Wondering how to play scent games with your dog? Interested in learning more about nose work games for dogs to boost mental stimulation? You’re in the right place!
Making sure your dog is getting enough exercise is key as a dog owner. More exercise almost always means less behavior issues. But in addition to physical exercise, it’s important to focus on sharpening your dog’s mental stimulation, too.
Nose work games and scent games for dogs are the perfect way to get their brain going. It’s also an awesome way to exercise your dog inside, and it’s a game that can be taken outside too.
Nose work can start simple and is actually a key building block in how to train your dog to search.
So, without further ado, let’s learn all about how to play scent games with your dog, dog nose work, search training, or whatever you want to call it. Because all dogs love a little hide and seek fun!
What is nose work for dogs?
Nose work is basically an activity that you do with your dog wherein they use their nose to locate an object.
On a basic level, this might just be figuring out which hand has the treat when you hold two fists in front of them.
On a more complex level, it might involve sniffing out bombs – although I’m not the person to teach you how to get to there.
For most average dog owners, nose work and scent games involve finding hiding treats, people, and toys. You can start with things right in front of them and build your way up to playing through multiple rooms. Then, take your games outside once Fido really gets the hang of things.
Benefits of nose work and scent games for dogs
Above all, nose work and scent games do a great job of stimulating your dog mentally. This type of training and activity is especially popular with working dogs--particularly if they are hunting or retrieving breeds.
Nose work is one of the best ways to stimulate your dog inside. It’s perfect for the days when getting outside just isn’t possible (for whatever reason).
What’s more, nose work can be a form of physical exercise when it’s used throughout the house or taken outside. Nose work doesn’t require a ton of physical activity on the handler side, but takes an enormous amount of mental concentration and athleticism for your dog.
How to play scent games with your dog?
To play scent games with your dog, strong base commands are important. If you're not there yet, you can learn more about training basics in the Field Guide for Large Breed Dogs.
For your scent games to be a success you’ll need your dog to be able to respond to the “stay” command pretty reliably so that you can go hide items, treats, or objects. If you’re eager to get started and Fido isn’t able to hold a stay quite yet, try using a leash or their crate to help them work on that aspect.
For beginner scent games, start by having your dog choose which hand of yours has a treat in it. Use a consistent command that will start to mean “search for something with your nose”. Many people use find, sniff, or search. We kind of settled on “go get it” when we do nose work with our dogs. So it really doesn’t matter, just be consistent.
Once your dog gets the hang of choosing the hand with the treat, you can make it more difficult. Try hiding a treat in the room. To start, have your dog watch you hide it, then tell them to go get it. They’ll know where they’re heading, but connection of searching with their nose (and that consistent command) will help them get the hang of what you’re asking.
Increase the difficulty of the nose work
Depending on how quickly your dog is picking up the concept, you can continue to increase the difficulty:
- Try hiding a treat in the next room
- And then maybe even on a different floor
- You can hide multiple treats for your dog to find
- Increase the difficulty of the hiding spot (under an object, on top of something)
Play with objects other than treats
Once your dog is hooked on the game with treats, try swapping treats for a highly desirable toy. Tennis balls and our Monster K9 chewstick work great with my Lab.
When hunting season is coming around, we use pheasant wings or pheasant feathers with our Lab. He goes nuts for them! In fact, when we want to take our nose work games outside, he is most successful with pheasant feathers. Even if you aren’t a hunter, if your dog is a bird dog or retriever, these are a great option for a fun scent game with your dog!
Get the whole family involved. My daughter, nieces and nephews absolutely love to play hide and seek with our pack––and the dogs love it, too!
Nose work games for dogs
There are lots of ways to build upon the basics of nose work and search and find type activities.
Here are some ideas of ways that you can incorporate nose work into your daily routine with Fido:
- Hide and seek for people. Take it to the next level by having multiple people hide. My uncle’s labradoodle knows the names of the people in the house and can be told to find certain people – it’s pretty awesome!
- The American Kennel Club suggested using a muffin tin and 12 tennis balls. You create a puzzle with treats only under a few of the balls, so your dog has to work to remove the tennis balls and get the treat out of the muffin tin––can’t wait to try this one!
- Find the treat under mixed up objects. For large breed dogs you can use boxes, bowls, or plastic flowerpots. Put a treat under one of the three containers and mix them up. Have your dog nose or paw at the container with the hidden treat
Take your nose work to the next level
To make nose work more helpful for you, you can start teaching your dog to find a specific scent using essential oils. Put a few drops onto a cotton ball and place it in (or under) one of three identical containers.
When they begin to sniff the container with the scent in it, praise and reward them. Build on this concept so that they know what scent they’re trying to find.
You can then put a few drops of this scent on certain objects (like your shoes, glasses case) and have your dog retrieve objects for you.
These are the building blocks to how they train dogs to search out drugs, bombs, etc. (source)
Have you played any nose work games with you dog? Have a suggestion or story about playing scent games with your dog? We’d love to hear from you in the comments section!