Lateralization in dogs, Canis familiaris, has been reported for paw usage and response to visual and acoustic stimuli. Surprisingly, however, no investigation of possible lateralization for the most relevant sensory domain of dogs, namely olfaction, has been carried out. Here we investigated left and right nostril use in dogs freely sniffing different emotive stimuli in unrestrained conditions. When sniffing novel nonaversive stimuli (food, lemon, vaginal secretion and cotton swab odours), dogs showed initial preferential use of the right nostril and then a shift towards use of the left nostril with repeated stimulus presentation. When sniffing arousal stimuli such as adrenaline and veterinary sweat odorants, dogs showed a consistent right nostril bias all over the series of stimulus presentations. Results suggest initial involvement of the right hemisphere in processing of novel stimuli followed by the left hemisphere taking charge of control of routine behaviour. Sustained right nostril response to arousal stimuli appears to be consistent with the idea that the sympathetic hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis is mainly under the control of the right hemisphere. The implications of these findings for animal welfare are discussed.