Comprehensive Guide to Scent Training for Dogs

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As almost every dog owner is aware, the nose of a dog is an amazing thing. Just as they can pick up sounds we can’t hear, their sense of smell and ability to pick up scents is well beyond ours. In fact, dogs have 40 times the number of olfactory receptors as humans. That’s why scent training (which is often referred to as nose training, nose work, or Scent Work) is so much fun. Not only does training your dog in Scent Work allow your dog or puppy to use its incredible nose, it gives you an excuse to spend time together in a highly enriching experience.

What is scent training for dogs?

You know when you see a dog at the airport sniffing suitcases or outside, sniffing the ground with its nose? What it’s doing is using its scent receptors and extraordinary sense of smell to find certain scents it’s been trained to recognize. Dogs are able to use their incredible sense of smell to find everything from drugs to truffles, but in order to do that, they have to be trained in Scent Work

Scent Work is when you train a dog to find a hidden odor or odors. Those odors may be dog scents, human scents, or even the scent of essential oils or drugs. While some dogs do it as, well, a career of sorts (as in the dogs at the airport), some dogs just do it for fun and to spend a little extra time with their humans. 

One of the best things about Scent Work is that with just a little bit of time and some simple puppy scent training, you can help your dog learn to hunt down all kinds of scents. Scent training for dogs can reap all kinds of benefits–for both you and your beloved animals. All you need are a few simple dog games and some time!

What are the benefits of Scent Work?

Although your dog may never use his or her senses to track down drugs or bombs, there are still so many benefits to Scent Work and so many ways to have them use their powerful senses of smell! Here are just a few:

  1. You can do Scent Work with any kind of dog.

Whether you’ve got terrier types at home or great danes, puppies or dogs, all canines have such powerful senses of smell and natural ability to detect odor, there’s absolutely no reason you can’t train your dog in scent work. With a few favourite puppy scent training games, your dog will be well on their way to Scent Work mastery!

  1. You can start Scent Work training on your own. 

You also don’t necessarily need a professional trainer to do it. Even if you’re not a licensed trainer, a dog’s sense of smell and natural ability is so extraordinary that you can at least get started on Scent Work with some simple puppy scent training or nose work games. 

  1. Scent Work stimulates your dog’s brain and allows your dog to utilize his or her innate ability to pick up scents. 

Imagine if you had an incredible superpower–let’s say flying. Maybe you can get off the ground but you can’t quite stay airborne or do loop-de-loops. Wouldn’t you want someone to show you how to get better, faster, and maybe even show off a little? 

Well, that’s how your dog feels about his or her ability to pick up scents. A dog’s incredible nose can not only pick up more scents than a human’s, it can even tell how long an odor has been in a certain place and can even distinguish the different scents within a scent (and we’re not just talking about strong scents here–they can also pick up super-subtle scents as well). When you help nurture your dog’s sense of smell through Scent Work, you help stimulate their mind and make them feel like they’re doing something great so give them a chance to show off by cultivating this natural gift! 

  1. It’s a great way to spend time together. 

In fact, this might really be the beauty of Scent Work. There’s nothing better than spending time with your furry friend and this gives you both a great excuse! Not only that, it’s a great way for both of you to get a little exercise

How to get started training your dog in scent work

As we said above, part of the beauty of scent work is that you can easily start this at home without fancy equipment or expensive training. Here’s a helpful guide to get you started:

  1. Start small and simply.

As with any dog training, it’s always best to start small and although there are nationwide Scent Work trials and competitions hosted by associations like the AKC, there’s no reason to think your dog needs to win a medal right off the bat! 

Here’s an easy puppy scent training game to get you started that’s basically a combination of Scent Work and “Hide and Go Seek”: have someone hold your puppy while you find a good hiding spot, leaving a trail of treats as you go. Once you’re hidden, have that person release the puppy. They may take some time sniffing their way treat by treat to find you, but we can almost guarantee that little puppy’s incredible nose will eventually find your scent trail as dogs are very adept at picking human scents! When they find you, give them a treat as a reward. Repeat the process a few more times, hiding in a new spot without your fresh scent so they’re not just retracing their steps. Believe it or not, you’ve already completed the first step of Scent Work!

Here’s another great puppy scent training game: take your puppy or dog’s favorite toy and have them play with it a bit. After a while, take it from them and hide it some place where it will be relatively easy for them to find. Walk back to the puppy (when you do, follow your exact steps so you don’t leave another scent trail). Release your puppy and say “Go find it!” wait as they follow the scent traces back to the toy. When they do, use praise and a treat as rewards.

  1. Incorporate the scents of other animals into your Scent Work.

Remember that treats and human scents aren’t the only thing a dog’s nose can pick up. Dogs are incredible at picking up the scent traces and hidden odor of other animals like cat scents and even scents left by predators or prey. A good way to develop this ability is with a simple nose work exercise: take a blanket or other piece of material that has the odor of another animal on it like a cat or even another dog and hide it (as you did when you hid the toy, have your dog stay in another room as you do). Come back to your dog, release them and as you did in previous examples, say “Go find it!” Watch them use their nose to find the blanket, and then use praise and a treat as rewards.

  1. Incorporate other scents into your Scent Work.

Just as dogs can track down other animal scents, so, too, can they track down other scents like essential oils. Try this simple Scent Work game that can be done inside or out to see what we mean: put a little essential oil like lavender on a toy or ball. Play with your dog, using the toy for a couple of days in a row so he or she gets used to the smell of the essential oil.  

After a few days of this, hide the ball while the dog isn’t there (making sure it still has enough of the oil on it that the dog will be able to find it), leaving a scent trail of tiny pieces of paper that have been doused with the oil (dog park rentals are great places to do this since it will be devoid of dog or human scents already familiar to him or her). Have the pieces of paper lead to the ball. When you bring your dog into the room, say “Go find it!” and watch as he or she uses their nose to find the ball. When they do, use praise and a treat as rewards. 

  1. Have them look for treats.

The one thing that may motivate your dog to use its sense of smell even more than finding you? Finding a tasty treat! Just as you hid so your puppy or dog could use its nose to find you, you can hide their favourite treat around the house and then let them loose to find it. We recommend hiding them somewhere at ground level to make it easier–perhaps under a rug, a couch, etc. Pretty much anything can be turned into a scent-training dog toy if you put a treat on, in, or under it!

  1. Play “Which Hand is It In?” 

You know that game you play with children where you put a dime in one fist, swirl your hands around and then ask them to guess which one the dime is in? The same game works for dogs learning Scent Work! All you have to do is put a treat or a little piece of food in your fist (treats and foods with strong scents like meat work best) and let your dog smell it. As you do, say “Go find it!” and then open your hand and let them have the food. Do this a few times and switch hands each time. After a while, delay opening your hand until it’s clear his or her nose is really sussing out that there’s a treat in there (not that they just happened to pick the right hand). This allows your dog to learn that his or her nose is what’s allowing her to find the treat. 

You can also use the “Shell Game” version of this game to teach Scent Work. With about three or four cups you can hide a treat under one of the cups. When it’s clear your dog is zeroing in on one of the cups because he or she is picking up on the scent of the treat under the cup, pick it up, and then let them have the treat, praising them as you do.

      6. Make sure to reward them every time! 

Dogs are pretty much exactly like humans in that the more praise and adoration they get, the more motivated they are to do something well. The same goes for Scent Work. The more you praise your dog and offer a reward like a treat when they’ve done well, the more likely they are to improve. Yes, Scent Work is something that’s intuitive for a dog, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want a little recognition! 

     7. Keep your sessions short. 

As is the case with socialization or other puppy/dog training, there’s only so long a dog can train before they need a break. Keep your sessions short and productive so you don’t tucker your dog out.

That should at least give you a great foundation for getting your dog started in Scent Work. Even if your dog never becomes a bomb sniffing dog or ends up winning medals, playing scent training games is a wonderful way to spend some great, focused time together and make them feel great about their own natural abilities!

Trainer that reviewed this article

There is so much misinformation out there, we want to make sure we only provide the highest quality information to our community. We have all of our articles reviewed by qualified, positive-only trainers. The trainers that review our content are reviewed by other trainers to ensure that we have the best quality filters on our content. 

This is the trainer that reviewed this article:

Beth Joy, CPDT-KA, PMCT
Owner and Lead Trainer Unleashed Joy Dog Training – Mt. Airy, MD.
Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA)
www.unleashedjoy.com

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