Some scientists say that a dog’s sense of smell is 1,000,000 times better than humans.
But how can you put their noses to work, and play scent games without attending expensive classes?
In this guide, we’ll share why nose work is so important for dogs. We’ll also share five scent games you can play at home, plus answers to common questions you might have about this type of dog enrichment.
Why is nose work important for dogs?
Dogs have a natural instinct to smell; it’s how they’d survive decades ago. They’ve turned into pets since then–but their instinct to sniff hasn’t gone.
(In fact, a dog’s sense of smell is so strong that it can detect certain types of cancer.)
You’ll already recognize that dogs love to smell by:
- The way they greet other dogs (bum to bum)
- The way they always have their nose to the ground when exploring a new place
But why do they rely on their noses so much? It’s because scent work is mentally stimulating for dogs. It’s a great source of canine enrichment, and tires out their brain as much as their legs.
Not only that, but another benefit of K9 nose work is that it builds confidence. Shy, timid or afraid dogs can learn to trust their own abilities. They’ll learn to trust and follow their nose–and see that when they do, there’s a treat at the end!
5 scent games to play with your dog
Scent-based games are some of the best indoor activities for dogs. Not only does it keep them from destroying your house through boredom, but you’re catering to their natural urge to sniff.
So, what nose work games can you play with your pup to keep them entertained?
We’ll share five of the best games to practice nose work with your dog, including:
Click the links above to jump to a specific game, or continue scrolling to learn how more about scent training for dogs.
1. Find It
This is one of the best “search and find” games you can play with your dog. I play this regularly with Hugo and he *loves* it.
I start by putting him in his cage–or another room–whilst I spread his toys across the floor. I’ll cut his treats into small pieces and hide it underneath (or inside) the toys.
Then, I’ll “release the hounds (literally) and give him the command “find it.” His nose goes straight to the floor and he sniffs around his toys to find the treats!
The best part? With this search and find game, it didn’t take Hugo long to learn the “find it” command. I started by guiding him to an area and saying the words while he was sniffing. He learned to associate sniffing with the words “find it” really quickly.
2. Snuffle Mats
Snuffle mats are small rugs that are covered in felt. The felt sticks up in various directions. The goal is to hide treats inside the snuffle mat and wait for your dog to sniff them out.
Again, I do this with Hugo with a snuffle mat I bought off Amazon. I lift the flaps to add some tasty treats, then put the snuffle mat on the floor for him to sniff around to find the food.
They’re a really cheap piece of equipment that have helped me keep Hugo’s puppy brain busy–especially before he was allowed to play outside!
3. Which Hand?
This game helps your dog nail their scent training, while also building their bond with you.
To play, simply hold one treat in your hand, and nothing in the other. Close your hands so your fists resemble a ball, and hold them both near your dog’s nose. Give them the chance to sniff around, and reward them (by opening your hand to unveil the treat) once they identify which is holding the food.
Fancy taking this scent game a step further? Grab one high-value treat and one low-value treat, such as:
- High-value treats: Sausages, dog-friendly peanut butter, cheese, or liver.
- Low-value treats: Plain chicken, dog biscuits, or their regular kibble.
Hold each treat in a separate hand and ask your dog to sniff around your hands. Chances are, they’ll pick the hand holding the high-value treat in favor of the low-value one… But it’s a great way to put their nose to work.
In fact, you can use this scent game to teach commands like “leave it” and “take it”:
4. Pick a Cup
Similar to the “which hand?” game, you could use the same concept for another brain-training game: Pick a cup.
This time, you’ll need three cups and your treat of choice. Make your dog sit and wait whilst you place the treat on the floor. Then, cover the treat with the one cup, and place the other two either side. Slide the cups around the floor, and see whether your dog can sniff-out the cup containing the treat.
Granted, this scent game is like a magician’s trick. But it’ll keep your dog entertained for hours–if you’ve got the patience to keep playing!
5. Follow the Scent Trail
You can combine sniffing with physical activity using a “follow the scent” trail.
For example: You could take the juice from your hot dog jar and make a line across your garden, placing the meat at the end of the trail. Point your dog in the direction of the starting point, and leave them to rely on their nose to reach the finish line (AKA, the hot dog.)
It’s a great game to get your dog into scent training… But you might need to play this scent game outside to stop your entire house from getting the meaty odor!
FAQs about dog scent training
Are you convinced to get your dog into scent training?
The scent games we’ve shared above are a great starting point. But we’re here to answer some other questions you might have about K9 scent work, including:
Why do dogs sniff everything?
As we mentioned earlier, dogs have a natural instinct to smell.
Their nose is one of their most important features because it’s how they identify people, animals, and foods.
Certain objects give off certain smells–including you! No matter how much you shower or spray yourself in perfume, your dog mainly recognizes you by your natural scent.
Why do dogs sniff each other’s rear ends?
…Speaking of their natural instinct to smell, you might’ve noticed that dogs greet each other by sniffing each other’s rear ends.
Although this can be embarrassing for first-time dog owners, it’s completely normal. It’s their version of a wave or handshake!
Dogs sniff each other’s rear ends because their anal glands emit a smell that’s unique to each dog. Dogs will circle each other, bum-to-bum, to get a whiff of these glands–and therefore, identify who it is they’re meeting.
What dog breeds are the best sniffers?
Hound dog breeds–such as Bloodhounds, Beagles, or Greyhounds–have the best sense of smell. However, some non-hound working dogs are also well in-tune with their noses, including:
- Spaniels (hence why they’re commonly used as sniffer dogs!)
- German Shepherds
- Border Collies
Dogs with shorter faces might not be as good with their sniffing duties. This is because their airways are narrower, which blocks some scent particles from processing in their brain. Pugs or French Bulldogs usually fall into this category.
(That doesn’t mean to say they can’t smell anything; they’re just not as good as sniffing things out as other breeds.)
How far can a dog smell?
One incredible fact about dogs is that they can smell items from far away.
In fact, research has shown that dogs can pick up scents that are diluted to 1 or 2 parts per trillion. (In layman’s terms, that means they can sniff out something buried 40 feet underground.)
Some dogs are so excellent at sniffing long-distance that they’ve been recruited for scientific studies. Take Tucker the Labrador, for example–the dog trained to hunt down poop from threatened and endangered species. He puts his nose to work at sea, and helps scientists find whale poop from a mile away.
Does sniffing tire dogs out?
There’s a lot happening in your dog’s brain when they’re sniffing. They’re constantly inhaling and exhaling (which they can do at the same time), and using their brain to suss-out what the thing they’re smelling is.
For that reason, sniffing does tire dogs out.
The trainer we spoke to whilst training my Sprocker puppy, Hugo, told us that a 20-minute session based around scent work has the same impact as a 2-hour walk.
Say goodbye to aching legs, and hello to a dog that’s happy and content!