Let your dog’s natural abilities shine with nose work.
Nose work started as a fun, DIY version of what professional dogs, like drug- and bomb-sniffers, do in the field. Dogs are excellent sniffers and enjoy learning, so this game and training activity is a perfect outlet for them—and you don’t even need a training center to play. Your dog already uses his nose all day long. The training “trick” with nose work is to teach your dog that you expect him to use his nose to find something you hide.
To start, choose a treat that motivates your dog. Food works well, especially if it’s smelly; but if your dog loves his tennis ball more than a hot dog, use the ball. Let your dog see and smell the treat you’re holding in your hand. Set it on the ground nearby—in plain sight—and cue your dog to “find it!”
Here, dogs divide into two camps. The first will dash over to the treat and snatch it up, wagging and excited, because his person so foolishly left a goodie right there in the open! The second group, often dogs with extensive obedience training, hesitates. The “find it” cue is new, for one thing, and most often dogs are taught to “leave it” with floor food. You may need to cue again while pointing and indicating excitedly to the item on the floor. When your dog gets it, regardless of how fast, praise!
Getting A Little More Complicated
Keeping the sessions short, repeat the initial introduction a handful of times. Then, hide the treat out of sight but with your dog watching (under a blanket or pillow works well). Cue your dog to “find it,” and give him plenty of time to think it through. Repeat by hiding it in other out-of-sight spots while he watches.
Next, increase the difficulty. Ask your dog to stay put for a minute—we use “wait,” but use whatever cue your dog knows—and hide the treat somewhere out of his immediate line of vision. Cue him to “find it,” and watch him blast off and start sniffing out the treat.
Now the Fun Begins
Once you and your dog have the basics down pat, challenge him in subsequent play sessions. Hide treats and toys in boxes, under couch cushions, behind furniture—anywhere your dog can reach works. Plus, you can amp up the game for dogs who are pros by having them wait in one room and hiding the items in another. Or, take the game into your backyard. The variations are endless and keep the game fun and stimulating for your super sniffer!
Any breed, any age, any size dog can enjoy nose work. If you’re having fun playing at home and want to up the ante, the National Association of Canine Scent Work provides a database of certified instructors.
Maggie is a writer and author, whose first book, Clicker Dog Training: The Better Path to a Well-Behaved Pup was published by Open Air Publishing. When she's not writing (or reading books about grammar), she teaches writing courses to college students and professionals who want to nail down the basics of communication. Outside of work, she hikes, throws dinner parties, plays with her three dogs and cat, and travels as much as possible.