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The Beginner’s Guide to Scent Training for Dogs

Scentwork or scent detection is the most accessible enrichment activity you can do with your dog. Not only is scentwork hugely beneficial to dogs, it’s completely accessible to all (and you can do it anywhere). 

From young puppies to senior dogs, every dog has a desire to use their nose. And they’re naturally pretty good at it! 

We spoke to Jamie and Gemma Pound of UK Sniffer Dogs to learn more about scent detection and how you can get started with your own dog. Let’s explore the wonderful world of scent detection for dogs. 

What is scent training for dogs? 

Scent detection (aka scentwork, nosework, scent training) is a growing dog sport that harnesses the natural power of your dog’s nose to search and find a scent. 

Much like police dogs use their nose to track scents and find evidence or locate information to assist their humans, your pet dog can do the same thing.

It’s brilliant for improving focus, delivering mental stimulation, and tiring your dog out without running a marathon! 

dog doing scent training outside

Who is scentwork for? 

Jamie and Gemma’s passion for the accessibility of scent detection is utterly infectious. Your dog needs no previous training or obedience and it’s not physically challenging, so every dog can do it. 

  • Excitable dogs
  • Reactive or nervous dogs
  • Senior dogs
  • Dogs on crate rest or lead only walks
  • Puppies
  • Retired sports dogs

Scentwork is something all dogs find enjoyable, from Frenchies to Whippets to Spaniels. If dogs were able to choose an activity to engage in, Jamie is pretty sure it’d involve sniffing! 

Gemma shared that at a recent dog show, she was talking to a lady with a Shih Tzu who said “my dog loves sniffing but I know he can't do it because he's not like a police dog.” Gemma says that UK Sniffer Dogs want to bust that myth.

"Scentwork isn’t just for working dogs, anyone can do it." Gemma Pound

small dog sniffing outdoorsWhat are the benefits of scent training for dogs?

Scent detection is a team sport which delivers a raft of benefits for dog and owner. 

  • Increased bond between dog and handler
  • Mental stimulation you can do anywhere
  • Stronger focus and ability to disengage from distractions
  • Improved optimism (for dog & handler) when dog succeeds
  • Enjoyment of doing something that comes naturally
  • Calming and relaxing for excitable, nervous or reactive dogs
  • A tool to improve dogs desire to stay close and engage with you outdoors

How scentwork helps reactive dogs

Jamie got into scentwork after struggling with his own reactive dog Frankie.  Frankie was a German Shepherd who was quite reactive to people and other dogs. Going for walks became stressful, isolating, and not very enjoyable for Frankie or Jamie. 

Reactive dog Frankie the German Shepherd

Jamie says, “We got into scentwork and it definitely helped Frankie not only mentally and with his reactivity around other dogs, but his focus around other dogs was better when he was doing his job. He wasn't the sort of dog that you could just take to the park and let off the leash, so giving him the enrichment and the stimulation that he needed was easier, because we could do it anywhere.”

How scentwork helps dogs on crate rest or reduced exercise

Gemma explained that it’s been incredibly useful after neutering/spaying their dogs too. When the dogs are on crate rest or lead walks, scentwork gives them mental stimulation so they’re happy. 

Throughout your dog’s life there will be changes, whether they’re temporary changes like recovering from an injury or surgery or longer lasting ones such as old age, aches and pains. Scentwork gives all dogs a great source of enrichment and mental stimulation. 

How scentwork helps improve recall 

Scent detection is a team sport. It uses something your dog finds rewarding and it builds value in staying close to you and working together. 

If your dog goes off tracking scents and disappearing to explore their environment, then you’ll know only too well how strong their desire to sniff and track is. 

dog sniffing scentwork toy

Jamie explains, “We recommend doing some scentwork before going out on a walk and on your walks at random intervals. The scentwork will not only put your dog in a better mindset and calm them down, but it's also an outlet that your dog looks for. 

“If the best scent game of your dog’s life is with you, then your dog will look to you for the game rather than to the environment around them.  You become the most exciting thing in their environment and they value staying close.”

What do you need in your scentwork kit? 

You don’t need a lot of kit to get started with scentwork training. All you need is a lead and an item to use that your dog is motivated to find!  That might be food, a food toy, a motivating tug toy or a ball toy. 

Jamie recommends having a few different options to play with, so you can find the item that your dog is most driven to track and find! As you progress, you will teach your dog to find different scents, but to start with it really is as simple as a toy or food and you’re ready to go!

How to get started with scent training

UK Sniffer Dogs have a tiered programme which takes you through bronze, silver and gold levels of scent detection training. You can check out all their scent detection courses here. 

Jamie and Gemma kindly shared a simple way to introduce scentwork games to your dog for you to try. 

Step 1: Drag your food/toy along the ground to make a scent trail

Step 2: Hide your food/toy at the end of the trail

Step 3: Pop your dog on the lead and watch your dog’s nose lead the way 

Step 4: Reward your dog with the food or a game of tug for finding the scent

For example, you might use a piece of ham, cheese or chicken, drag it along the ground to leave a scent trail and then pop it inside a Clam or a bungee food bag and hide it at the end of the trail. 

Your dog will then use their nose to track the scent and find the hidden item. 

If your dog isn’t food motivated, then you can use a sheepskin or rabbit fur toy to drag along the ground and make a scent trail - then hide it for your dog to sniff out and find. 

Taking scent detection on the road

Jamie explains that progressing your scent detection skills is an opportunity to get creative. Take your scent games beyond the home and garden and get your dog’s engaging in nosework in a variety of environments. 

For example, you can have your dog search your car for the item, woodlands and use different surfaces.

Jamie says “We encourage owners to go out and look for different surfaces to work your dog on or different environmental challenges. Working in the woods is going to be different to working in your back garden. Make a scent game happen everywhere you go and you’ll build value in staying close to you.”

“If your dog is going hunting after rabbits or squirrels, using their food toy or a rabbit fur tug toy, you become the keeper of the game and that builds more value on you.”

Taking a scent detection training course

UK Sniffer Dogs offer both in-person and online scent detection training. They have a network of scentwork instructors across the UK that you can train with. They even have a free mini-course to get you started. 

Whether you want to partake in scentwork for a bit of bond-boosting fun or have dreams of competing in scent detection and tracking trials and competitions, they offer something for everyone. 

It’s a perfect dog sport for dogs who don’t like being around other dogs, as you can even complete the trials in the comfort of your own home and submit your trials online for entry. 

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