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How Does Scent Training for Dogs Work? And Why Would You Need It?

scent training for dogs

You’ve seen the crime shows where a dog sniffs an article of clothing and leads the police to a missing person. Or perhaps you’ve been in an airport and seen police use dogs to sniff travelers and wondered, what are they looking for? These dogs are actually detection trained. While not every dog can become a detection dog, scent training can benefit your pet.

You might be surprised to learn that scent training for dogs is not only for solving and preventing crimes. Scent training and nose work can be used to exercise your dog’s mental muscles, plus it’s good for their overall health. One veterinary expert even suggests that dogs that go on regular “scent walks” tend to be less mischievous.

What is Scent Training for Dogs?

Ever notice how your dog’s world is an odoriferous paradise? Everything from flowers, to crumbs to other dogs’ backsides, must be smelled. Thanks to the over 300 million olfactory receptors in a dog’s nose, they just can’t help themselves; even the most undetectable smells to us humans make their way into a canine’s nostrils. What better way to celebrate your dog’s sniffing skillset than to practice scent work.

Scent training is a challenging and rewarding activity that allows your dog to use his powerful natural sense and enjoy rewards for his successes. You can train scent work, sometimes referred to as “nose work,” in any environment, such as in your home and along your walks. 

In fact, it has become so popular that in 2006, a group of dog lovers created the National Association of Canine Scent Work, which is an organization that facilitates scent work competitions.

How Does Scent Training Work?

Similar to how detection dogs locate a scent like narcotics or explosives and alert their handler to the smell, you will provide an odor for your dog to identify during scent training. The best part about scent training is you don’t need a bunch of expensive supplies, just a few you may already have around your home. Here are the basics for scent work:

  • Cotton swab (cut in half)
  • Tweezers
  • Disposable gloves
  • Zippered plastic bag
  • Small glass jar and lid
  • Small container like a clean mint tin (drill a couple of holes in the lid) 
  • Lidded plastic container (drill a few holes in the lid)
  • Your dog’s favorite treats
  • Birch essential oil (or any earthy-scented essential oil, which you can find at your local health food store or online)

During scent training, you mustn’t contaminate the environment with the scent. This means you need to keep the odor off your hands and clothing and out of where training will take place, so your dog doesn’t get confused about where the smell is coming from. 

Prepare the scent

  • First, using disposable gloves, place two drops of the essential oil onto each cotton swab half and put them in the glass jar.
  • Roll the gloves off your hands inside out. Wrap them in a newspaper and dispose of them in a trash can outside.
  • Using tweezers, remove one of the cotton swabs from the jar and place it in the “scent vessel,” aka mint tin.
  • Place tweezers in bag and seal.
  • Seal the remaining cotton swab in the jar with a lid to use when the scent (oil) has dissipated from the first swab.

Teach your dog how to identify the scent

  • Hold your hands about a foot apart with a treat in one hand and the tin in the other.
  • Your dog will most likely check out the hand with the treat first. Once he begins to explore the hand with the tin, say “yes” and move the hand holding the treat next to the hand with the tin. This step is essential. You must reward your dog with the treat at the source of the scent to help your dog make the association between reward and the scent. 
  • After a few successes, it’s time to switch the tin to the other hand. This prevents your pet from memorizing which hand to go to.
  • Once your pet identifies which hand has the scent within a few seconds consecutively three times, you can make the game more challenging.

Train your dog to locate the scent

  • Place the tin with the cotton swab still in it into the plastic container.
  • Repeat holding the container in one hand and treat in the other. When your dog indicates the correct hand, reward him in the same manner as before.
  • Once your pet masters this scent training stage, place the container between your feet on the ground.
  • Reward your dog if he indicates the scent is in the container.
  • One final step: Place the container on the ground while your dog is out of the room. Bring him back in and allow him to find it.

After your dog has the hang of scent work, it’s time to change it up and incorporate this practice into other nose work games. These activities will further enhance his sniffing abilities.

Scent Training for Hunting Dogs

Dog owners with hunting dogs will find the above is a good start but not quite enough training for tracking the scent of live prey. Here are tips that can help with scent training your hunting breed:

  • Teach your dog basic commands like come, sit, and stay.
  • Put scent oil on dummies or dead birds as a way to introduce your pet to whatever game will be hunted.
  • Pay attention to how your dog follows a scent so you know when to encourage or leave him alone. Some canines, like blood-tracking dogs, keep their noses close to the ground, whereas other breeds may keep their noses a few inches above the ground or even in the air.
  • Encourage your dog as he begins to search for the scent trail. Keep quiet once he finds it.
  • Create practice scent trails that travel with the winds to prevent your dog from mistakenly sniffing scents carried by the wind.
  • Begin with a strong scent like a large bird or duck. Laying some of the bird’s feathers along the trail can help your dog stay interested.
  • Schedule your training during optimal weather. Humid, warm and damp conditions provide strong scents.

The Benefits of Scent Training

In addition to harnessing your dog’s ability to detect a specific odor, and having the option to incorporate scent work pretty much anywhere, scent training brings several other benefits to you and your pet:

  • Unlike some canine training and sports that test a dog’s physical capabilities like running, all dogs can take part in scent training regardless of breed, age, and ability.
  • Scent training provides mental stimulation, which is equally essential to your pet’s health as physical exercise. Lack of cognitive engagement can lead to a host of bad and destructive behaviors such as excessive barking and chewing on furniture.
  • You can do scent training by yourself—no need for a professional trainer.
  • Build confidence in your pet.
  • Scent work practice can help hunting dogs quickly recognize an animal scent they’ll be tracking.
  • Increase the bond between you and your dog.

Get to sniffin’!