More Sniffing! Nose Work Games and Scent-Based Activities:
On Day One of our Week of Enrichment series, we talked about how allowing sniffing breaks on neighborhood walks and going for regular off leash (or long line) decompression walks (with plenty of sniffing and exploring!) are both incredibly effective ways to provide adequate mental and physical enrichment for your dog.
Here on Day Six we are re-visiting scent-based enrichment again, because scent is so important to dogs and how they process the world.
Smelling stuff is one of the very best "being a dog" outlets that you can provide for your dog to help keep them enriched and less likely to exhibit undesirable behaviors. Remember, dogs possess up to 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses, compared to just about six million in ours.
Today we will be talking about nose work games and other scent-based enrichment activities, all of which can be extremely enriching and satisfying (read: tiring!) activities for your dog.
Nose Work Games:
"Nose work" refers to activities where you train your dog to sniff, search, and seek out a target odor. The beautiful thing about nose work activities is that once you introduce the activity, it is a skill set (sniffing!) that is innate and comes naturally to our dogs. Nose work is equally enriching and beneficial for big dogs and small dogs, young dogs and old dogs, extremely active dogs and more sedentary dogs, and even dogs with other physical limitations. Smelling truly is universal when it comes to dogs!
You easily can start some enriching nose work activities with your dog at home by simply teaching them to sniff and seek out hidden treats in a variety of ways.
For dogs brand new to these activities, you want to start easy and build up the challenge over time. Your first session might involve letting your dog watch you place a treat in a low-sided cardboard box, then allowing them to investigate, sniff out, and eat the treat. You gradually increase the difficulty by adding distance or more boxes, and by not allowing your dog to see where the treat was placed, and instead releasing them in the search area to sniff out and find the prize.
The sky really is the limit when creating nose work puzzles with treats for your dog in the house and in the yard. Increase difficulty slowly so that your dog can be successful every step of the way, but gradually incorporate challenges like more boxes to search in or treats hidden under a towel or blanket. Some dogs really enjoy being released to sniff out a food dish or a food puzzle toy hidden in a different room of the house for meal time. Get creative and the scent based enrichment opportunities are endless!
While hiding treats and food for scent based enrichment games works very well for many dogs, it is also possible to take the activity of nose work one step further, and actually train your dog to seek out specific scents and target odors (for example, birch odor, clove odor, etc). The odor is often dripped on a cotton swap or cotton q-tip, which is then hidden in a search area. This adds to the challenge and enrichment of the activity for your dog - they learn to detect and pursue different odors which are then paired with a reward the dog enjoys.
I have participated in some formal nose work training and titling with my own personal dogs and foster dogs, and I quite often incorporate nose work games into behavior modification plans when working with private clients. Encouraging dogs to sniff and explore their environment through smell can have a remarkable impact on their behavior and encourage positive behavior change in a variety of ways.
That being said, nose work is actually a structured "sport" for dogs (similar to activities like agility and obedience, for example), designed to mimic professional detection dog tasks. You can earn titles in nose work through organizations such as the National Association of Canine Scent Work (https://www.nacsw.net) or the American Kennel Club (AKC) scent work program (https://www.akc.org/sports/akc-scent-work).
To dive in and get more involved in the formal sport of nose work, I highly recommend enrolling in a class with a Certified Nose Work Instructor (CNWI) or someone experienced in the sport. Taking a class doesn't mean you have to enter competitions compete for titles - many, many active pet dog owners take classes for a mutually enjoyable and enriching activity to participate in with their dogs, without any intentions of competing.
If you are local to the Pinellas area that Spotted Success serves, I have the following recommendations for formal nose work classes and activities:
Other Scent Enrichment for Pet Dogs- All Sorts of Novel Scents!
Did you know that you can actually buy bottled "animal scents" like duck, pheasant, quail, or squirrel? Used as scent-based enrichment, these can also be very mentally stimulating and enriching for dogs.
If you purchase these scents and dilute them in a spray bottle, you can spray them in different spots in your yard to add interest and encourage sniffing and exploring instead of barking, fence fighting, digging, or other undesirable "yard" behaviors. Hunting supply stores and suppliers are a great resource for finding and purchasing novel animal scents to use as enrichment for your dog:
Please note: I do not advocate leaving dogs alone or unattended in the yard, and there are a lot of behavior modification strategies that can be implemented to steer your dog away from exhibiting undesirable behavior in the yard. Adding novel scent enrichment in the yard won't necessarily "fix" already established behavior patterns; scent enrichment aims at preventing issues by meeting your dog's behavioral needs and preventing problem behaviors from developing. If you need help altering your dog's undesirable behavior in the yard, upping the enrichment available to them is a great first step, but I also urge you to reach out for help from an experienced trainer or behavior consultant to work through a behavior modification plan.
You can also spray the novel animal scents on some of your DIY food puzzles and enrichment toys (see Days Two and Three of our Week of Enrichment posts) for added interest and mental stimulation. For example, you could stuff a recycled cardboard paper towel roll with food and newspaper as a DIY food puzzle, and then spray an animal scent on it for a food and shredding/chewing and scent-based enrichment activity.
Keep in mind, scent is enriching in general to dogs - some scent can stimulate, and some scent can calm. If you are using the novel animal scents described above, you are likely stimulating your dog's senses, but the long term effect will actually be calmer behavior from your dog during down time (after having adequate mental stimulation through these active enrichment sessions).
For scent enrichment activities with pet dogs, I generally like using the novel animal scents because I find that they are innately intriguing and enriching. Many dog trainers, behavior departments within animal shelters, and zoo keepers and trainers working with a wide variety of species also have success using other novel scents such as lavender, vanilla, chamomile, almond, coconut, and peppermint scents. These scents can also be diluted in a spray bottle and sprayed on plastic toys, bedding, or towels. You could even sprinkle dried spices like cinnamon, cloves, and ginger on the floor, on the grass outside, or on blankets for your dog to investigate.
As we have mentioned many times throughout our Week of Enrichment, every dog (every animal!) is an individual. A big part of providing varied enrichment activities for your dog involves some trial and error, figuring out which activities result in great mental stimulation (and positive behavior change) for your individual dog.
And so, Happy Sniffing!
Give some nose work and scent based enrichment activities a try with your dog and feel free to reach out if you have any specific questions or want guidance on what might be appropriate for your individual dog.
And join us tomorrow for DAY SEVEN, our final day in our Week of Enrichment series!