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Getting Nosy: Scent Work for You and Your Dog

A dog performing scent work

Are you looking for something new for you and your doo to do? Want to strengthen the bond you two share? Well, get ready to put their nose to work. It is easy and inexpensive to get your dog’s nose working. Here is what you need to know.

What is Scent Work & Why Are Dogs Natural at It?

Did you know that “Dogs have a sense of smell that’s between 10,000 and 100,000 times more acute than ours”? [1] Scent work, also known as nose training or scent training, is an activity that you can do with your dog to keep them intellectually stimulated. Since all dogs can recognize various scents, it really doesn’t matter if your dog is big or little, fast or slow. And it really doesn’t matter what breed you have either. All dogs can be trained to recognize scents and use their sense of smell to find things.

Does Age Matter?

While it is better to start scent training when your dog is still young, older dogs can be trained as well. At any age, it will stimulate your dog’s brain and help relieve boredom. It will be great for you and your dog!

How To Train Your Dog for Scent Work

Don’t be afraid of trying this by yourself. It is well within the abilities of new doggy pawrents. If you choose, you can always hire a trainer, but you might as well take a shot at it yourself. Like all types of training, you need to be patient with your dog and be ready to reward good behaviour. 

Scent Work Tips

Here are some tips that might help you:

  • Make sure that your dog has learned to “sit” and “come” before you start.
  • Keep sessions short, about 15 minutes.
  • Do the training in a place where your dog won’t be distracted.
  • Pick a scent that both you and your dog like.
  • Use treats that your dog loves.
  • Praise and reward them each time they succeed.

Read through the basic instructions, and soon you and your furry pal will have a number of new games to enjoy together.

Essential Oils

Essential oils have strong smells and can be easily used to provide a scent for your dog to follow. Here are some nice-smelling oils that dogs (and you) will love:

  • Anise
  • Birch
  • Camomile
  • Cinnamon
  • Clove
  • Eucalyptus
  • Frankincense
  • Lavender
  • Pine
  • Rose
  • Rosemary
  • Wintergreen

Pick one and start with that. If you would like to use others, wait until your dog is doing well with the initial scent.

Getting Started with Scent Work

One of the most important things to remember is not to confuse your dog. When you are working with the scents, wear disposable gloves so that you don’t get the scent on your hands. Then dispose of the gloves by putting them in a plastic bag, then taking them out of the house to your trash can.

  • Put just a couple of drops of the scent on cotton balls or the toy that you want your dog to find.
  • Keep the scented object(s) in a jar or ziplock bag. 
  • It is important that the smell that you decide to use is unique to the house so your dog won’t go off in the wrong direction.
  • Open the jar or bag, and when your dog investigates the jar, give them a treat. 
  • Repeat this 4-5 times so they associate the smell with a delicious treat.

Once your dog decides that it is a great idea to investigate that new odor and they get a tasty treat each time that they do, it’s time to let the games begin.

7 Scent Games for You and Your Dog

A beagle getting a treat for scent work

Some of these games are fine for just you and your dog, others might require you to draft an assistant. Whichever you choose, remember to remain patient, and enjoy the time that you get to spend with your forever friend.

1. Hide and Seek

This game requires two people. Put a tiny drop of essential oil on small (1-2 cm) pieces of paper. (You can also use small treats.) Put one of the pieces of paper or treats in your pocket. Have someone hold your dog, then leave a trail of the bits of paper (or small treats) as you go to your hiding spot. Have the helper release your dog, and say, “Find it!” When your dog finds you, praise and reward them.

2. Find It-Version (Toys)

Using one of your dog’s toys, play with them for a bit, then secure your dog. Walk out of your dog’s sight with the toy and hide it. Walk back the exact same way so your dog only has one scent trail to follow. Release your dog, and say, “Find it!” When your dog finds the toy, praise and reward them.

3. Find It-Version (Objects)

Take a blanket or toy with another dog or cat’s scent on it and use it to play with your dog. Secure your dog, go into another room and close the door. Find a good place to hide the object and return. Release your dog, open the door and tell your dog to “Find it!” Praise and reward them when they find it.

4. Find It-Version (Scent-Specific)

Take a ball or other toy and put a few drops of essential oil on it, like cedar wood or chamomile.

Make sure that you don’t get the oil on your hands–it can confuse your dog.

Play with them using the toy for a few days. Put a drop of the oil on pieces of paper. Leave a trail of the scented paper to the ball or toy. Release your dog, and say “Find it!”

Praise them and reward them when they find it.

5. Find the Treat

Take one of your dog’s favorite treats and hide it in a room–under the bed, beneath a rug, in a corner, etc. Then release your dog, and say “Find it!” When they do, praise and reward them.

6. Find the Treat (Variation 2)

Take one of your dog’s favorite treats (the stronger the odor, the better) and enclose it in one of your hands. Hold your hands in front of your dog and say “Find it!” then open the hand with the treat and give it to your dog. Do this 3 or 4 times, changing the hand the treat is in. Try this on a few occasions, then when they are comfortable with this, leave your hand closed until your dog smells which hand the treat is in. When they do, praise and reward them.

7. Find the Treat (Variation 3)

Put your dog’s favorite treat under one of 3 or 4 cups on a hard, flat surface, like the floor. Move the cups around, and say “Find it!” Uncover the treat and give it to your dog. Do this 3 or 4 times till they learn that there is a treat coming. Then repeat it and say “Find it!” Now let your dog’s nose figure out which cup is covering the treat. Praise them and reward them when they find it.

Practicing Regularly: The Smell of Sweet Success

Regular practice does make perfect. Try to do the trick you pick several times a day and remember not to work them more than 15 minutes at a time. Keep an eye on your dog and end your practice session before they get frustrated.

Start with one trick, then when they have perfected that one, proceed to the next. Soon, you will have a handful of tricks to show off to your friends and family, plus, you and your furry pal will have spent hours having fun and bonding.

The Benefits of Scent Work with Your Dog

As you patiently increase your dog’s repertoire of scent-based tricks, you will be doing a number of wonderful things. You will be providing your dog with plenty of mental stimulation, which can reduce their boredom and the destructive behaviours that can come with it. It will give you something fun to do together, growing the bond that you share. And it will give you something that you can brag about. If you want to get more serious, look for a local Scent Work Club that the two of you can join. If your doggo is very proficient, you might want to consider competing in a Scent Work Trial. 

But in the end, remember that you and your furry forever pal have a wonderful relationship, and even if you aren’t filling your home with trophies, you two are having a wonderful time playing games and practicing tricks!

[1] AKC Scent Work