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An introduction to scent work for dogs

September 10, 2021

Did you know that dogs use their sense of smell to gather and process information about their environment? In this introduction to scent work for dogs written by scent detection instructor Giulia Danielis, you’ll learn more about how your dog’s nose works and discover things you can do to help stimulate their senses.

How your dog’s nose works

Your dog’s nose – technically known as the olfactory system is a very sophisticated and complex apparatus. 

Here’s a fascinating fact. Did you know that a dog can detect the equivalent of one teaspoon of sugar in a million gallons of water? That’s two Olympic-sized pools!

How? Not only do dogs have up to 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses, compared to 6 million in humans, but their olfactory bulb, which is the organ responsible for processing smells, is about 40 times larger than ours. Researchers say that dogs can smell up to 100,000 better than humans.

When dogs inhale, they do so separately from each nostril. When they exhale, the air goes out not from the nostrils but the slits located at the side of their nose.  This means they can keep gathering new odours without any interference. They also have two separate areas dedicated to the air they inhale, one for breathing and one for scenting.

Because of this fantastic and very advanced system, dogs not only recognise, and remember, a wide variety of smells, they can also locate the direction odours have come from with unbelievable precision. 

This is why dogs are great at detecting explosives and drugs, finding missing people, tracking wildlife, and even detecting illnesses like cancer and covid.

Not all dogs need to be trained at such a high level of precision, of course, but allowing dogs to use their incredible sense of smell is still very important.

Why is scent work for dogs important?

Providing dogs with opportunities to use their nose is important for several reasons. 

Dogs use a tremendous amount of brainpower when sniffing and processing the information they receive. So having plenty of opportunities to sniff and discover new smells is really important for your dog’s mental stimulation. It’s also a great way to tire your dog out.

Nosework also helps dogs to feel calm, as sniffing helps to lower a dog’s heart rate. The faster and more intensively a dog sniffs, the lower their pulse will be. Not only this, nose work teaches a dog how to problem solve. 

This is why scent work is successfully used to help anxious and reactive dogs improve their confidence and learn to cope better with potentially stressful situations. 

Last but not least, it’s also a great bonding activity to do with your dog, as it can really help to enhance your relationship. 

Three nose work activities you can do with your dog

Although dogs have a natural talent for using their noses and don’t need any training in how to follow a scent, there are things you can do with your dog to encourage them to use their exceptional skills. Here are some ideas:

Sniffari

Dogs love a good sniffari adventure! A sniffari is simply a walk where your dog can explore the environment using their nose. They get to lead the walk and decide where to go, what to sniff, and for how long. 

A sniffari has a different purpose to getting exercise from a walk, but don’t be tempted to think it won’t be tiring for your dog! You might even find that a sniffari helps your dog to feel more calm and relaxed than a regular walk.

By giving your dog the choice to follow their nose, you will be providing them with the opportunity to simply be a dog, satisfy their innate need to sniff, increase their confidence and relax in their environment. Having a choice is really empowering for our canine companions. 

Encouraging your dog to use their nose is also a great way to lower arousal, regulate their energy, and prevent undesirable behaviours, such as jumping up, pulling on the lead and barking at other dogs.

All you need for a sniffari is a supportive harness and a longer lead to give your dog a chance to move around more freely. Using a different piece of equipment can serve as a cue to let your dog know it’s sniffari time!

Treat trails 

Dogs are scavengers and find searching for items or food with their noses extremely rewarding. 

Treat trails is a great game to get your dog to use their scenting abilities. All you need to do is hide some of your dog’s food or treats around the room  – whilst your dog isn’t watching of course! When you’re ready, let your dog into the room and encourage them to explore and sniff out the treats. 

If this is the first time you set up a treat trail, you might need to help your dog to get started by pointing to the food or treat. Once they get really good at sniffing out a treat, you can increase the challenge by hiding the food under some cups or in small containers with the lids slightly open. Make sure you vary the height of the things you hide too. And take the game in different rooms, including the garden, to make it more fun!

Snuffle box

This is where you get to use your recycling! It’s a win-win for your dog and the environment. Delivery packaging comes in super handy for this game as all you need is a cardboard box, some shredded paper, and a handful of tasty treats. 

Grab the box, fill it with papers and any other items that are safe for your dog, and sprinkle some treats on top. Then give it to your dog to enjoy. Once your dog becomes skilled at finding all the goodies, you can make it more difficult by hiding the treats in some folded toilet rolls or paper balls. 

Where to find a qualified scent work instructor 

Are you intrigued by the idea of learning more about the fascinating world of nose work? If you would like to take your dog’s ability to the next level and teach them how to identify and find specific smells, why not learning about scent detection or tracking? Have a look at the UK sniffer dogs website to find your qualified instructor.

Giulia has set up her own business My Kinda Dog, to help people understand, connect, and thrive with their pets.  She’s a member of UK Sniffer Dogs, a student member of the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors and is working towards full membership of the Professional Association of Canine Trainers. She’s also passionate about helping women feel motivated and confident in their dogs’ training journeys and leads a supportive and welcoming group Women & Dogs – Coaching, Training & Support that is free to join.

You can connect with Giulia on Facebook and Instagram to get to know her and her sidekick, Ruby