Does your dog sniff? How Scentwork can enrich your pet’s life

Dogs use their noses to interpret the world around them. In this blog we’re looking at how you can help your pet to use his or her natural abilities to make life a lot more enjoyable for both of you.

We’ve chatted in previous blogs about mental stimulation for your dog helps to calm him or her. It can sooth an anxious dog, quieten an excitable youngster and enrich the life of an older, less energetic dog. Scentwork is one of the best forms of mental stimulation you can provide for your canine companion. And it’s easy to teach because it’s what dogs are designed to do.

Your dog’s nose is an amazing organ and we as humans can only begin to imagine how much information it relays to the brain on a daily basis. But it’s just like any other part of a body – its designed to be used.

A demonstration of basic level Scentwork

Let’s start by watching Buddy use his nose to find food. This video was taken a couple of years ago when we had not long started Scentwork. Bless him, Buddy slept for a good two hours after this session.

What’s happening in the video?
  • We’re working in a very familiar environment with minimal distractions. As training goes on, we will make the exercise more complicated by adding distractions (scents, sounds, even other dogs). We’ll also ask Buddy to search for a longer time and give him fewer directions

  • Buddy starts off in his crate. This is of course so that he can’t see where I’m placing objects. It’s also ensuring that he’s calm, focussed and ready to listen

  • I’m talking quietly and using very specific hand signals. I don’t want to raise Buddy’s excitement levels so that he loses concentration. Interestingly, dogs are one of the few mammals that understand pointing. Even some of the great apes struggle to understand what it means when a human points to an object – most of them will just stare at the finger.

  • I’m encouraging Buddy to look in all sorts of places. Up high, down low, in corners.

  • Watch Buddy when he discovers the object hidden in the box. He stops moving – just for a second. We dog trainers call that “indicating”. His body language tells me that he’s found what he’s looking for. That momentary “freeze” is what I’m rewarding. I’m using the clicker to mark the moment and following up with lots of praise and his favourite ball. With dog training, timing is everything!

  • As training develops we can “shape” Buddy’s natural behaviour into a stronger indicator – some dogs will sit down, some will vocalise, some like the HPR gundog breeds will point with one front leg.

Ways to bring scentworking into your dog’s daily life

What’s the point of Scentwork? I hear you say my dog is never going to search for explosives. For a dog, Scentwork is entertainment, it’s education, it’s a big boost for self-esteem and it’s a job. All of those things are as important to dogs as they are to humans. So to enrich your dog’s life, why not offer more opportunities for Scentwork?

On walks

Let your dog explore his or her surroundings when on walks. Saunter, don’t rush. Sniff that piece of grass, investigate that lamp-post, smell that litter bin. For your dog to really get the most out of a walk, give him some time off the lead – provided it’s safe to do so. A note of caution here, if your dog isn’t good at coming back when called, use a long line while you work with a trainer on perfecting that recall.

A really relaxed sniffy walk doesn’t have to be a 5 mile hike. If you’ve only got 15 minutes for a walk, you can use Scentwork to really make that walk count.

Scatter feeding

Have you got a greedy or an excitable dog? It may sound messy, but spreading some or all of his dinner on the floor or on the lawn is a great way improve focus and reduce digestive problems. Your dog will use Scentwork to find his dinner. It stands to reason that you might not want to reward every single time he finds a morsel of food but you can use a finger and a cue word such as “find it” to start the search and perhaps point out crumbs. That way you are helping Fido to associate your pointy finger with the search for good things.

Rainy day activities

Scentwork doesn’t have to be outdoors. If the weather is very hot or generally foul, you can set up some brain-busting Scentwork games indoors. The simplest of all is a snuffle-mat. A snuffle mat is a textured mat that you can hide pieces of dry food in for your dog to rootle out.

You could develop your dog’s Scentwork into a game of hunt the treat. As he or she begins to work out what you’re asking for, the games can become more complex. A favorite of mine is to save up the plastic containers from the Chinese Takeaway (wash them first!), cut a hole in the lid of each so that scent can escape and then hide a treat in it. Lay out several of the pots for your dog to investigate – but only put a treat in one of the pots. You can almost see their little brain cogs working.

Scentwork for reactive dogs

Reactive dogs benefit enormously from Scentwork. Reactivity stems from fear and anxiety. Scentwork builds self-esteem and can also help dogs to shift their focus away from whatever it is that triggers that bad reaction.

Honestly though, if your dog is reactive to traffic, people, other dogs, horses – or whatever, please don’t try to tackle the problem without consulting a professional.  If you get the timing wrong or misread the signals you could end up reinforcing unwanted behaviours.

If your dog is reactive, call me today and we’ll try to work out the best training plan to help your dog feel less stressed.

Scentwork classes

Scentwork classes are enormous fun for dogs AND owners. Everybody works individually in a shared environment and we look at exercises and games that you can replicate at home. Your dog is encouraged to hone their skills, finding different objects and communicating with you when he or she succeeds. Over time, we’ll develop those skills into useful tasks – like finding all the lost socks in the house and bringing them to you.

Other useful articles

How to shape your dog’s behaviour with training techniques

Top tips for walking your dog off-lead   

Sign up for Scentwork classes

Contact Adam for help with reactive dogs

Stuart ReedComment