Sniff Happens – An Intro to Scent Work for Dogs

Your dog’s strongest sense is their sense of smell, so it’s no shock that sniffing comes naturally to them. Did you know they even recognize their humans first through scent, not sight? 

As humans, we rely most on visuals, and while you may think that your dog also depends heavily on their sight, they actually rely mostly on scent to assess their surroundings and communicate. Dogs possess up to 100 million olfactory receptors in their noses, compared to about only 6 million in humans. It’s estimated that they can smell anywhere from 1,000 to 10,000 times better than people.

A dog’s nose is so amazing, they can even assess things like your mood or health with a quick sniff. When trained to do so, dogs can seek out things like bombs and drugs or can alert you that your blood sugar is low if you’re diabetic all through scent. 

So while your dog may not be ready to join the local team of search and rescue dogs, giving them an outlet to use their brain through something that comes so naturally to them–sniffing–is a great way to nurture them mentally and build a bond as you work together to learn the sport of scent work. 

One of the best parts about scent work for dogs is that ANY dog can participate. While in some sports, like agility, where a lot of physical exertion is required, scent work is fun and rewarding for dogs of all ages, shapes and sizes. Canines have amazing noses, no matter the breed–so regardless of if you have a Chihuahua or Great Pyrenees, scent work could be the sport for you! 

What Exactly is Scent Work? 

Scent work for dogs is a sport that requires your dog to hone in their sense of smell to ultimately detect a set of hidden target odors in a set timed period. The target odors consist of essential oils, like Birch, Cypress, Clove and Anise, and as your dog imprints on the scent and learns they’ll be rewarded for finding the hidden smell, known as a hide, they search out and indicate to their handler where it’s at. 

Sniff tin sits next to a bag of EarthBites Chewy
A close up of the scent tin which houses the hide, and more importantly – the reward! 

Your dog is required to find the odors on their own, but it’s up to you to recognize your dog’s indication that they’ve found it, making it a team sport that you have to work together on to succeed at. You can practice for fun, or sign up and compete in dog scent work trials where you can hone your skills through successfully completing different difficulty levels. 

Scents are typically placed on a q-tip and then encompassed in some type of container before being hidden. To practice, we use a metal scent tin and either scent tubes, boxes, or even hide the tin around the yard and have the dog’s practice finding and alerting us to where it’s at.

Moe searching out the hide on a vehicle, and the actual hide on the inside of the vehicle wheel
Moe searching out the hide on a vehicle, and the actual hide on the inside of the vehicle wheel.

There are a variety of organizations you can practice and compete for Scent Work under,  including AKC, UKC, NACSW, or CPE. While the basics are generally the same, each organization has slightly different rules, qualifiers, and odor combinations. 

When you start competing, the trials are organized into different categories in which you can compete and place in. We currently have only competed in CPE, which includes Containers, Interiors, Exteriors, and Vehicles. In CPE, you’re required to qualify in all four classes before you can receive a title and move up to the next level. 

Why is Scent Work Good for Your Dog?

It’s well known that dogs need physical exercise, but mental stimulation is just as important. Scent work for dogs provides both the mental and physical pieces that contribute to your dog’s well-being. We joke that when my dog, Moe, gets done with an hour of his scent work training class in which he seeks out multiple rounds of hides, he looks like a college kid that just got done taking his ACT. 

Scent work requires your dog to learn to focus and concentrate while finding the hides, and as they get more difficult, it also becomes a lot of fun; especially for dogs that enjoy games or have a high prey drive. As your dog finds the hides, they are also building confidence, skills that are important to your dog’s overall well-being. 

Two images-one of a dog sitting in a class and the second with competition ribbons around his neck
Moe is always so happy to be at Scent Work Class; and was SO proud of his ribbons he won at his first Scent Work trial! 

I have also personally noticed that giving my dog that outlet to “sniff” has led to better behavior and happiness overall. They get to use an important part of their brains, and feel fulfilled when they successfully find the hides and are rewarded for doing so. 

How To Teach Your Dog Scent Work

While it’s possible to train Scent Work from the beginning right at home, in my opinion the best way to get started with Scent Work is to find a local trainer or group class that can help you to get started. While the initial imprinting on scent can be done fairly easily, there are many different ways to teach the sport, and it can very quickly become much more complex than you’d imagine. 

Really making sure your dog is obedient to scent is the name of the game when you start competing, and having a solid indication is also key in competitions. A trainer can best assess and coach both you and your dog as they learn to find the hides, so you know exactly when and are able to pick up on when they’re on (or not on) the scent trail. 

You can learn more on each of the organizations websites for scent work for dogs linked below, and from there, start your search to connect with a local chapter:

I’ll be honest–Scent Work wasn’t a sport I was initially drawn to or something I thought I would enjoy as much as I do, but it’s quickly become a favorite of mine for me AND the dogs. I can tell how much they love it, which makes it that much better–and it’s something fun we can do together every week. After our first trial, we were hooked–and I’m looking forward to many more years of competition with all of my dogs. 

So get out there, sniff away, and have FUN!