Close-up of dog nose

Key takeaway

Scent training for dogs is a fun activity both dogs and their pet parents can enjoy. Scent training can strengthen your bond while providing your dog with an enjoyable, mentally stimulating activity that helps reduce anxiety and excess energy. Anyone can start scent training with the use of scent vessels and high-value treats for rewards.

Your dog has a powerful nose, and their sense of smell is one of their best senses. Dog scent training is a great way to help your dog hone their skills while giving the two of you an activity to do together and strengthen your bond. Additionally, scent work for dogs can provide them with mental stimulation to tire them out, relieve anxiety, and increase quality of life. 

If you're interested in learning more about scent training, this guide will cover how to start scent training for dogs and the benefits of dog nose work. 

What Is Scent Training?

Scent training is also known as nose work training, which helps your dog detect odors. Scent training for dogs uses the same approach as detection dogs in police business.1 While your dog may not be looking for explosives or narcotics, they can use scent training to identify smells while enjoying some quality mental stimulation. This can keep them out of trouble and reduce behavioral problems, such as dog howling or a dog chewing their paws, if related to anxiety and boredom.1

Definition of dog scent training

In scent training, your dog will learn to detect distinct smells and alert you when they've found them. These exercises can be a fun, challenging activity that allows your dog to focus while strengthening your bond.2 While your dog is responsible for finding the scent, you will be responsible for rewarding them for a job well done. 

How to Start Scent Training

Before you begin scent training, your dog should know basic commands, such as sit and recall. As a pet parent, it's also important to know how to read your dog's body language to ensure they're happy during training and not experiencing any negative feelings, such as anxiety. Scent training should also not be started until after a puppy is house trained since having the basics mastered will give them the proper footing they need to learn something more complex.

Once your dog knows the basic commands, you can start scent training using the following steps.

Gather the necessary materials

While you will eventually be able to train your dog to find just about any scent, you should always start with the basics. Essential oils are typically the easiest scents for your dog to find because they're strong. Here are a few additional materials you need to get started with scent work:

  • Pet-safe essential oil
  • Cotton swabs 
  • Tweezers 
  • Small glasses with lids 
  • Scent vessels (Containers with holes that allow the scent to escape so your dog can find them)1
  • Disposable gloves 
  • High-value treats

Ensure your dog knows basic commands 

As mentioned, it's important not to jump to dog scent training before your dog knows their basic commands. Your dog should be trained to sit, stay, and come when called. If your dog hasn't mastered these commands yet, it's best not to start nose work since they need a strong training foundation. 

Once your dog knows how to sit, stay, and come, you can teach them a new cue for nose work, such as “find it.” This cue will let your dog know that it’s time to search.

Prep your scent vessels

Before you can command your dog to find a scent, you'll need to have a scent ready to find by creating a scent vessel. Always prep your vessel far away from where the training will take place so that your dog doesn't accidentally get confused.This can be done outside or in another room. 

It's also a good idea to wear gloves when prepping your scent vessel. Doing so can prevent your scent from getting on you. Next, apply a few drops of essential oil to cotton swabs and place the swabs in a glass jar.2 From there, you can remove your gloves, but ensure they're thrown in the trash immediately so your dog doesn't detect the scent. Once that’s done, use tweezers to take the cotton swabs out of the jar and place them in the scent vessel.

Introduce your dog to the scent 

Once you've made your scent vessel, it's time to introduce the scent to your dog. Always have treats on hand during scent training to reward your dog for finding the scent. 

To introduce your dog to the scent, hold a treat and the scent vessel in opposite hands and reward your pet when they investigate the scent vessel.Repeat this sequence a few times, switching the treat and the vessel from hand to hand to keep your dog from relying on their memory. 

If you're having trouble getting your dog to show an interest in the tin, the problem may be your reward. Always use high-value treats for training; your regular treats may not effectively keep your dog interested. Instead, try treats your dog rarely gets, such as boiled chicken breast. Of course, try to use small treats since you'll need to repetitively and continuously reward them for learning the desired behavior. 

Dog sniffing under plastic cone

Lay out your scent vessels

Once your dog has mastered the beginning steps of scent work, it's time to lay out the scent vessels. You can lay out your vessels with some treats next to them to keep your dog interested.3 You should also leave the vessels in areas where it's easy for your dog to find, at least while they're still learning the foundations of scent training. During this process, you can make treats easily accessible so your dog can self-reward, which can be a great incentive for them to continue scent training.3

Reward your dog

It’s important to reward your dog for good behavior since this reinforces the desired behaviors you want. If you choose not to leave treats near the scent vessels, make sure that you're prepared to reward your dog once they find the scent. Additionally, you may have to lead your dog to the scent a few times to ensure they understand how the game works. 

Just like all training, scent training for dogs is not something that can be learned overnight. However, rewarding your dog for good behavior can ensure they learn it faster. This also allows your dog to associate this activity as something positive. 

Practice regularly

The key to scent training for dogs is to continue to practice regularly. There's no need to practice for hours in a single day because your dog has a short attention span. Instead, repeat the training process only a few times every day. A training session shouldn't last more than 15 minutes.3

Additionally, know when it's time to stop training for the day. It’s important to end the training session before your dog gets frustrated and loses interest. If your dog becomes distracted or unhappy, halt the game immediately since you don't want them to associate it with negative feelings. 

Work with a dog trainer to refine their skills

A dog trainer can help you improve your dog's scent skills, especially if your dog doesn't understand what they're supposed to do. You can also take scent training classes where you can learn how to properly train your dog to find scents. 

Dog Scent Training Tips

Scent training for dogs is supposed to be fun for you and your dog; it should never be a negative experience for either of you. You can ensure your dog is enjoying the activity by:

Dog scent training tips

  • Providing water: Detecting scents is thirsty, tiring work, so always make sure your dog has enough water throughout the game. 
  • Avoiding distractions: Petting your dog or distracting them can take their heads out of the training session, so it's important to keep them engaged and focused if you want to succeed. Additionally, your environment should not be distracting. If your dog gets distracted easily outside, try scent training inside first.  
  • Making it fun and engaging: Treats are the best way to make scent training fun for most dogs. However, if your dog is more toy motivated, you can reward them with a toy instead. Keeping them engaged and rewarding them when they find a scent can help them learn faster.  
  • Not getting discouraged if your pet doesn't succeed at first: Scent training is hard for dogs, and they have to use their brains, which can be exhausting. Don't expect your dog to succeed right away; as you already know, training takes work!

Dog Scent Training Benefits

Scent training comes several benefits for you and your dog, including:

Benefits of dog scent training

Provides mental stimulation 

Scent training can mentally stimulate your dog because it makes them use their sense of smell, which can be tiring.4 After scent training, dogs will typically take a nap and be able to relax, which is why it's a great way to manage behavioral problems and help your dog deal with anxiety or excessive energy. 

Allows your dog to use their nose to its full potential

A dog's sense of smell is up to 1,000,000 times more accurate than humans, and they can smell things miles away.4 Dogs rely more on their nose than their eyes, but most dogs don't use their sense of smell to its full potential. Scent work can help your dog hone their skills to get better at smelling, making walks and other activities even more enjoyable. 

Plus, nose work is similar to foraging, which is a natural behavior for dogs. By introducing your dog to this activity, you’re providing them with the opportunity to express their natural behavior. 

Strengthens the bond between you and your dog

Scent training is a fun activity for humans and their pets.2 By spending time with your dog and working with them on a new skill, you can strengthen your bond and have a better relationship. 

Any dog can do it

Your dog doesn't need to be a certain age, breed, or sex to learn scent work. Even dogs with physical limitations can begin scent training.4 Any dog can benefit from nose work because it allows them to build their confidence and can help them become happier by strengthening their bond with their owner and reducing anxiety. 

Scent Training for Dogs: Frequently Asked Questions

What can I use for dog scent training?

Many owners use essential oils for dog scent training, but you can use anything as long as the scent is strong enough. So, instead of using essential oils and rewarding your dog for finding a scent vessel, you can hide treats and let them reward themselves.

Is scent training good for dogs?

Scent training is good for dogs because it provides them with the mental stimulation they can't get from physical exercise alone. By using their noses, they are activating their brains. This can be truly exhausting for your pet. Scent training can also help your dog stay calmer and reduce their anxiety by burning off their excess energy. 

How long will it take to scent train my dog?

Every dog is different. If your dog hasn't mastered basic commands, scent training can be difficult. However, even if your dog knows basic commands, nose work can still be a complicated activity to learn. You should always have patience with your dog and provide a lot of treats to help them learn faster.

Final Notes

Scent training is a great activity to help you bond with your pet while providing mental stimulation and building their skills. Nose work takes time to learn, and your dog won't learn it right away. However, your dog can quickly learn to find scents with the right materials and frequent training. It's important to have patience with your dog and always reward them when they've exhibited the desired behavior, such as finding the scent. Scent training for dogs is enjoyable because it allows them to learn while reducing their anxiety and stress. 

Of course, if your dog has anxiety or other behavioral issues, it may not be reduced by training alone. While training has been proven effective at reducing stress in dogs, some dogs may require more specific behavioral training or medication to relieve their anxiety. Dutch offers premium veterinary care from the comfort of your own home to help you manage your dog's anxiety. Instead of taking them to the vet in person, you can talk to a licensed veterinarian about your dog's problems and determine the best treatment plan to help them live a happier life.

References

  1. Duranton, Charlotte, and Alexandra Horowitz. "Let me sniff! Nosework induces positive judgment bias in pet dogs." Applied Animal Behaviour Science 211 (2019): 61-66.

  2. Santo, Kathy. “How to Teach Your Dog Scent Work at Home.” American Kennel Club, American Kennel Club, 27 May 2020, https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/training/how-to-teach-your-dog-scent-work/

  3. “Dog Nose Work: Scent Training Sport for Dogs.” Best Friends Animal Society, https://resources.bestfriends.org/article/dog-nose-work-scent-training-sport-dogs.

  4. Upmalis, Jordan. “The Many (Some Surprising) Uses and Benefits of Scent Work.” American Kennel Club, American Kennel Club, 28 Mar. 2018, https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/sports/many-uses-benefits-scent-work/