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Teach Your Dog To Play Scent Work At Home!

Teach Your Dog To Play Scent Work At Home!

Dogs need mental or physical stimulation to keep their bodies and minds sharp. If you’re at all like us, you’re constantly looking for new ways to keep your dogs engaged, stimulated, and happy. There are a number of games and activities you can teach your dog to vary up the usual routine, and one of our favorites is scent work.

When most people think of scent work, they think of detection dogs at the airport working to sniff out drugs or other hazardous materials. While there will be no hazardous materials involved with your pups’ training, the concept remains the same. The goal of the game is for the dog to find a particular scent and alert the handler (you) to the location of the scent.

While this may seem like a difficult game to teach, it’s actually pretty simple! Obviously there’s no replacement for learning with a trained and certified instructor, but you can build the foundation by practicing at home as well. You’ll want to teach your dog the game in a staged approach – we’ve outlined the process we followed with our instructor below – if we were able to teach our dogs, you can too!

1. Start simple

In a small room with a few boxes (shoe box size is perfect), place some treats into one of the boxes (make sure the top of the box is open and the treats are accessible) and cue your dog to find the treats. For us, we tell our dogs to “Go Find It” when they are searching. When the dog finds the treats, reward them further by verbally praising them and feeding them from your hand as well at the location of the treats they found. You should do this many times with your dog before progressing – make sure they understand the game.

2. Make it a little harder

Lightly close the boxes and place the treats inside, or place the treats in places less accessible to the dog. Cue your dog again to go find the treats, and when your pup starts showing a great deal of interest in the correct box, open the box and reward them again from your hand. This can look different for every dog- some pups paw at the box, others will bark, and our dogs get right up the scent, and then sit and look intently at us to indicate they have found the source. Watch your pup closely, and learn their natural indications!

3. Pairing

Make sure your pup understands the goal of the game before progressing to this step. “Pairing” involves hiding some of the treats you’ve been hiding previously, along with odor. In both AKC Scent Work and National Association of Canine Scent Work (NACSW) games, the first odor dogs are exposed to at the entry level of competition is birch. If you’re wondering how in the world you’d get this scent easily, look no further than The K9 Nose. We purchased a Beginner Scent Work Kit, which includes everything you need to introduce your pup to birch, and plenty of fun containers that you can use for hides when you are no longer pairing.

A blue plastic case containing a smile face tin, and three vials of q-tips, over a gray wood surface.
Our travel container for scent work.

All you’ll have to purchase as you advance past the birch scent are the other essential oils! The K9 Nose also offers a “Pairing Kit” to assist in training at this step. P.S. It only takes 2 small drops of essential oils in the jar to get the Q-tips filled with scent- make sure you don’t oversaturate! I accidentally did that with the anise scent and the house smelled like black licorice for a week.

4. Move to only hiding odor

Once your dog is consistently locating difficult hides when paired, hide only the odor, and cue your dog to locate the hide. Immediately upon your dog finding the hide and alerting you to its location, reward them by hand with treats at the location of the hide. Make sure your dog is as close as possible to the “source” of the odor, and not cheating by alerting you too far away from the source. Been there, done that with Iggy.

5. Have fun challenging your dog!

At this point the world is your oyster! You can advance to other scents if you would like, or stick to just birch. I recommend varying the areas in which you hide the scent as well – one day try your living room, the next day try your garage, place it on a vehicle, try your backyard, try public areas like a local park, etc.

Black and brown dog sitting next to the wheel well of a gray car.
Raleigh indicating on a hide in the wheel well.

You can continue to play this game just for fun on a cold or rainy day when extensive time outside may not be an option, or you can practice with the ultimate goal of someday participating in competitions. Both of our dogs have titles at the NW1 level of NACSW, and we have plans to compete in AKC Scent Work once the pandemic dies down.

Scent work is one of our favorite things to do with our pups for a lot of reasons.

  • It provides mental stimulation and challenge to our dogs, who need frequent stimulation to remain happy and healthy.
  • Very little is required to practice scent work – for less than $50 you can equip yourself with everything you need to compete at all levels of scent work. This is not the case with other sports, such as agility or dock diving (most people don’t have a full-length dock at home that is safe for dogs to jump from).
  • It enhances teamwork between the dog and handler – while your dog will search mostly independently, part of the game is for them to tell you where the hide is, and then they’ll get rewarded. This is an excellent way to positively reinforce good behavior and bond with your pup.

What games have you been playing with your pup during the pandemic?

This Post Has 12 Comments
    1. I agree completely! Scent work challenges them and stimulates their mind in a completely different way than a walk. It’s so fun to use it as an opportunity to bond as well.

  1. Great post! I’ve been doing nose work with my dogs for a few years now, and they both really enjoy it! We started as a way to keep my older dog more mentally active. We did agility and more active activities with him when he was younger, but now that he’s older he has arthritis and back issues. Nose work has been an awesome way to keep him active while also being much lower impact.

    1. That’s awesome! That’s something that I love about nose work – dogs can truly participate at any age.

  2. I recently made snuffle mats for my dogs – not too challenging. I will try your suggestions; thank you for outlining the steps and stages. I love to interact with my dogs and stimulate their brains in different ways.

  3. Scent work is one of the best activities for dogs to have fun and put their main sense to work. Cookie gets scent work daily looking for field mice and, believe me, she knows where they are. It’s amazing.

    When she was recovering from injury, we played scent work games at home; find and seek treats, shell game, and others. Not as much fun as mouse hunting but still great.

    1. That’s awesome! We also love scent work because our dogs will be able to participate even as they get older, and the more physical sports become hard for them.

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