Dog Breeds Dog Training

How Good Are Beagle Noses? – The Beagle’s Superior Sense of Smell

A guide to the Beagle's incredible nose.
Written by Richard Jeng

Beagles were bred to help hunters, so their senses are finely tuned to help them track and chase prey. As a result, Beagles primarily rely on their sense of smell. It’s not uncommon to see a Beagle busily following a scent with his nose fixed to the ground! 

So, exactly how good are Beagle noses? Beagles have some of the best noses in the world. Thanks to their high concentration of scent receptors and dominant olfactory bulb, Beagles can process odors much more efficiently. Plus, they were also bred with physical qualities that actually benefit their ability to attract scents.

This guide will help you understand why Beagle noses are considered some of the best in the business. We will also explore how you can train your Beagle to be a tracking dog. Plus, all the scenarios that Beagles’ excellent sense of smell is useful for. 

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Beagle’s Sense of Smell

A guide to what beagles were originally bred to do.

There are several reasons why Beagles are great scent trackers. After all, they were bred to track down prey over large stretches of secluded forests.

These include the structure of the Beagle’s nose and how the nose connects to nerves in the Beagle’s brain. In addition, these dogs possess many other physical qualities in their body structure that also help enhance their tracking abilities.

The Beagle’s Brilliant Nose

According to DogTime, the Beagle has the third best sense of smell in the dogdom – only behind the Bloodhound and Basset Hound. Considering the several hundreds of breeds on this earth, that’s nothing to scoff at. Beagles have first-class noses.

But, just how powerful are their noses? Though not a perfect means of measurement, the number of scent receptors in a nose is a decent indicator. That being said, Beagles are known to have around 220 million scent receptors.

That’s far more than most other dog breeds! For comparison, a Dachshund’s nose has just 125 million scent receptors, while a human’s nose has 5 million scent receptors. Check out the below chart comparing number of scent receptors among various breeds:

Dog Breed# of Scent Receptors
Bloodhound300 million
Beagle225 million
German Shepherd225 million
Basset Hound220 million
Fox Terrier147 million
Dachshund125 million

Notice how all the dog breeds with the most scent receptors work in law enforcement as a tracking, search and rescue or some other type of sniffer dog. But why is it that some dog breeds have more receptors than others?

Big, Long & Wide Noses

The structure of a dog’s nose can either enhance or hold back the dog’s overall sense of smell. Depending on the size and shape of the dog’s nose, there can be more or less cells dedicated to detecting odors.

For instance, dogs with short noses and flat faces (such as Pugs), have less surface area in the ridge of the nose to hold these scent-detecting cells. On the other hand, dogs with a longer and wider nose will have more surface area, thus more of these cells.

Scent hounds such as Beagles, however, were developed to have noses with a wide and deep structure. So while these small to medium dogs are just 25 pounds and 15 inches tall, they can pack just as many scent-receptors as the much larger German Shepherd.

More smell-detecting cells isn’t the only benefit of the Beagle’s large nose. Because dogs have generally moist noses, it’s able to attract molecules in the air and onto the nose. The molecules are then absorbed by the olfactory glands, which process odors.

The Nose’s Connection to the Brain

In addition to having lots of scent receptors, a Beagle’s brain structure can also help with his superb sense of smell. The Beagle’s olfactory bulb is highly developed, but what is it?

Located in the dog’s brain, the olfactory bulb is a mass of neural tissues that processes information about scents. A Beagle’s olfactory bulb is forty times larger than a human’s olfactory bulb (relative to brain size)! 

The human’s brain is dominated by a large visual cortex whilst the dog’s brain is dominated by the olfactory cortex. The Olfactory bulb accounts for one eighth of the dog’s brain.

– Julia Langlands (Balance Behavior)

The role of the Olfactory bulb is far more important to dogs than most would think. When scent information travels to the Olfactory bulb, it’s also traveling to the limbic system and cortex of the dog’s brain.

Dogs are just that much more efficient and capable at processing odors than humans. For this reason, it’s estimated that their odor detection can be 10,000 to 100,000 times greater than that of the average human.

Beagle’s Neck & Legs

Have you noticed that your Beagle is oddly shaped compared to other dog breeds? Well, this was no accident – they were developed this way for a reason. The body composition of the dog helps them with tracking scents.

For example, your Beagle’s neck also helps him pick up scents. Because the Beagle’s neck is long and study, he can drop his nose right to the ground. It makes it easier to pick and follow scents while hunting small game.

Similarly, the short legs of the Beagle isn’t all for show. In order to pick up as many scents as possible, these dogs needed to be low to the ground. The lower they are, the easier it is to sniff out the scent trail of an animal.

It’s also worth noting that these physical characteristics aren’t absolutely crucial in finding odors of game. Rather, the proximity to the floor means they’re able to absorb the scents without having to stop.

Long, Floppy Ears

Like with the short legs and long neck, the long floppy ears of the Beagle was no mistake. According to the official breed standard, the Beagle’s ears (when head points to the floor) will reach the end of the dog’s nose.

As a result, the Beagle has long ears because the ears will actually help attract the scent participles from the air and bring them to the dog’s nose. This way, they’re able to absorb as much information on surrounding scents.

Combine the dog’s helpful ears with their large and wet noses, and you have the perfect recipe for tracking and searching. When it comes to sense of smell, Beagles have the full package!

How Environment Affects the Beagle’s Nose

Beagles do shed a lot, but with some grooming, can be maintained.

The Beagle’s sense of smell can be influenced by external factors. For example, there are some environmental conditions that can enhance a Beagle’s sense of smell. These factors include the following:

  • High humidity
  • Cold climates
  • When the prey is running upwind 
  • Shaded areas
  • In fog and mist
  • In unplowed fields

Scent Movement

The Cuteness gives a great analogy. Imagine you have a glass of water and you put a few drops of food coloring in the glass. Notice how the coloring flows down the glass of water and in all directions? This is similar to how scent moves through air.

In other words, scents and odors will travel from high elevation to low, but also in different directions depending on the wind currents. So if your Beagle is tracking prey while moving upwind, the odor may get caught in the wind and actually travel towards the dog.

Humidity

Believe it or not, humidity is another factor that can enhance your Beagle’s sense of smell. As a matter of fact, it can have a direct impact on olfaction.

What this means is that tracking dogs often experience an enhancement in smell because high humidity will improve nasal humidity and especially, odorant trapping and intensity. And by humidity, we don’t necessarily mean rain.

In addition, high humidity can also increase the dog’s olfactory detection of pheromones. Although this heightened ability doesn’t necessarily increase the Beagle’s tracking ability, it does lead to an increase in mating activity during these times.

Cold Temperature

Beagles, and all dog breeds in general, will develop a heightened sense of smell when the temperature drops. In cold weather, air and scent molecules become much more dense than usual. As a result, the cold provides a higher concentration of smell.

However, it can be too cold for scent to flow freely. While a coolness enhances the ability to discover the scent molecules, sub-zero temperatures will just freeze the molecules. In the end, the molecules get trapped in solid. It’s why snow is not ideal for tracking.

Factors That Reduce the Beagle’s Smell

On the other hand, some environmental factors can reduce your Beagle’s ability to pick up and track a scent. These factors include: 

  • When a Beagle has to track in thick vegetation 
  • When there’s heavy rain or strong winds 
  • If a Beagle has to track scents on concrete, stone, or through fields that have recently been plowed. 
  • When the ground is dry. 
  • If a Beagle is tracking in snow or sub-zero temperature.

While environmental factors can hinder a Beagle’s tracking ability, they can still be excellent tracking dogs!

Making Use of the Beagle’s Nose

Beagles were extremely skilled hunting dogs that tracked down game.

Beagles have extremely powerful noses. They have long been prized for their acute sense of smell. Combined with the dog’s high intelligence, Beagles have been able to help society with various jobs and roles. These are just a few:

Hunting Companions 

The modern Beagle was bred in the 1830s from several hunting dogs, including the Talbot Hound and the North Country Beagle. Through several iterations and years of breeding, we have the Beagle that we know and love today.

Since the 1800s, Beagles have been used as hunting companions. In fact, hunting with this breed was so popular that the term “beagling” was coined.

This type of hunting is when Beagles travel in packs to track down game. When a single Beagle spots a prey, he’ll let out a howl to signal to the owners and other dogs. They may not be the most aggressive, but their job isn’t literally “hunting.”

Beagles can pick up on rabbit, bird, deer and other prey scents even when the smells are mixed with a variety of other animals. It’s their ability to differentiate between the hundreds of odors in a forest that makes them special.

Sniffer Dogs

Beagles are commonly used at airports, train stations, ports, and other transit hubs. They are used to sniff out drugs, bombs, and illegal food substances. Beagles are becoming more popular sniffer dogs because they’re less threatening than larger bloodhounds. 

The United States Department of Agriculture even has a special “Beagle Brigade,” which is a team of Beagles trained to sniff out prohibited agricultural goods. Thanks to their acute sense of smell, they’re able to detect smells far better than scientific equipment.

When a sniffer Beagle picks up the scent of contraband, the dog simply sits down, which alerts his trainer that a passenger’s bags need to be searched.

The Beagle Brigade is responsible for about 75,000 seizures of agricultural products per year. And according to CNN, this translates to potentially billions of dollars in lost revenue for the United States! Plus, also saving the potential lost jobs.

Show Dogs 

Some Beagle owners bring their Beagles to compete in tracking competitions. In these competitions, Beagles are encouraged to use their noses to track certain scents. The better they can track, the more points they score. 

Typically, the dog earns a TD (tracking dog) title after following a 500 yard track with 3 to 5 changes in direction. The track is aged for around 30 minutes to a couple hours prior to the tracking. Of course, the goal is to find the “treasure” from the scents.

From there, they move up to different levels of tracking (TDU, TDX, VST, CT) with the goal of eventually attaining the championship tracking dog title. For more information, check out how you can get started here.

The American Kennel Club runs tracking events across the United States, which carefully features planned tracking courses that will both challenge and delight your Beagle. If you have a Beagle, why not try it out?

Cancer Detecting Dogs

That’s right – the Beagle’s nose is so powerful and sensitive that it’s likely they can sniff out cancer in a human. More specifically, lung cancer, according to a recent study.

The researchers trained three Beagles for 8 weeks. After the training, the Beagles were given blood samples from non-small cell lung cancer patients and healthy patients. These samples were placed at a height convenient for the dogs to sniff.

During the training, the Beagles were taught to sit down if they detected the smell of lung cancer. But if they detected no smell, they would simply move on. The results they found from the study were remarkable!

Collectively, the 3 Beagles were able to make the distinction between the cancer and non-cancer blood samples with 96.7% sensitivity.

That’s not all. Currently, Beagles are being trained and tested for tracking various types of cancer, such as breast and colorectal cancer. What’s even more impressive is that they’re trying to learn to detect these cancers from a person’s breath.

How to Train Beagles to Track Scents

If you have a Beagle whose nose is to the ground most of the time, he’s likely a natural born tracker! Help him hone his instincts by training him in tracking.

Beagles will respond well to exercises that involve using their nose and tracking. Here are some steps to help train your Beagle: 

Step by Step Training

  1. Give your Beagle a toy and allow him to play with it until he develops an attachment to it. 
  2. Before you give him the toy, say its name (for instance ‘ball’), so that he can connect the toy with the name. 
  3. Once your Beagle has a strong attachment to the toy, hide it around your house. 
  4. Ask your Beagle to find it by saying the word your Beagle associates with it. 
  5. Your Beagle will most likely use his sense of smell to track down his toy. 
  6. When he finds the toy, praise him. 
  7. Repeat this exercise several times over a few weeks. 
  8. Then, introduce your Beagle to a treat with a fairly strong smell. Show him the treat and then hide it in the room and say “find it.” Your Beagle will look for, and most likely find the treat. 
  9. Hide the treat in several areas. Once your Beagle is skilled at finding the treat indoors, take it outdoors. Try creating a scent trail by dragging the treat along the ground to help your Beagle practice tracking a smell. 
  10. Once your Beagle is successfully finding the treat, experiment with other smells. Use cloths soaked in essential oils like lavender or star anise. Allow your dog to sniff the cloth doused in the smell and then say “find it.” This will encourage him to look in other places for the smell – try burying another piece of cloth with the same smell outdoors. 
  11. Every time your Beagle finds the buried item, praise him and reward him with a treat. 
  12. Experiment with a variety of different smells – start with strong, high intensity smells and work towards more subtle scents. 
  13. Keep practicing “find it” with different scents and in different places. Your Beagle’s ability to track will improve, and both you and he will enjoy the process! 

You can also take your Beagle to an obedience school for specialized tracking classes. Trainers at the school will be able to advise you on how you can improve your Beagle’s ability to track. 

Best Nose in the Business

Beagles are known for having great noses. Their noses are equipped with sense receptors and are extremely moist, which helps them pick up on scents. Plus, their brains have large olfactory centers, which help them process scents much more efficiently. 

Beagles’ excellent noses make them great sniffer dogs and also ideal hunting companions. You can even train your Beagle to participate in tracking competitions – he may just walk away with a reward! 

Even if you’re not training your Beagle for a particular purpose or job, consider introducing some tracking games with him or her frequently. This will allow your Beagle to enjoy using his instincts – and his nose! 

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About the author

Richard Jeng

Richard has been raising dogs his whole life, including a Poodle, Pomeranian, Corgi and Australian Shepherd. He's always working with animal shelters and dog rescues because of his passion for all dogs. Fun fact: his all time favorite breed is the German Shepherd. Read More.

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