Your dog’s nose is so much more than an oh-so-boopable facial feature. In fact, it’s been the key to canine survival for millennia. Ancient canines’ lives depended on their ability to sniff out danger, food, and mates. And though life isn’t quite so perilous for modern doggos, they still rely primarily on their super sniffers to gather intel on the world around them. A dog’s sense of smell is estimated to be hundreds to thousands of times more powerful than our own…and even more sensitive than sophisticated lab instruments.1 That’s what makes dogs such great candidates for scent training.
Scent training for dogs gives canines a chance to use their enhanced olfaction to detect everything from illicit drugs to explosives, as well as illnesses like cancer and diabetes. That’s great news for us humans, but we’re not the only ones to benefit from scent work.
According to New York-based scent trainer Diana Ludwiczak, when dogs use their nose to sniff things out, it can have a surprisingly calming effect on their mood.
Scent training provides both physical and mental stimulation, encouraging dogs to “expend energy by utilizing their brain in combination with their nose to find things,” she says. Ludwiczak has observed this calming effect first hand when she trains dogs how to detect bed bugs for her company, Doctor Sniffs Bed Bug Dogs.
However, scent training isn’t just for working dogs. Any dog can benefit from the stimulation and engagement that scent training provides. And your pup doesn’t have to be a bloodhound or any other breed known for their nose to give it a try!
What is Scent Training for Dogs?
Scent-focused training helps dogs learn how to use their instinctive sniffing abilities to detect specific smells and alert their handler or a pet parent when they do.
Scent training has many practical applications. Some dogs learn scent work to help them fulfill a certain role or job. For example, scent training is essential for dogs used for search and rescue missions, narcotics enforcement, and bomb detection.
Other dogs undergo competitive scent training. The American Kennel Club considers scent work a sport and stages trials where AKC-registered dogs can pit their scent detection skills against others.
Finally, for many dogs, scent training offers a fun new way to play — one that can boost confidence, bust boredom, instill discipline, offer enrichment, and foster bonding.
“While scent detection is an important career for some dogs, for others scent training is more about helping to alleviate anxiety or expend energy,” says Ludwiczak.
How Dog Scent Training Works
As you might expect, how scent training is conducted varies depending on whether a dog will be sniffing for fun, for sport, or for work.
Working dogs typically undergo training by an accredited organization, such as the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT), or the World Detector Dog Organization (WDDO). However, since professional sniffers are often highly specialized to detect specific scents (e.g., mold, narcotics, cadavers, etc.), they may require specialized training and accreditation from industry-specific organizations, such as the North American Police Work Dog Association (NAPWDA) or the National Entomology Scent Detection Canine Association (NESDCA).
Pet parents can also find professional trainers who will teach dogs how to detect scents for fun or sport. And while the training is often based on the same principles used for working dogs, the standards are not nearly as stringent.
According to scent trainer Joan Hunter Mayer, owner of The Inquisitive Canine in Santa Barbara, California, getting started is easy and prior obedience training isn’t usually required.
Mayer is a K9 Nose Work Instructor certified by the National Association of Canine Scent Work (NACSW), which specializes in training “designed to include any dog, no matter the breed, age, gender, disposition, or size,” says Mayer.
However, it’s worth keeping in mind that some breeds of dogs may be easier to scent train than others. For example, “German Shepherds, Belgian Malinois, Labrador Retrievers, hounds, pointers, and spaniels are all great breeds for scent detection because they have endless energy and a desire to learn new things,” says Ludwiczak. “I love training rescue dogs who have some combination of a few of these breeds in them.”
In Mayer’s scent-training classes, dogs start out by searching for either a favorite toy or food reward that’s been hidden in a series of increasingly challenging environments. New challenges and search skills are added as the dog progresses. Once a dog has mastered the basics, the search target changes to a unique scent, such as birch, anise, or clove. Now the dog learns how to search by odor only, according to a scent cue. When they find the source of the scent, a tasty treat or favorite toy rewards them and reinforces the lesson.
Nose Work for Dogs: Fun Scent Training Games to Try
If you’re interested in scent training for your dog, but you’re more of a hands-on pet parent, there are plenty of DIY scent games that you can play with your pet at home. Just keep in mind: “Each dog is an individual, and needs to be treated as such,” says Mayer.
“The variables in how well a dog performs in this sport are numerous and varied. Your dog’s breed and whether they’re a member of a working group is one consideration, but that doesn’t necessarily correlate with the success of the dog, or the dog-handler team,” she adds.
Your best bet is to remain attuned to your dog’s engagement level and responses. If training is getting more frustrating than fun, it may be time to take a break and try again when you are both more rested and refreshed.
Here are some great at-home starter activities to help sharpen your pup’s scent-detection skills.
- Create a scavenger hunt. This can be a great scent-training game to play with any dog. Start by keeping them outside of a room or away from a designated space while you hide several small treats or a favorite toy.
When it’s time to begin the hunt, let them in and ask, “Where is it?” in an excited voice, letting them smell one of the treats that you’ve hidden, so they can sniff the rest out.
When playing scent-training games, “it’s a good idea to use a different voice,” says Elena Zimmerman, a pet parent who started training her mixed breed dog when he was six months old, using techniques she learned from a certified dog trainer friend and lots of online training videos.
“Use the same questions and phrases consistently when you’re searching, such as ‘Where is it?’ and ‘All done!’” she suggests. “This helps them recognize what kind of game they’re playing and what to expect.”
- Play the “shell game.” This is a great option if you don’t have a lot of space for a full scavenger hunt, or if your dog is easily distracted.
Place a small treat or toy under one of several overturned plastic cups and let your dog sniff out which one hides the treasure. As they get better at it, you can increase the difficulty by showing your pup where you’re hiding the treat and then swapping or moving the cups around.
- Introduce interactive food toys. Investing in an item like an interactive food puzzle or mat is an easy way to enrich mealtime, strengthen scent-training skills, and appeal to your dog’s inner hunter.
Simply hide treats within the toy for your dog to sniff out and enjoy. Just be sure to keep tabs on the calorie content of the treats you’re using and the quantities you hide…they tend to add up fast!
Scent Training for Dogs: Tips for Success
When approaching scent training, Mayer recommends taking a more relaxed approach than is often used with traditional obedience training.
“You want an enthusiastic dog who is going to utilize their skills,” she says. “Once you give your dog the cue to search, allow them to do their job by giving them the freedom to hunt and problem solve.”
Although it might be difficult to do so, Mayer says to avoid giving them direction or telling them what to do after the initial search command. “This is their environment. We’re just there to keep them safe,” she says.
Scent training has plenty of positive advantages to offer dogs of all ages, temperaments, and breeds. Not only does scent work help dogs “burn both mental and physical energy, but it also builds confidence and independence, and helps dogs form stronger bonds with their handler,” Mayer says.
Plus, scent training can also help pet parents learn more about their dogs, by “honing in on body language and understanding how to translate their cues.”
“Dogs, by nature, are predators and problem solvers. If we don’t give them problems to solve, they’ll likely develop their own,” Mayer adds. “Nose work and other scent-specific classes give dogs the opportunity to utilize their innate survival skills and thrive.”