Can Dogs Smell Water? Your Dogs Super Nose

dogs sitting on a rock above water

Dogs are able to smell water thanks to their incredible sense of smell. Not only are dogs able to smell water, but they’re able to tell how clean the water is based on the scent. If you ever see a thirsty dog reject water, there’s a good chance the water is unclean and full of harmful bacteria. 

Every dog owner knows that dogs have an incredible sense of smell. A dog’s sense of smell is 10,000–100,000 times better than yours! 

But can a dog actually smell water?

To answer this question, we first need to understand “how” dogs smell and figure out why their sense of smell is so much better than ours. 

Once we understand why dogs have such an amazing sense of smell, we will be able to understand why they can (or can’t) smell water. 

The Process of Smelling For Dogs

We know dogs have a “super sniffer”, but have you ever wondered why? 

A dog’s physical characteristics and anatomy are a huge reason they have a fantastic sense of smell. Their nose structure, sensory glands, and brain structure all play a crucial role in improving their sense of smell.

I’m sure it will be no surprise to hear that it all starts with the nose. As with humans, a dog inhales air through the nose and can smell what is in the air.

Dogs also have an organ known as the vomeronasal, (or Jacobson’s) organ, which is located between the bottom of their nasal passage and roof of their mouth. 

The receptors inside this organ are designed specifically for detecting pheromones. Once the air enters and passes over these receptors, the information is detected in parts per trillion (ppt) and sent to the brain so the brain can analyze and make determinations or conclusions. 

The parts of the brain that analyze this information, like the olfactory cortex, make up a large part of a dog’s brain. 

Smell is one of the most important senses a dog has because they use their sense of smell to understand and make sense of the world around them. 

This may explain why they seem to actively sniff or smell the world around them whenever they get the chance.

A Dogs Smelling Capabilities

A dog can smell things we can’t even imagine because they have way more scent receptors than we do. Compared to our measly 5-6 million scent receptors, dogs could have anywhere between 100 to 300 million scent receptors. 

With so many scent receptors, dogs are obviously capable of smelling the same items we can, but they can also smell various factors within it. For example, dog food smells like dog food to me, but my dog can smell the various meats and vegetables within it and make subtle associations with what she is smelling. 

Another example was provided by Alexandra Horowitz, a dog-cognition researcher at Barnard College. She wrote a book called Inside of a Dog. In this book, she states that we can compare a dog’s sense of smell to our sight by using an analogy where we may notice a teaspoon of sugar added to our coffee, but a dog could sniff out a teaspoon of sugar in a million gallons of water (i.e., two Olympic-sized pools).

…But Can Dogs Smell Water?

As with many things, water is essential for survival. Thankfully, water is also very abundant on Earth. 

Dog owners must ensure their dogs have reasonable access to CLEAN drinking water and not rely on their dog’s sense of smell to determine whether or not it is clean.

With that statement out of the way, let’s finally answer (in detail), the question of whether or not dogs can smell water.

First, it is important to understand what’s within water that a dog might be able to smell.

At a minimum, water consists of one oxygen and two hydrogen atoms. There are many types of water, from bottle to tap, that contain different properties. 

The properties can be a combination of minerals and other inorganic compounds. Common properties in water include copper, sodium, calcium, and magnesium. Certain areas may also add chlorine.

Remember, dogs can detect a scent if it is 1-2 ppt. If the makeup of water comprises a component, or combination of components, that has an odor and equates to a measurement of at least 1-2 ppt, they should be able to detect it and make associations with the scent. 

However, standards for drinking water outline safe levels of specific components that can be found within it, which are most commonly parts per million (ppm). 

Of note, 1 ppm equates to 0.001 ppt, which means that a mineral or contaminant would need to be present at 1000 ppm for a dog to detect it. 

This means that dogs should be able to identify water based on the individual components, or a combination of components, within it, that have a scent that equates to roughly 1 ppt. 

For example, my local drinking water has sodium levels that equate to 23 ppm, so my dogs most likely cannot pick that metaphorical needle out of the water haystack, but other components within the water in addition to sodium could have a unique smell that dogs can recognize as water.

Key Takeaways

Simply put, dogs have an incredible sense of smell. Their sense of smell is much better than ours and may even be more helpful than our sense of sight. 

Just like how we use our vision to gain information about our surroundings and form conclusions about what we see, dogs use their sense of smell to form conclusions about what they smell. 

Dogs gather a lot of information from what they smell, just like we do with our sight. This means that water could be detected by dogs due to the physical components within the water.

Dogs can use this ability to determine what may be considered drinkable or not. This determination, however, would be based on past experiences and knowledge. 

As we all know, dogs may not have the ability to determine if something is dangerous or not, so dog owners should continue to be responsible and ensure that their dog has reasonable access to clean drinking water.

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