Board game Dog Nose Knows explains exactly what’s going through your puppy’s head

Whether you’re infatuated with a miniature pinscher, chocolate labrador, red pomeranian, or shih tzu, you doubtlessly think you know your pet pretty well. Dog lovers spend a great deal of time walking their pooches, getting them groomed, throwing them tennis balls, and sharing with them the bed and sofa. Some may think they relate to their dog better than they do most people. But in a way, our furry four-legged best friends remain unknowable, because they are attuned to a mysterious, supersensible domain of smell.

Unlike us scent-deprived humans, dogs have phenomenal olfactory facilities, estimated to be up to a million times stronger than our own. This species-gap is the basis for Dog Nose Knows, a boardgame shown last week at UCLA. In it, you play as a dog in a forest littered with things dogs are trained to sniff out: explosives, a corpse, drugs, land mines, firearms, electricity, even truffles. Other scents like cancer and happiness didn’t make it in. The game’s artist and designer Adeline Ducker had to draw the line somewhere. “It doesn’t have everything dogs can smell,” she says, “because dogs can smell everything.”

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Other scents like cancer and happiness didn’t make it in. 

Adeline, a Californian through and through, is a 23-year-old illustrator and boardgame designer who studied in Los Angeles, where she was commissioned to do the work. UCLA’s Art|Sci department was looking for a fun platform that would give adorable pups more than lip service. The project is bankrolled by a woman who adores dogs and who wanted a game that could be played by patients in therapy to cheer them up, presumably because real dogs get overwrought and wet the floor in hospital rooms. There is also talk of showing the game to the dog whisperer himself Cesar Millan, an acquaintance of the benefactor.

Early Friday morning, Adeline explained over the phone the ins and outs of Dog Nose Knows. I have to say, speaking as a guy who once worked at a veterinary office, it gets dogs right. In terms of the theme, you and three buds play as search and rescue dogs, and you want to be the smartest. Played with “scent” cards placed face-down on the table, and laser-cut pieces shaped like German Shepherds, the object is to move your dog onto a card and sniff it, which allows you to peek underneath to see if it’s the scent you need. “It’s basically tactical memory,” she tells me. 

That’s where the pee comes in. If you want to claim a card, you have to mark your territory. “It’s funny to listen to. People are like, did you pee on that? Do you want to pee on this?” Adeline says. Also, you can fake people out by finding their scent, peeing on it, and pretending it’s yours. That will slow them down. But hike your leg with discretion, because the size of your dog’s bladder is limited (unlike in real life, as anyone who has ever walked a Jack Russell can attest to.) 

“Right now, the pee cap is two. But you’ll notice some cards have pictures of lakes,” she says. “So, if you run out of pee, and you drink from a lake, you can take one of your pees back that you played on the board. It’s a way of limiting it so people don’t pee on everything.”

Right now, the pee cap is two. 

The game, which will be released as print-and-play and print-on-demand, is a work in progress. Soon Adeline hopes to add special abilities for each pup. Also, she is still tinkering with the mechanics for the bear, whose piece has “a little bear tail and little bear ears,” and who roams around the forest causing trouble. He’s an offensive power-play, controlled with a die that each player gets a chance to roll. If the bear crosses your path, you’ll enter a “doggie duel” called “Woof, Wag, and Whiff,” the canine version of rock, paper, scissors. And if you lose, it’s back to the doghouse.

With so much attention paid to dogs and their furry wet noses, you’d think that Adeline has a pooch of her own, but not so. “I’ve never had a dog,” she admits, “but I like when other people have dogs and I pet them.” However, her art tends to focus on the animal kingdom, and she’s always had a thing for animalistic characters. “I didn’t like Belle in Beauty and the Beast at all. I really liked Beast,” she says. “Most people were super-happy when he transformed into a prince again, but I was, like, why! I was so disappointed.”

Dog Nose Knows is a game designed and illustrated by Adeline Ducker for the UCLA Art|Sci Center, in conjunction with Victoria Vesna and Siddharth Ramakrishnan with funding from the David Bermant Foundation.