Cavalier King Charles Spaniel doing nosework.

Understanding Nosework For Dogs: Benefits Of Scent Training

Written By Olivia De Santos | Canine Coach, Professional Writer & Video Content Creator.
Edited & Fact Checked By Renae Soppe | Double B.A Journalism & Science. 
Last Updated: 9th January 2024

Are you curious about nosework for dogs? Nosework or scent training can be a fun way of mentally stimulating your pup.

In this article we’ll talk about the different nose games you can play with your dog to strengthen their sniffing skills. Let’s dive in!


What Is Nosework For Dogs?

Your dog has a pretty impressive nose. Far more impressive than yours, sorry to say!

A dog’s nose can detect the opening of a bag of dog treats several blocks away.

What’s the secret behind a dog’s miraculous smelling sense? Dogs have an extra-smelling organ located in their nasal cavity. It’s primarily in charge of detecting pheromones and other seemingly imperceptible smells

“The two separate parts of the dog’s odour detection system, the nose and Jacobsen’s organ, work together to provide delicate sensibilities that neither system could achieve alone. When the dog curls his lips and flares his nostrils, he opens up Jacobsen’s organ, increases the exposure of the nasal cavity to aromatic molecules and essentially becomes a remarkably efficient smelling machine.” (1)

And it’s not just scents that your dog’s sniffer can detect. They can smell anxiety due to pheromones in the air. They can smell sweat changes and other human odour chemicals which helps them detect seizures 45 minutes before they happen. (2)

All pretty amazing. So a dog’s nose is a powerful organ.

Nosework or scent training is a way of combining a dog’s natural talents while nurturing their intelligence. It stimulates their inherent hunting skills.

Usually, nosework consists of games that mimic hunting and professional detective dog activities. The sport was founded by The National Association of Canine Scent Work (NACSW).

However, importantly, it is not professional nosework or obedience training. Those are different things.

Nosework is just for fun! There are ways to do nosework at home or you can take a nosework class with a local instructor. We’ll talk about options for nosework classes in Australia later in this article.

Is scent training good for dogs?

Why should we bother with scent work for our dogs?

Here is a round-up of the potential benefits of doing scent work with your pup:

Mental stimulation

Your dog has a powerful sense of smell that they were born to use. Doing scent work might be quite a niche sport among non-professional circles, but your canine will love it as a way to engage the brain. Particularly if you do scent identification work which pairs communication with identifying individual scents. Very advanced big-brain stuff! If you have a bored pooch at home, try nosework as a form of mental stimulation.

Greater calmness at home

Nosework is quite tiring for dogs. It’s a highly engaging activity that requires intelligence and skill. By mentally stimulating your dog, you might find that your dog is more settled at home. This in turn helps diminish problem behaviours like destructive chewing.

Enriching to high energy dogs

If you have a high-energy dog at home, nosework is a great activity to soothe that hyperactivity.

Works well for dogs of all ages

Few activities are completely universal. Typically agility is too physical for elderly dogs. Certain sports are too taxing for puppies. Scent work truly works for every type of dog at any stage of life, as long as they still have a sense of smell!

So much fun!

Above all, nosework is a sport. It’s designed to be a fun bonding activity for you and your dog. Many owners who have tried nosework report that their dogs are much happier and calmer after just a couple of sessions. (3)

How do you start scent training a dog?

It’s possible to start at home with nosework games for dogs. In the next section, we’ll talk about at-home activities that you can try with your pup. These are suitable for beginners to nosework.

If you want to take things up a notch or even compete in nosework competitions, there are lessons you can take with a trained instructor.

If you can, I recommend trying a lesson just because it’s an enriching environment for your dog and a good opportunity to socialise.

What scents are good for dog smell training?


It depends on the game that you’re playing. If you take a class for nosework, you’ll have 3 scents - birch, anise, and clove. Powerful scents that are distinct from each other and easy to identify.

However, you’ll notice that with at-home nose games, you can usually use your dog’s own toys or treats.


Scent Training For Dogs With Treats

Have I convinced you that nosework could be a fun activity for you and your dog to try? Great! Let’s start with some simple nose games you can try at home. These are the games you can play with treats. Some involve extra equipment but I’ll call those out as we go.

Muffin tin game

  • Best for: Beginners and puppies
  • Difficulty level: Easy
  • You will need: A muffin tin, dog treats, tennis balls

The Muffin Tin game is a simple one that all dogs can enjoy. All you need to do is put one treat
in a few of the inserts of a muffin tin. Then place tennis balls over every insert of the muffin tin.
Your dog needs to move the tennis balls to find the treats concealed inside.

Shell game

  • Best for: All dogs
  • Difficulty level: Easy
  • You will need: 2 or 3 plastic or paper cups, one dog treat, a flat surface

The Shell Game is one you’ve likely seen before. You need two or more plastic or paper cups.
Under one of the cups, place a treat. Show your dog that one of the upside down plastic cups
has a treat concealed. Then with all cups upside down, slide the cups in a different order. Your
pup needs to nudge or tap a cup for you to lift it. If they guess right, the treat is their reward! You
can also play this game with closed fists instead of cups if you want.

Find it!

  • Best for: All dogs
  • Difficulty level: Easy to intermediate
  • You will need: Dog treats, a flat surface with obstacles

“Find it” is like a treasure hunt. You hide treats in different places for your pup to find. This works
best the first time if you have the treat in your hand, and slide the treat along the floor. Your pup
needs to find the treat to uncover their reward. You can take things up a notch by hiding several
treats around a room and encouraging your pup to find them all.


Scent Training For Dogs With Toys

Above I went through the simplest nosework games you can play with your dog with household items. In this section, we’ll focus on games that need a little extra specialised equipment.

Puzzle toys

  • Best for: Intelligent adult or young adult dogs
  • Difficulty level: Intermediate to advanced
  • You will need: A puzzle toy for dogs

We at Gentle Dog Trainers love puzzle toys! They stretch the mind while providing endless entertainment for bored dogs. Many puzzle toys use your dog’s sniffer to solve the puzzle. There are puzzle toys for every level however I wouldn’t recommend this for absolute beginners. Even the easiest brick puzzle toys require a little former intelligence, so maybe start with the shell game before progressing to doggy sudoku!

We have an article that explains what puzzle toys are and the best puzzle toys on the market today.

Snuffle mats

  • Best for: Elderly dogs
  • Difficulty level: Easy
  • You will need: A snuffle mat

Snuffle mats are cloth mats with plenty of pockets to hide treats! Simply hide treats within the pockets of the snuffle mat and then allow your pup to find them all. This is a simple nose game for dogs of all ages, sizes and mobilities. This is why it works so well for elderly or disabled dogs. It’s not physically taxing.

Hide and seek

  • Best for: Adult dogs or intelligent puppies
  • Difficulty level: Intermediate
  • You will need: At least two willing participants!

Hide and Seek is a great game for the whole family to play, so why not get your pup involved too? To play, you need two or more human players to hide in different corners of the house. It’s your dog’s job to find them. 

To make this game more accessible, I recommend adding a sound element with squeaky toys. Your pup will use both sound and smell to find you. Reward your pup with treats when they find your hiding spot!

Fetch with a twist

  • Best for: Active adult or young adult dogs
  • Difficulty level: Easy
  • You will need: A retrieval toy

Fetch is a staple in the canine world, but this game of fetch will use more nose skills than the traditional game. First, you throw the retrieval toy of choice and hold your dog back from chasing it. Make sure the toy has hit the ground before you release them. They’ll use memory, sight and smell skills to find the toy.

To make the game more challenging, play fetch in wide open spaces and throw the toy far so your dog has to “hunt” the toy down in the grass.


Advanced Scent Work

Let’s kick things up a notch with advanced scent work. This is a simpler version of the course you would take at a National Association of Canine Scent Work (NACSW) accredited class (or similar).

Building a scent work kit at home

You can create a scent work course at home with items you can easily locate on Amazon. (4)

Here is a list of items you will need:

  • Birch essential oil
  • Star anise essential oil
  • Clove essential oil
  • Cotton swabs, cut in half
  • Small glass jars with lids
  • A scent vessel or mint tin with holes drilled into the lid
  • Disposable gloves
  • Tweezers
  • Treats that your dog loves
  • Plastic container with holes drilled into the removable lid

First, use one scent oil only before adding the others and making the game more difficult.

  1. Put on your disposable gloves and drop two drops of the birch oil into the cotton swabs.
  2. Place the cotton swabs into the glass jar.
  3. Throw away your disposable gloves outside.
  4. Use the tweezers to take out one cotton swab from the glass jar and place it into the scent vessel.
  5. Store your tweezers in a sealed plastic bag.
  6. Repeat the process for the other oils.

Training your dog to differentiate different scents

First, you want your dog to understand that finding the scented tin is rewarding. Follow this process to introduce your dog to the scent:

  1. Hold the scent vessel in one hand and a treat in the other. Close your fists and let your dog sniff around your hands.
  2. They’ll naturally go for the treat first but keep your fists closed until they turn their attention to the hand with the scented tin.
  3. When your dog sniffs the tin hand, say “yes” clearly and reward them with the treat.
  4. Repeat 3 to 4 times, switching hands as you go.

From there, you slowly make the process more and more difficult.

  • Place the scent vessel with the cotton swab inside at your feet and encourage your dog to find the scent. Reward them when they do.
  • Hide the scent vessel in another room. Bring your dog into the room and encourage them to find the scent. Reward them when they do.
  • Associate specific words with each scent to eventually train your dog to differentiate between two or more different scents.

Scent Training Classes For Dogs In Australia

If you want to try a scent work class, here are some places I’ve found that offer courses.

I recommend reading about others’ experiences of classes so that you have a good frame of reference for what to expect. (5)

Note: I haven’t tried these classes myself so I can’t personally attest to how good they are!


My Final Thoughts

Scent work or nosework for dogs is a great pastime for both pup and owner. We hope this article was a good starting point for learning how to play nose games with your dog. If in doubt, consult a professional dog trainer or attend a scent training course near you!

FAQ

Can all dogs do scent training?

Yes! Hunting dogs and working dogs tend to have a sharper natural instinct to identify different scents on cue. That being said, all dog breeds can do well in the sport. Even three-legged, blind, and deaf dogs can do scent training!

At what age can dogs start scent training?

According to the experts, you can start nosework when your dog is a puppy. Some say as young as 8 weeks old. I would wait for around 12 weeks simply because nosework is tiring! You can start little puppies with small exercises and slowly build their sniffing skills over time.

Your dog can start scent training later in life too! This is a universal game that will always provide mental stimulation, regardless of how old your dog is.

Is scent work tiring for dogs?

Yes, it is! Scent work training is tiring to dogs because it engages their brains and their noses. (6) Therefore it is physically and mentally taxing for your pup. It’s recommended to keep sessions short so that you don’t overwhelm your dog. This is especially important when your dog is under one year old.

References:

  1. Llera, R. Buzhardt, L. “How Dogs Use Smell to Perceive the World”. VCA Hospitals. Retrieved December 29, 2022. https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/how-dogs-use-smell-to-perceive-the-world
  2. Anderson, D. Jones, B. March 11, 2021.  “How dogs can smell epileptic seizures before they happen”. Business Insider. Retrieved December 29, 2022. https://www.businessinsider.com/dogs-smell-detect-epileptic-seizures-before-they-happen-2019-4?r=US&IR=T
  3. Caplan, C. “Nosework Is the Secret to a Calm, Happy Dog You’ve Never Heard Of”.  Rover. Retrieved December 29, 2022. https://www.rover.com/blog/nosework-secret-calm-happy-dog-youve-never-heard/
  4. Santo, K. May 27, 2020. “How to Teach Your Dog Scent Work at Home”. American Kennel Club. Retrieved December 29, 2022. https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/training/how-to-teach-your-dog-scent-work/
  5. Caplan, C. “Nosework Is the Secret to a Calm, Happy Dog You’ve Never Heard Of”.  Rover. Retrieved December 29, 2022. https://www.rover.com/blog/nosework-secret-calm-happy-dog-youve-never-heard/
  6. Upmalis, J. June 19, 2017. “The Many (Some Surprising) Uses and Benefits of Scent Work”. American Kennel Club. Retrieved December 29, 2022. https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/sports/many-uses-benefits-scent-work/

Olivia De Santos


Olivia De Santos is Gentle Dog Trainers Canine Coach, Professional Writer and Video Content Creator.

Olivia has over 10 years of experience writing professionally and is a dog Mum to Pip, her Podengo and Blue, her Flat-coated Retriever. She loves writing pieces to help people to be better dog owners.

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