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Ever notice how much your canine pal uses their nose? Maybe you’ve seen them point their head downward and follow an invisible scent trail on the ground during walks, or perhaps the occasional aim upward to catch a whiff of something that’s probably a lot farther away that we realize. A dog’s sense of smell helps keep them safe, active, and mentally stimulated, and for that reason, dog nosework training can be a great activity for any canine companion to enjoy.
Nosework, also known as scent training for dogs, is an activity designed for canines to tap into their superior senses of smell to explore the fun and focus of scent detection. Scent detection is done by many working dogs to aid their human handlers with tasks ranging from K9 nosework to search for missing persons or illegal contraband, sniffing out diseases like cancer, detecting pests like bed bugs, and even finding culinary delicacies like truffles.
While nosework pulls from the same structures and objectives as scent detection, it's generally used as a fun activity for non-working dogs, and affords countless benefits to both the pets and their parents.
In order to understand what makes nosework so beneficial for dogs, it’s important to consider just what the act of sniffing means to a canine. Like people, dogs rely on the five neurological senses of sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch to navigate the world around them. Unlike us humans, however, smell is by far a dog’s most utilized sense, helping them decode and understand messages like where they are in relation to home, familiar people and animals, or even the age and sex of another dog based on clues left at an oft-frequented pee break spot out in the neighborhood.
Equipped with 1.5 million olfactory receptors, dogs’ noses are a huge help to them countless times per day. In addition to that wet snout, dogs possess something called the Jacobsen’s organ, which is located inside the naval cavity and opens into the top of the mouth. When the canine nose picks up a scent, the undetectable chemical components found within that smell go to the Jacobsen’s organ. Filled with nerves, the organ then sends these messages straight to the dog’s brain, where it processes them accordingly.
Some “scents” that work through the Jacobsen’s organ include pheromones. Pheromones help mature dogs mate with potential partners, and newborn puppies identify their mothers and locate their milk before they’re able to see or hear anything.
Allowing and encouraging a dog to use their phenomenal sense of smell helps them become confident in their surrounding, and their ability to navigate it. By assigning your companion a task like canine nosework, you’re setting them up to succeed by relying on what already comes naturally to them, making learning fun, especially as there’s a reward in it for them.
As an added bonus, nosework training can help strengthen the bond between you and your dog by relying on direction, reward, trust, and teamwork to reach a goal together.
Working scent hounds are generally limited to a few specific breeds, but nosework can be enjoyed by any dog, regardless of their breed, age, sex, or temperament. Many people introduce their dogs to nosework to raise their confidence levels, help them improve their ability to focus on one task, or just to keep them mentally stimulated, which can be of huge help to dogs who spend a lot of time at home alone. Additionally, nosework can benefit dogs who simply don’t enjoy group activities, or may be a little up there in age or weight, which might make taking part in more demanding physical activities a bit difficult for them.
If you’re interested in nosework for your dog, getting started is pretty simple and straightforward, although there are a few things to keep in mind to get the most out of you and your dog’s sessions. The main components of dog nosework training are:
To get your dog using their nose, you’ll need to get a few nosework supplies, which you may already have around your home. The fun part of finding your supplies is identifying a smell that your dog absolutely loves and will sniff out. This item will depend on your individual dog, but some popular materials include deli slices, small bits of cheese, training treats, or even a favorite toy.
Next, you’ll need to hide this item inside of something – many people like to use cardboard boxes, although some prefer plastic cups or bowls. It’s recommended that you start out with only a couple of boxes to let your dog experience finding the target before working your way up, which will guarantee success and keep things fun and rewarding for your canine pal.
For basic DIY nosework at home, take your valuable scented resource and hide it under one box. You will either need to leash your dog up somewhere away from the boxes, or have a friend hold them while you hide the treat, but allow them to watch as you touch the boxes, move them around, and hide the treat at first (just be careful not to transfer the scent of the treat onto the other boxes, which can result in confusion for your dog.)
If your canine friend is new to dog nose work games, start with just one or two boxes in the room, and just let them use their nose to sniff out the treat. If they’re having a little trouble understanding the objective, which is completely normal for beginners, you can guide them a little toward the box that the treat is hidden under. It’s generally discouraged to get too involved in the sniffing out process, but some dogs may take a little time catching on to the game, so feel free to walk with your dog as you both meander around and through the boxes you have laid out, or even pretend to look or poke around boxes as well, which may encourage your friend to get into the rhythm of things. Dog scent training games are meant to be fun and stimulating for your dog, so remember to be patient and encouraging if your dog isn’t quite sure what to do, while also keeping in mind that scent games are meant to teach your dog to rely on their nose, and not your instruction.
When your dog has identified the correct box, give them the high-value reward they sniffed out immediately, and be sure to do this at the box they stopped at, praising them for a job well done. Once your dog has gotten the hang of it, add more boxes to the mix, but be sure to only place the reward under one of the boxes. If you had your dog leave the room before, try experimenting with leaving them in the room while you hide the reward, and pretend to hide it under several different boxes so that they really have to use their nose to find the right box the treat is hidden beneath.
If DIY dog nosework training isn’t working for you or your canine friend, or if you just want more guidance or stimulation for your dog, there are classes and seminars designed to teach dog nosework training. Local trainers and training facilities in your area may offer dog nosework classes in person. Online videos can also provide a wealth of practical knowledge to help you get started along your nosework journey, with tips and suggestions for the beginner, along with advanced varieties and techniques for those looking to increase their challenge level. Additionally, you can check out blogs written by reputable dog trainers to learn efficient and effective ways to properly teach your dog nosework.
Has your dog mastered the DIY nosework course you’ve mapped out for them? Looking to continue their growth and challenge them even more? There are a number of things you can do to help your dog continue to excel, including AKC nosework. These classes mimic the training that scent detection K9 officers undergo as part of their job, and entails a bit more skill and precision.
To teach your dog AKC scent work, you’ll implement the same format using different materials. Supplies include:
To begin, leave the room your dog is in, apply your disposable gloves, and add two drops of birch oil onto two cotton swabs. Place the swabs in the glass jar, seal it, and throw your gloves away in a far away receptacle, taking extra care to not transfer the oil onto your hands by turning the gloves inside out. Then, use your tweezers to place a swab in the empty container, and seal your tweezers in a bag (it’s extremely important that you not contaminate anything with an item that came into contact with the birch oil, as the scent can throw the entire session off.) Introduce your dog to the smell by allowing them to smell the container and giving them a reward with a verbal command, like “yes,” every time they smell it, and repeat this a few times.
Finally, place the container that’s holding the swab in your plastic jar and repeat, allowing your dog to smell it and offering a reward when they do. You can try placing the jar in plain sight on the ground a few times as well and reward your dog when they smell it to get them acclimated with the objective. Once you have this down, hide the jar and see if your dog can find it, rewarding them as soon as they do.
In addition to nosework games inside of your home or training facility, conducting scent work sessions outdoors may break up the routine, as well as offer added stimulation thanks to a wealth of environmental scents around you. Nosework games can also be done in other enclosed areas, like inside of vehicles, for example. Interior, exterior, and vehicular searches are all part of K9 nosework competitions, in which additional scents, like anise and clove, are added to the courses.
Because a dog’s nose is so strong and relied-upon, there are a seemingly endless number of opportunities to utilize it for their benefit, with a little creativity on your part. Nosework toys can be purchased in pet supply stores or online, and can make nosework games possible for dogs in limited spaces, like small apartments. Nosework games can be played to break things up and encourage your dog to explore scent detection even more. You can keep things fun simply by switching out the containers you hide the reward inside of for other objects, like cups, bowls, or flower pots. To create your own DIY nosework toy, try placing tennis balls on top of a muffin tin, then place your reward under one of the balls, allowing your dog to sniff out the right one.
Dog nosework can be enjoyed as an at-home activity to keep your dog stimulated, or as a competitive sport. If you’re looking to expand your dog’s involvement in nosework, the National Association of Canine Scent Work is a great resource for learning more about the sport, connecting with other nosework pet parents, and finding classes and competitions around the country. Additionally, the Barn Hunt Association offers nosework competitions, and the NACSW Facebook page provides a great place to connect with other canine nosework enthusiasts.
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.
This is the trainer that reviewed this article:
Olivia Peterson, CCS
Owner - Sound Connection Dog Training
WSU Bachelors in Animal Science Business Management
Northwest School of Canine Studies (NWSCS) Certification
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