Diet can improve dogs’ sniffing skills

Detection dogs’ smelling skills can be improved by cutting protein and adding fats into their diet, according to new research carried out at Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine and Auburn University. The research could help to improve the efficacy of detection dogs who sniff out weapons, drugs and missing people.


The researchers, led by Joseph Wakshlag, claim that cutting protein and adding fats appears to help dogs return to lower body temperatures after exercise. This reduces panting which, in turn, improves detection dogs’ sniffing capabilities.

Wakshlag said, “If you’re a dog, digesting protein raises body temperature, so the longer your body temperature is up, the longer you keep panting and the harder it is to smell well.

Who knows what your dog could be capable of?Image copyright of The Mighty Pooch dog photographers

Who knows what your dog could be capable of?
Image copyright of The Mighty Pooch dog photographers

“Our study shifts the paradigm of what ‘high-performance’ diet can mean for dogs. It depends on what you want your dog to do. A sled dog or greyhound may need more protein to keep going. But detection dogs tend to exercise in shorter bursts and need to recover quickly and smell well. For that, less protein and more fat could help.”

During an 18-month study, Wakshlag rotated 17 dogs through three diets: a high-end performance diet, regular adult dog food, and regular adult dog food diluted with corn oil. He found that dogs eating the food enhanced with corn oil returned to a normal body temperature most quickly after exercise and were better able to detect smokeless powder, ammonia nitrate and TNT.

“Corn oil has lots of polyunsaturated fats, similar to what you’d find in a lot of nuts and common grocery store seed oils,” said Wakshlag. “It could be that fat somehow improves nose-signalling structures or reduces body temperature or both. But lowering protein also played a part in improving olfaction.”

The study was funded by a $1 million grant from the US Department of Justice and is the first to be carried out in the only detection dog research facility in the world, located in Alabama USA, which provides police and military forces with expert detection dogs.

The news comes as the Medical Detection Dogs charity continues research into training dogs to sniff out cancer. The CEO of Medical Detection Dogs, Dr Claire Guest, has first-hand experience of this, as one of the dogs she was training appeared to detect the disease in her. She was subsequently found to have an early stage breast tumour and is now in remission.

She said, “We started to wonder that if dogs were finding [cancer] by chance, then perhaps we could actually train dogs to do this reliably.” She is currently looking into the possibility that trained dogs could recognise cancer from breath tests.

Dr Guest added, “Everybody has a personal story [about cancer] and we know that anything that can assist in our fight against cancer is worthwhile.”

We’ll second that!

Words: Aislinn Kelly


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