The Nose Knows

A couple of years ago I embarked on the fascinating journey of scentwork with my dog. We started with search dog training, to find missing people, and have since added other scent games to our repertoire. Compared to Mr Nose, who was born with this skill, I’ve only scratched the surface, but I’m hooked.

Dogs’ sense of smell exceeds that of humans more than we can imagine, they experience most of the world through their nose, like we do through our eyes. I’m still smiling at the memory of watching my friend’s puppy on a mission, working his way forward, his nose in the air, while the horse manure we both knew he was after was in full sight. But puppy was in scent mode!

Now imagine out of sight sources and the smallest traces of scent from them. Our dogs rule when it comes to that. They help detect cancer, locate disaster victims, find illegal drugs and so much more. There are only two things we need to do: get them interested and focused on working with us on solving the puzzle, and learn to interpret what they tell us – start seeing things from their point of view.

You may not want to train a service dog, but you can do scentwork for fun any time, and here’s why I think it’s great:

  • Any dog with a nose can do it. Puppies can start young, because their sense of smell is already there, whereas for other training they still have to grow physically and mentally. It’s ideal for dogs recovering from an injury or for older dogs where exercise levels are limited but there’s a need for mental stimulation. It can focus reactive or easily distracted dogs and provide an outlet for hyperactive dogs. It can help shy dogs gain confidence, because this time they’re in control.
  • Our dogs already know this game. It’s our turn to learn to trust them.
  • It wears them out, in a good way. Most dogs will be more affected by half an hour searching than a three-hour walk. Scentwork may not be physically demanding, but it takes so much concentration, the brain will need a good rest afterwards. Fido will be in happy dreamland for a while.
  • Possibilities are endless. Scentwork can be done indoors or outdoors, in any setting, with other people involved or just handler and dog. Equipment needed is minimal and low cost. Some days I keep it as simple as hiding a tennis ball while out on a walk, on others we explore step-by-step tracking. We do, of course, have our preferred scentwork game (it’s quite serious when we look for people), but we also have an option to search for lost coins when we’re bored at the pub.
  • It’s fun. Dogs can find scentwork rewarding for the sake of it. I have seen my dog ignore favourite food and favourite people while on a mission.
  • It builds a good relationship. I need my dog to solve a puzzle I couldn’t solve by myself, and he needs me to read and handle him to set him up to succeed – we’re a team.

I’d love to hear how scentwork has made a difference to you and your dog. You can add a comment below.

If you haven’t yet explored what your dog’s nose knows, buy a book, find a class, attend a workshop (we’re running our tracking foundation workshop again in February), and most of all, enjoy your dog!

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