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Canine Behavior/Obsessive sniffing


I adopted a Pitbull mastiff mix about 6 months ago from the shelter where I live. He is 6 years old & about 65 pounds. He was severely mistreated and abused before he went to the shelter, and even after initally going to the shelter he was adopted by someone who abused him and was returned to the shelter 9 months after being adopted by them. He is a really wonderful, sweet, gentle dog but in the last week or so he picked up an odd behavior that I can't figure out. He has started obsessively sniffing every surface he comes in contact with. I can't get his attention while he's sniffing and even if I try to nudge him to stop he continues. He is very skiddish at times so usually if he's told to stop something or gently nudged he will promptly stop. He usually listens very well but he can't focus on anything but sniffing. He is even nibbling at what hes sniffing and salivating while doing so, and even sniffing the air and sometimes biting the air and what looks like trying to chew it ( not aggressively) he does this through the night too. He is pressing his nose into everything and sniffing deeply. He has done this not only at my house, but at my parents house an hour away from mine. He sniffs the bed, the pillows, the floor (carpet & hardwood) the seats in the car, anything- especially soft surfaces. He has never exhibited any behavior like this and I'm wondering if its normal or a phase he's going through or if I should take him to his vet. His overall health is perfect and he exercises daily and eats healthy normal amounts. He is neutered and has had all of his vaccines.  No other behavior of his has changed except his obsessed sniffing. I thought maybe he was sniffing for bugs or food but he's doing it in places where there are neither. He was recently treated for pink eye, could that be at all related? Thank you so much.

OK it's possible that YOUR attention to this sniffing has inadvertently rewarded it.  Therefore, step one:  when you SEE HIM DOING IT LEAVE THE ROOM.  Ignore it.  Completely.  Do this CONSISTENTLY for the next two weeks.

Step two: any unwanted behavior can be "captured" (that is, isolated and rewarded and given a command).  This dog is brachycephalic, meaning his sense of smell is at least 200 times larger than ours (just an estimate!)  These dogs can discover scents other dogs might not; should a dog experience this, and should the owner give extra attention to that behavior, the dog then begins to demonstrate that behavior more and more often and then generalizes it to other places (such as you report).  SO: to "capture" this behavior, one must deliberately set the dog up with something odoriferous and unusual (not casually found in the environment) AFTER conditioning the dog to a clicker (which signals: THAT BEHAVIOR WILL BE REWARDED).  When the dog scents and responds to the set up, the clicker (which would already have been introduced to re-teach a simple behavior such as "sit" so the dog understands/has a conditioned response to the sound), click/treat.  One can begin to cue the dog (using any combination of words or a made up word) that it's "time" to "scent"; the dog will then acquire a conditioned response to the cue and will be on alert and ready to "work".  At that point, the dog will be conditioned to a "stop" command.  I suggest you learn about clicker training, first.  Go to, Karen Pryor's site.  Watch this:

That is a primer on clicker training and I suggest you begin using a clicker WITH A HUMAN who can understand what you intend and can report whether or not s/he is getting "the message".  It's fun. And then you are equipped to turn to the dog.

Karen has many articles on training behaviors you want and eliminating those you don't want:

Before looking for a veterinary neurologist or a veterinary behaviorist (for tests to determine if the dog is suffering some biologic problem and for medication/treatment), do this:

REMOVE yourself from the room EVERY SINGLE TIME the dog demonstrates this behavior, no matter how inconvenient this is.  If he follows you and continues, remove yourself again.  You may have to spend a few days with this enormous inconvenience before the dog understands (associates) his behavior (sniffing) with your removal.  IF he finally does in a way that is clearly evident, ask for "sit", reward with juicy small treat, have a ten second "party" go on as normal.  This must involve EVERY MEMBER OF THE HOUSEHOLD (it can be quite inconvenient).  Do NOT bring the dog outside your home until you have successfully intervened in your home.  He is then ready for the "test" of another environment but everyone there must be prepared to do the exact same thing.  

Give it two weeks.  Read up on clicker training and use a clicker with a human being (out of the hearing and sight of the dog, please), then introduce it to the dog as you see in that video (the simple "sit").

At two week mark, report back using followup feature so I can see original question/answer.  At that time, IF YOU DO YOUR HOMEWORK CORRECTLY, the dog should have begun to self extinguish this behavior. If he does NOT respond, we will have to go to the next level: veterinary behaviorist.

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Jill Connor, Ph.D.


I have spent my entire professional life rehabilitating the behavior of the domestic dog and I can answer any question regarding any behavior problem in any breed dog. I have answered more than 5,000 QUESTIONS on this site in the past (almost) eight years. If you are a caring, committed owner and need advice, I'm here for you. I am personally acquainted with my colleagues (Turid Rugaas, Ian Dunbar, etc.) who were members of an elite group in EGroups that I founded: K9Shrinks. THERE ARE NO QUICK FIXES for serious behavioral issues; not only is it unprofessional to offer same, it is also unethical. IF I ASK YOU SUBSEQUENT QUESTIONS, I NEED YOU TO INTERACT WITH ME. More information equals more credible answers and a more successful outcome. If you want ANSWERS THAT WORK, participate in any way I request. I'm quite committed to working on this site for YOUR benefit and the benefit of YOUR DOG. Help me in any way you can.


30 years of solving serious behavior problems in domestic dogs; expert in dog to human aggression; Internet columnist for for 5 years; former radio talk show host, WHPC.FM, Garden City, NY "Bite Back" (1995 through 2000). List owner, international animal behavior experts, Seminar leader: "Operant Conditioning and Learning"; "Aggression in The Domestic Dog"; "Solving Problem Behaviors" -- conducted for various training facilities on Long Island from 1993 through 2000. Former clinical director of "Behavioral Abnormalities" in conjunction with Mark Beckerman, DVM, Hempstead, New York.

Member, APDT (UK); Psychologists in Ethical Treatment with Animals

Harcourt Brace Learning Direct: "The Business of Dog Training" "The Fail Safe Dog: Brain Training, not Pain Training"

Ph.D., UC Berkeley

Past/Present Clients
Board of Directors: Northeast Dog Rescue Connection; The Dog Project; Sav-A-Dog Foundation; etc. Pro Bono counselor: Little Shelter Humane Society My practice is presently limited to forensics. I diagnose cause of dog bite, based upon testimony before the Court, for attorneys and insurance companies litigating dog bites, including fatal injuries. I also do pro bono work for bona fide rescue organizations, humane societies, et al, regarding such analysis in an effort to obtain release for dogs being held for death in municipal shelters in the US.

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