A decade ago, in the acidic Otago region of the south island of New Zealand, a friend of mine planted hazel trees in hopes that a fungus would take over its root system. It paid off and I became the lucky recipient of a small black truffle, a gift that is good on eggs, even better on pasta.
Truffle hunting, in my mind, always conjures up images of French men handling large pigs on leashes. But this is old school truffle pursuit. Today, we find (who else?) but trained truffle dogs on the job, nose down to the ground, scouring every inch of the truffiere plantation in hopes of striking ‘black gold’. Not only can a dog’s superior sense of smell locate an underground fungus, but they are also smart enough to be trained not to eat the truffle upon discovery. An added bonus, dogs fit much easier in the back of the car.
Humans have been capitalizing on the canine’s superior sense of smell for longer than we really know. Put to great use, many a dog nose has been responsible for finding lost people, apprehending drug traffickers, and locating disaster victims. Cadaver dogs, in particular, often facilitate the justice system and provide closure for family members. There are dogs that can noninvasively determine if a human has cancer, is about to have a seizure or has low blood sugar. Anyone whose luggage has been lightened at the airport by the removal of contraband cheese will attest to the power of canine smell (and also that beagles REALLY love a good English Stilton).
When training my own dogs, I take advantage of this extraordinary sense. Search and rescue command is probably the most obvious use of smell and the canine nose certainly comes in handy when it comes to our child protection program. But there is more. Protection dogs have a natural desire to defend and guard their handler. The bond between the handler and dog cements the desire. Dogs bond with you through their senses; while they do see you and hear you, the dog most identifies with your smell. They are able to determine your mood and emotional state from your body language and by your hormone levels, which they smell. Ever heard the phrase ‘the smell of fear’? Protection dogs are especially interested in knowing when their handler is afraid, for obvious reasons.
So don’t be surprised when you come home from work and your dog is waiting by the door. Their unique gift lets them know that they will soon be united with their handler; they literally smelled you a mile away.