing strength sounds cool (and it is), it does come with some complications, including:
- Can’t be trusted off-leash: Unfortunately, no matter how much training, certain dogs in this group just can’t be trusted off-lead. Scenthounds especially are ruled by their noses and will follow anything that catches their interest. Owners often describe these moments as trancelike, with dogs ignoring all commands with their noses to the ground.
- Mischief: These dogs can sniff out anything you have hidden, whether it’s treats in your pantry or the granola bar you left in your pocket. Your dog may seek to acquire these goodies, even if you’re not interested in sharing them. This can lead to destructive rooting, digging, and chewing behaviors.
- Stubbornness: The hound group is notorious for its independence, and scenthounds take this to new heights. These dogs were bred to work without constant oversight and act accordingly. Creative training tactics and patience are needed, and they’re not recommended for newbie owners.
- Baying or signaling: Scenthounds are known for their vocalizations, a thunderous ROO that can wake the dead. While this is highly entertaining at times, it can earn some eye rolls from neighbors who may find the sound less than charming.
- Sniffing needs: Sniffing is an instinct every dog needs to practice, but these doggos have next-level needs in the department. A leisurely walk around the block isn’t enough. To adequately flex your super sniffer’s nose muscles, you need to implement fun activities into her routine like scent work, nosework games, and off-leash roaming in safe areas. Don’t be afraid to get creative with hide-and-go-sniff games, either.
With all that in mind, these breeds are some of the most impressive in the canine world and deserve heaps of praise. Their talents benefit humans in ways we could never repay.
Do you own any of the super sniffers on our list? Do you have another breed who can sniff out anything? Tell us about them in the comments!
July 8, 2022
We have a young Boykin Spaniel and she has a very keen nose.
July 11, 2022
I bet, Rita! It’s part of the reason they are such great hunting dogs.