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A Guide to Scent Training for Dogs: Unleashing Your Dog’s Superpower

In this article, Caroline Spencer, canine behaviourist, discusses the benefits of sniffing, why it’s important to let your dog do it, and how to use scent training to incorporate it into their lives in a positive way. Ready to unleash your dog’s superpower? Keep reading!

Edited By: Anna Bain

A Guide to Scent Training for Dogs: Unleashing Your Dog’s Superpower

All dog owners are familiar with their four legged partner’s love of sniffing. Whilst it can be frustrating to stop every 20 feet on your daily walks, it turns out that you might actually want to let your dog have their time. Why? Because sniffing is a very important part of your dog’s life, and can have positive effects on their wellbeing when allowed to participate regularly.

Introduction to scent training

Understanding the canine olfactory system
Unlike humans who rely primarily on sight, dogs interpret the world around them through their fantastic noses. They can smell scents from far away as well as scents that have left the area completely, as their sensitive noses can detect tiny molecules carried through the air. Their brain processes scents as information, allowing them to determine whether each person, place, or thing is safe to meet or hunt, or whether it should be chased away.

This is possible thanks to the olfactory bulb: a paired structure at the base of the frontal lobes of dogs’ brains. Each side of the olfactory bulb sits atop dogs’ nasal cavities, acting as a processing plant for identifying smells and sending their information to the correct storage spaces in the brain.

Dogs’ amazing olfactory senses are also helped along by the vomeronasal organ; a hormone receptor at the roof of the mouth. This little organ is what allows dogs to identify whether other animals are friendly or not, sense the emotional state of their humans, predict seizures, and even discern different types of meats!

Benefits of scent training for dogs
As mentioned above, dogs navigate the world through smell. Therefore, it would make sense that they like to sniff as much as they can! However, the benefits of Scent Dog Training go far beyond their love of sniffing. In fact, allowing dogs to sniff can help to lower their heart rate, reduce anxiety, and build their confidence, among other positive outcomes.

When dogs are allowed to engage in activities like scent work or foraging without constant interruptions, they learn to problem solve and make sense of the world around them [1]. This results in resilient dogs that can navigate new situations more confidently, knowing that they can identify and process the information they need to keep themselves safe.

Just as humans have shown positive responses to deep breathing for issues like stress and anxiety [2], a similar effect takes place in dogs whilst they sniff. Their ultra-sensitive olfactory system allows them to make sense of their surroundings, inform them whether animals, minerals or vegetables are safe to ingest, engage with or best ignored. This information, gained through scent, makes the world a less scary place; one that holds possibilities and excitement rather than uncertainty and fear.

Simply allowing for more sniffy time on walks can do wonders for your dog’s confidence.

How scent training enhances the human-dog bond

Most humans can say without a doubt that we love our dogs, and many of us are confident that they love us in return. Participating in enjoyable activities with our dogs brings a whole new level of connection to our bond with them, which helps them (and us) in various ways.

Working together as a team with your dog helps to establish (or increase) trust, fosters a true sense of partnership, and amplifies their reward for a job well done. Engaging with you is the ultimate prize for your dog, and makes everything more fun! Therefore, activities such as play, training, and exercise all help to strengthen your bond with your dog.

Scent Dog Training is the perfect activity for building trust, increasing confidence, and simply enjoying time with your dog (and vice versa). Not only do they get to engage with you, they’re also reaping all the other benefits of Scent Training while they do it! It’s a perfect brain game for dogs.

The science behind canine olfaction

Exploring dogs’ incredible sense of smell
We all know that a human’s sense of smell pales in comparison to that of a dog’s. However, many people aren’t fully aware of just how powerful a canine nose can be. For reference, humans have 6 million scent receptors in their nose, while dogs have a whopping 300 million! Also, the part of a dog’s brain that processes smells is essentially 40 times larger than that of a human’s.

This is the reason a dog can smell something as small as a teaspoon of sugar in a million gallons of water, or track a scent from long distances. They can even detect chemical changes in their humans and determine what mood we’re in. Their noses are really that powerful! It’s no wonder scent work for dogs is such an enjoyable activity. They get to do what they love most, and with their favourite person!

How scent detection differs from regular olfaction (nose work)
Scent Detection is sniffing with a purpose: training a dog to detect a certain scent and find it amongst various other smells and stimuli. Scent dogs are trained specifically to detect a particular smell and alert their handler when they’ve found it, such as people, objects, money, drugs, illnesses, and the list goes on. Find out more about the superpowers of scent dogs in our article here.

Regular olfaction, or simply sniffing for fun, is the act of allowing dogs to sniff wherever their noses take them. This is a self-guided activity for dogs, and something they’re naturally inclined to do. The only purpose of this exercise is for them to enjoy sniffing out their surroundings, gathering information and processing it as they go.

Breed variations in scent sensitivity
While it’s true that certain breeds have traditionally been used for scent work, the fact is that any dog can put their sniffing superpowers to use. All breeds of dog possess the same 300 million olfactory receptors, no matter what size, shape, or colour they may be. Simply work with your dog at their own speed, allowing them to progress naturally through the various levels of Scent Training. Every success they experience will serve to increase their confidence, making them more excited about trying new things.

Getting started with scent training

As a Canine Behaviorist (Dip.AdvCanBhv), I regularly encourage people to explore scent training with their dogs. Below are my tips for getting started. With decades of experience working with dogs, I emphasise the significance of teamwork between humans and dogs, viewing dogs as lifelong learners. Through the promotion of learning via their innate sense of smell, I’ve  witnessed numerous instances where scent training has made a profoundly positive impact on dogs.

Assessing your dog’s suitability for scent work
While any dog can perform Scent Training, it’s also true that all dogs are different. For this reason, their ability to track and identify scents will vary, especially when first starting out. We recommend beginning slowly with simple tasks. From there, you can get more and more creative, making tasks more challenging as your dog gains confidence in their abilities.

Necessary equipment and supplies
Contrary to popular belief, it’s not necessary to spend a fortune on tools or equipment for a dog Scent Training kit. The great thing about this activity is that it can be done easily, with simple materials that you likely already have at home. For example, placing some yummy-smelling treats in a few open boxes and letting your dog find them is a great introduction to Scent Dog Training. You can also place a drop of canine-friendly essential oil (such as truffle or birch oil) on a piece of cloth, and put the cloth in various places/containers around the house. The main point here is for your dog to have fun; you don’t need anything fancy to achieve this!

Creating a positive and rewarding training environment
As with any new training exercise, it’s important to begin Scent Training in a quiet, familiar place such as your home or garden. This will allow your dog to fully focus on the training session without distractions and/or triggers that they may come across while out and about. Once they’re comfortable and gaining confidence in their new dog brain games, you can then begin to gradually expose them to different scenarios whilst practising Scent Training. Each gradual step in the process builds confidence, but it’s important to remember to go at your dog’s pace.

Basic scent training exercises

Teaching the “Find It” release / request
“Find It” is a great way to introduce your dog to Scent Training. It’s a fun, simple, mental simulation game for dogs, in which you instruct them to find an object or treat. You’ll simply indicate which direction to search in by either pointing or turning in the direction of the object while saying “Find It” in a fun, excited tone. Your dog will likely find the item immediately, at which point you say “Yes!” After your dog successfully completes a few easy rounds, you can make the game more and more challenging to match your dog’s ability.

Guiding your dog towards scents can be helpful for them when first getting started.

Introducing scent objects and their scents
Introducing scents is one of the easiest parts of Scent Dog Training, thanks to your dog’s fantastic ability to identify and store information from various smells. When introducing a new scent, simply hold the desired scent item in one hand. Allow your dog to sniff it, and praise them with a “Yes!” You can then reward them with food or play, depending on how food motivated your dog is (or isn’t). After this, gradually progress to scent boxes and other hiding spots, placing them further and further away as your dog progresses, rewarding them each time they find the scent successfully.

Associating rewards with successful scent detection
When learning new things, rewarding dogs for performing the correct behaviour works in a number of ways. First, it puts them in a positive mind space, which allows them to learn more effectively. Second, it allows them to remember tasks that they were rewarded for in the past, making it more likely that they’ll perform the same behaviour again. In the context of Scent Training, rewarding for a successful scent identification allows dogs to remember the scent in a positive way, as they associate it with something good. This increases their ability to find the same scent multiple times, building their confidence as they go [3].

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Building on scent training skills

Advancing to more complex scent detection tasks
Dogs can accomplish some amazing feats when it comes to their sense of smell. However, as mentioned above, it’s important to go at your dog’s pace when advancing through the levels of Scent Training. All dogs are different and will therefore have different levels of ability, especially at first. Also, rushing through new tasks before dogs are confident with them creates anxiety, causing the learning part of the brain to shut down. They’ll also feel the pressure from you if you’re anxious about their progress [4], so remember to approach Scent Training (and any training, for that matter) with a calm, positive attitude. Short, fun exercises with increasing length over time reaps rewards.

Developing a reliable indication from your dog
There are definitely pre-trained behaviours that you can work on with your dog to use for reliable indications. However, keeping it simple works too; especially if you’re new to Scent Training. As each dog is different, their indication behaviour will vary as well. Some dogs will be helpful and do something obvious like barking or pawing at the object, others will give you a certain look, and still others will be so subtle you may not notice anything! The key is to catch whatever behaviour they’re offering, and then build on it so that they’ll know to repeat it in the future.

This can be done by marking (“Yes!”) and rewarding the offered behaviour as soon as possible, so as to associate it with the scent they’ve found. After a while, you can increase the duration between marking and rewarding, which teaches your dog to “hold” the behaviour a little longer, reinforcing that they’re doing what you’re asking of them. Once this is practised for some time, you will likely have a reliable indication from your super-powered scent dog.

Using search patterns to improve scent tracking
As dogs love sniffing and can get quite excited about it, it’s sometimes a little tricky keeping their energy at bay. An overwhelming number of smells can make it difficult to decide which one to find first, especially when dogs are new to Scent Training. Search patterns can help to reign in an excited dog’s frenetic energy, letting them establish and hold their focus when searching for a particular scent. This can be done in a number of ways, and includes placing the hiding spots in an organised manner. Directing your dog to the first spot and then allowing them to find the scent in subsequent areas (or making a trail of the scent to the actual find) helps to cut down on wasted time, allowing for a more accurate search.

Troubleshooting challenges in scent training

Dealing with distractions and false alerts
Distractions are best dealt with from a proactive standpoint. Starting your dog’s Scent Training in a distraction-free environment and gradually moving to more distracting areas over time builds their focusing skills, allowing them to become distracted less frequently. Scent Training improves your dog’s attention to you in general, which means that over time, distractions will become less of an issue anyway. If you find your dog is too distracted in a certain environment, taking a step back in the training process will be helpful. You can always revisit the area after some more practise.

As far as false alerts go, these are relatively simple to deal with. As with any new training exercise, paying no attention to unwanted behaviours reduces their chances of being repeated. Simply act as if your dog hasn’t alerted at all, and direct them to find/search again.

Overcoming handling mistakes and communication issues
Clear signals, direct communication, and as few words as possible are essential in Scent Training. Confusing your dog is a surefire way to poor performance; both yours and theirs. It’s just a learning curve and you can get through it with time, patience, and perseverance. If you feel as though your communication or handling isn’t effective, you can always call in a professional to assist.

Patience and perseverance: The keys to success

It’s easy for both you and your dog to get frustrated when attempting a new skill, but it doesn’t have to be this way. You can bypass this (or at the very least, minimise it) by taking things slow, keeping training sessions short, and making fun a priority. Staying consistent with your approach so your dog knows what you expect of them is helpful, and will reduce confusion/lapses in communication. You may also consider teaming up with a friend; this way you can help each other through the challenging times.

Understanding your dog’s limitations

Although certain breeds are often used for scent detection work, any dog can learn to unleash their superpower.

Knowing when to take breaks and avoid burnout
Burnout doesn’t just affect humans; it can happen in the canine world, too. In order to avoid this, it’s important to give your dog regular breaks, as well as allowing them to relax without any expectations from you. Regular sniffing without a designated purpose provides a calming effect on dogs’ brains, giving them time to enjoy the slow lane for a while. Also, using your daily walks to incorporate some low-pressure Scent Training or making a game out of scent work can help them feel like their “job” is simply to have fun!

Adapting training for older dogs or those with physical limitations
The great thing about scent work is that it comes naturally to dogs. Therefore, it’s an activity that any dog can take part in, no matter their age or physical condition. For older dogs or those with health issues, keep things mellow and allow them to go at their own pace. There’s no need to make the exercise physically demanding; it’s all about allowing dogs to use their noses for a positive experience. Another plus side to Scent Training is that it’s a good form of mental exercise that doesn’t require physical exertion. Mental stimulation games for dogs are just as important as physical exercise, and even more so for those who can’t get around the way they used to.

Keeping the training sessions enjoyable for your furry friend
There’s not much point to Scent Training if your dog will be miserable while they do it. This is totally under your control, however; you can help to set your dog up for success in their training sessions, making them more enjoyable and allowing your dog to learn more effectively. There’s nothing wrong with helping them out while they’re still learning, and doing so will help them to figure things out while they enjoy the teamwork vibes with you. Also, ensuring that the wind is blowing in your direction will help the scent find your dog, giving them a little boost in the process.

Scent training safety and responsibility

Ensuring the use of safe, non-toxic scents
The great thing about dogs’ noses is that they can detect smells long after humans think they’re gone. A small drop of essential oil will remain detectable by a dog far longer than a human will be able to smell it, which means it’s not necessary to keep adding scents on top of old ones. Also, ensure your oils are canine safe, as many of them are far too intense for dogs’ sensitive noses. Truffle oil, birch oil, and clove oil are all safe for dogs to sniff, but again, be sure to use them minimally.

Monitoring your dog’s health during training
Scent Training is a low-impact exercise, which reduces its health risks to dogs as compared to other sports. However, as with any activity, it’s important to be mindful of your dog’s wellbeing and allow them to take breaks (or even stop for the day) if they seem like they’re getting exhausted. Watch for excessive panting, drooling, or lethargic behaviour when your dog is performing any training exercise, including Scent Training. However, while it’s important to keep them safe, it’s more likely that they’ll have a fantastic time using those noses for their intended purpose!

Responsible Scent Training practises in public spaces

Just as you clean up after your dog whilst out and about, you should also be aware of your surroundings while Scent Training in public spaces. It’s probably not a great idea to instruct your dog to “go find” in a park full of screaming kids, or in an enclosed, busy area, for example. Using common sense will go a long way here; no need to overthink it, just be a good neighbour as you normally would.

Letting your dog follow their nose
Scent training is a fantastic way to let your dog be themselves, whether for a specific purpose or just for fun. Dogs were given their amazing noses for a reason: to use them! As their guardians, it’s up to us to help them get the most out of this superpower.

Scent training with your dog not only helps them to gain confidence and enjoy life more, but also strengthens their bond with you. A team activity is a great way to enjoy each other’s company, and allowing your dog to be themselves will only make them love you more!

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1. Duranton, C., Horowitz, A. Feb 2019. Let me sniff! Nosework induces positive judgment bias in pet dogs. Applied Animal Behavior Science;, 211: 61-66. Doi: 10.1016/j.applanim.2018.12.009

2. Perciavalle, V., Blandini, M., Fecarotta, P., Buscemi, A., Di Corrado, D., Bertolo, L., Fichera, F., Coco. M. Mar 2017. The role of deep breathing on stress. Neurological Science;, 38(3):451-458. Doi: 10.2007/s10072-016-2790-8

3. McGowan. R., Rehn. T., Norling, Y., Keeling, L. Oct 2013. Positive affect and learning: exploring the “Eureka Effect” in dogs. Animal Cognition;, 17:577-587. Doi: 10.1007/s10071-013-0688-x

4. Sundman, A., Poucke, E., Holm, A., Faresjo, A.,Theodorsson, E., Jenssen, P., Roth, L. Oct 2020. Long-term stress levels are synchronized in dogs and their owners. Scientific Reports;, 9:7391. Doi: 10.1038/s41598-019-43851-x

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