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4 Examples of Nose Work Games for Dogs (Exercise Their Brains!)

play nose work games with your dog

Looking for engaging activities for your dog while stuck inside because of coronavirus quarantines or chilly winter weather? Try some nose work games for dogs. These fun, smelly activities help your dog refine their olfactory skills and exercise their brains, which is important to dog health. 

Did you know: Dogs’ can smell 1,000 to 10,000 times better than people, depending on the breed. Hounddogs, for example, have very high senses of smell. (Source: VCAHospitals.com)

Dogs experience most of their surroundings through their sense of smell. Whether it’s out on a walk, perusing a backyard, or inspecting every corner of a home, dogs take in an enormous amount of information that humans fail to notice. Nose work games are perfect for any dog.    

Starting Out with Nose Work for Dogs

Nose work games are a fun, entertaining way for your pet to exercise his nose and mind. It’s best to start indoors to avoid the enormous number of distracting outdoor scents. Although some dogs have a greater sense of smell than others, playing nose games is an appropriate activity for all dogs. Select treats or toys that motivate your pet and can help him focus on the task at hand. You can also prevent boredom by changing up the games once your dog ‘catches on’ to them.

Easy Scent Games for Nose Work

Before you go burying treats around the house, introduce your pet to the “nose games” with a couple of simple ones like “pick-a-hand” and “muffin tin sniffin’.” 

Pick-a-hand scent game

While your dog is watching, place a treat in one of your hands and close them both. Holding your closed hands down toward your dog’s face, say a command like “find it” (or something similar) and let him sniff them both. If he nudges or paws the wrong hand, open both to show that he was incorrect. Don’t give him the treat. No words are necessary. Close both hands again. Repeat the find-it command. Once your dog selects the correct hand, open it up and offer him the treat and plenty of praise.

Muffin tin sniffin’ scent game

Grab an empty muffin tin and place a few treats in some of the empty muffin cups. Put a tennis ball over every cup, including those that don’t have a treat. Let your dog sniff through the pan to find all of the treats.

Challenging Nose Work Games

If you feel your dog is ready to tackle more challenging scent work games, it’s time to up the ante. 

Shell scent game

Instead of using just your two hands to hide a treat, try cups to play a shell game. For small dogs, you can get away with paper, whereas you’re better off using heavy-duty plastic cups or even plastic flower pots for larger dogs. 

Like the “pick-a-hand” game, let your dog observe you placing the treat under one of the cups. When ready, tell your dog “find it” and wait for him to paw or nudge the cup. Once he does, lift the cup and give your pet his treat and plenty of praise. After a bit of practice, your dog is sure to catch on; that’s when it’s time to bring in the second cup. Show him under which cup you’re placing the treat. If your pet picks the correct cup again, lift the cup and offer him the treat and praise. If he selects the wrong cup, raise it to show him it’s empty, then lift the other cup to show where the treat is but don’t let your pet have the treat just yet. Put both cups back down. Repeat your command, and let your dog choose. 

You can continue adding cups and even moving them around like a shell game. This helps your dog use his nose, not just his memory.

Housework scent game

You can challenge your pet by placing treats around the home, starting with close by, easy to find locations in a single area of your home. Have your dog sit or stay in a spot while you hide the treats. Use your “find it” command and let your dog sniff out the treats.

If you find him struggling, you can offer some help by softly tapping your foot a bit on the ground closer to where the treat lies, or if the treat is under something, slide it a bit closer to your pet. After several successful rounds, increase the distance between the treats by spreading them between multiple rooms. As your pet works his way through the house, he learns to discern between competing scents and distractions.

You can increase the level of challenge by having someone else hiding the treat while you and your dog are in another room. This task can ensure your dog smells out the treat without relying on any cues or help from you. If you find your dog is a super sniffer and excels at scent work, maybe you should consider looking into what it takes to enter into the American Kennel Club’s scent work competitions