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The essentials

  • Scentwork is a fun and easy way to connect with your dog — It builds trust between handler and dog and requires minimal experience or equipment.
  • Unlike other forms of dog training and fitness, scentwork can be used for any dog, anywhere — Dogs of all breeds, ages, and sizes find hunting for a particular scent stimulating.
  • Scentwork can decrease stress and increase the welfare of your pup — Scentwork is not only a great way to exhaust mental energy, but it also has a calming effect on dogs and puts them in a positive mood.

It’s no secret that dogs often see the world through their noses. For a dog, scent  allows them to communicate with other dogs and understand what has happened and is currently happening at a particular spot. It’s an integral part of how they experience the world. It can also be an invaluable way to add fun training and enrichment to your dog’s daily life. 

Scroll down to learn more; once you start with these games, you won’t ever want to go back to only playing ‘fetch’!

What is scentwork for dogs?

Scentwork (also known as scent training or nosework) is a fun enrichment activity you can do with your dog anywhere and anytime. Originally used only as a training technique for working dogs,  scentwork is relatively new as a sport for the common pup. This may be due in part to new developments in this field; the list of jobs that scent detection dogs are used for is constantly growing. 

Some scent detection dogs are a part of emergency personnel, helping to find evidence, an item, or a person (bomb detection, search and rescue, cadaver dogs, drug detection). Others detect a specific smell on a person’s breath to alert them to a medical concern such as cancer or a diabetic emergency. There are even dogs that are utilized to track endangered animals for conservation or find mushrooms to harvest.

You may have picked up on the general premise from these jobs — the dogs are trained to use their powerful noses to search for and find a specific scent. 

The flexibility of this sport makes it attainable and enjoyable for all kinds of dogs regardless of age, breed, or temperament. It is fully customizable to your and your dog’s needs, so experience level and physical ability aren’t barriers. By tapping into a dog’s innate interest in scents, this particular method is one that all dogs enjoy to one extent or another. 

Can my dog do scentwork?

For those looking to know if your pup would reap higher benefits, ask yourself if your dog is:

  • High energy/drive or restricted activity. Mental effort tires out a dog much faster than physical effort. 
  • Nervous or excitable dogs. This will give dogs something specific to focus their attention on, helping them to calm down.
  • Puppies or hesitant dogs. This will teach them new skills and help build your dog’s confidence.
  • Retired working or sport dogs. These dogs often have more mental energy than your typical family dog, which, if they don’t get to channel appropriately, will come up with their own (often inappropriate) entertainment
  • Reactive or fearful dogs. This is an activity you can do safely with your pup without putting them in an uncomfortable situation. 
  • Food or toy motivated. These dogs are the easiest to train and scent work is no exception. Knowing that your pup is food or toy-motivated means you’re one step ahead in knowing what your dog will be willing to work to find.

The truth is that regardless of the type of dog you have, most will enjoy some level of scentwork based on their energy, smarts, and motivation.

Benefits of scent training for dogs

As with most forms of dog training or sport, scent training helps build a strong bond between the handler and the dog. The more you can get to know and understand what your dog is motivated by (tennis balls, anyone?), the deeper you can delve into scent training. 

Additionally, because it relies heavily on creativity and not strenuous activity, it can be as simple or in-depth as you want. This flexibility makes it the perfect enrichment activity for busy owners looking to exhaust their pup’s brain power without taking up all of their own energy. 

Other benefits of this fun training method include: 

  • An effective way to focus your dog’s energy and potentially distract them from things you DON’T want them focusing on
  • Allows the dog to exhibit natural behaviors
  • Reduces stress
  • Weight loss and reduction in scarfing down food 
  • Positive mood and optimistic mental state
  • Calming for more anxious dogs
  • Provides a mental outlet when your dog can’t have a physical one
  • Tires your dog out mentally, which is more effective than physical activity

How to get started with scent training

As we mentioned before, scentwork is for everybody, and getting started can be as official or unofficial as you want! Some doggie clubs or training schools may teach scentwork classes, so if you want hands-on help, that may be the place to start. 

If you’re looking to jump in immediately or don’t want to spend the money on a class, that’s okay too! Here’s how you can get started on your own:

Get the supplies

Most supplies are available online or at your local Walmart. You can even purchase ready-made scentwork kits. 

  • Containers. For storing and using scents, get a plastic container with holes in the lid, a ‘scent vessel’ (you can use an old mint tin or order one), and a small glass jar with a lid.
  • Tools. Tweezers, a Ziploc bag, and disposable gloves isolate scents to the cotton swab and scent vessel.
  • Cotton swabs. Very absorbent and typically safe, these are necessary for applying the scent.
  • Treats. Select high-value treats that your dog won’t be able to resist.
  • Essential oils. Some training programs recommend specific oils like frankincense or birch. If you’re looking to compete, starting with birch or clove would be helpful. 

Keep in mind that not all oils are safe for your pup if ingested, so we recommend choosing one that isn’t toxic. Many oils will be labeled as ‘natural,’ but that doesn’t mean they’re safe. Additionally, dogs have preferences for scents like we do, so it’s okay to try a few!

Prep your ‘kit’

In a room away from your dog, apply 2 drops of the essential oil of your choice to the cotton swab. You’ll want to wear disposable gloves to avoid getting the scent on your hands and confuse your pup. Place the scented swabs in the glass jar. Take the gloves off and turn them inside out, throwing them away where your pup won’t be able to smell. 

Use the tweezers to take the swabs from the glass jar and place them into the scent vessel, then store your tweezers in a closed Ziploc bag. The goal is to minimize contact with the scent and isolate it to the cotton swabs and the container.

Fido, meet scent

  1. Start by holding the scent vessel in one hand and a treat your pup loves in the other. Your dog will likely start off by fixating on the hand with the treat. That’s okay! 
  2. When your dog takes a moment to investigate the hand with the scent vessel, say “Yes” and give your pup the treat right next to the tin. You want to give the treat at the source of the odor so that your pup learns that good things come when they focus on that particular smell. 

Trainer’s Note: If you already do training with your dog and use a different marker, such as “Good” or the sound of a clicker, we recommend keeping your training consistent and using that here as well. 

      3. Do this for a few repetitions with the tin in one hand, then switch to the other hand. Dogs quickly learn patterns, so you want to ensure they’re not simply associating your one hand with treats. It’s about the scent.

      4. Once you’ve switched it up on your pup a few times and they’ve reliably identified the hand with the scent for three rounds, you’re ready to move on.

Teaching ‘Find It’

Now that your dog can identify the scent, it’s time to have them work for it. 

  1. Start by placing the scent vessel in the plastic jar. Hold the jar in one hand and a treat in the other. When your dog sniffs the jar, feed them the treat next to it. Repeat this step the same way you did with just the vessel. 
  2. Once your pup easily identifies the jar as the rewardable smell, place the jar on the ground by your feet. Repeat the above process. 
  3. Once they’ve figured that out, try putting your dog in another room while you place the jar on the ground. Bring your dog back into the room and see if they continue to identify the jar. 
  4. Make sure to continue to reward your pup when they identify the jar!

You can continue increasing this task’s difficulty by making the jar harder to reach or find. It’s important that you gradually increase the difficulty and stop while your dog is still successful at completing the task. If they get frustrated, the search will no longer be enjoyable for them.

Scent games to help with training

If jumping right into working with scent vessels and essential oils sounds too intense, have no fear! You can play many fun scent games with your pup to build up their confidence and yours! 

  1. Determine what your pup is motivated by. Will they do anything for a piece of Pupperoni? Maybe they won’t give up until they get the tennis ball underneath the couch. Choose something that you know they want. 
  2. Drag the item along the ground to make a scent trail. 
  3. Hide the item at the end of the trail. 
  4. If in an enclosed space, you can do this off-leash or on-leash in an open space. 
  5. Let your pup lead you to the valuable item. 
  6. Reward your pup with food or a game of tug/fetch when they find it.

Scentwork is a malleable and accessible training tool you can use as simply or extensively as you want. If you want to simply take a few of your dog’s favorite treats and hide them underneath cardboard boxes around the room, that’s scentwork. If your dog loves strawberries and you throw some into the tall grass in the backyard for them to find, that’s scentwork! 

If you want to take them to specific classes and train them to find a person wearing a particular scent, that’s scentwork too. There are even special toys made specifically to make it easy for you to hide treats for your pup to find.  

The sky’s the limit when it comes to scentwork, and you can be as creative as you want. Regardless of the type, it will be stimulating and fun for you and your pup and only bring you closer as a team.

Frequently asked questions

When should I start scent training my dog?

You can start scent training your dog at any age, but for those looking to compete in the sport or become a professional, it’s good to start as early as 8 weeks old. 

Is scent training good for dogs?

Scent training benefits dogs in various ways, including acting as a form of mental stimulation to stave off boredom, an outlet for mental energy, a tool to focus and help calm anxiety, and a method to build or strengthen the bond between handler and dog.

Is sniffing better than running for dogs?

Depending on your dog and their individual needs,  exerting mental energy through sniffing may be more beneficial than running. For dogs unable to participate in physical activity due to medical restrictions or age or young puppies whose bones are not fully formed, the mental stimulation of scentwork is a great way to get them what they need without pushing those boundaries. This is also true for highly intelligent dogs with high energy, as physical exertion is often not enough to tire them out because it only targets physical energy, not mental energy. 

Can dogs smell their owners from 11 miles away?

Some studies show that dogs can smell about 20 km or 12 miles away and have an easier time smelling (and recognizing) longer-distance scents if they belong to their owner. 

What kinds of things can your dog smell out with scentwork?

You can train your dog to sniff out anything with scentwork! Those looking to compete or train their dog to be a detection dog generally focus on specific essential oils such as birch or Cyprus. If doing scentwork purely for enrichment, handlers may use anything the dog is motivated by, such as toys, treats, fruit, and more.