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Nose Work Games for Dogs

photo by Caleb Stokes

by Claire Robertson, CPDT-KA, AD, owner of Candid Canines

When the term “nose work” is brought up, oftentimes we think of police dogs or search and rescue dogs, sniffing the trail of a lost person or looking for illegal substances in a car. But nose work can be applied to regular pet dogs as well.

Training your dog to utilize his sniffer can be highly advantageous for both you and your dog. It’s not particularly complicated to train, and the benefits are numerous.

There are multiple techniques and games you can use to help teach your pup to use his nose, or to tighten up your existing nose work program. I’ll share a few of the best approaches below, but first let’s start with getting to know your dog’s nose.

Your Dog’s Sniffer

The science behind your dog’s incredible olfactory abilities is very cool!

First of all, your dog’s sense of smell is estimated to be 10,000 to 100,000 times stronger than yours. Visually speaking, that’s like saying we can see a third of a mile away, and he can see 3000 miles away. But hey, at least I can enjoy more of the color spectrum, right?

Not only is his ability to smell better, but his ability to sort through and categorize what he is smelling is too! According to an article by Nova, the part of your dog’s brain that is devoted to olfactory capabilities is 40 times bigger than the same part in human brains.

To be fair to humans though, dogs have evolved to be incredible sniffers. A dog’s nose sends one part of the air inhaled to be breathed, and the other part to exclusively be smelled. Humans just smell and breathe at the same time, making us particularly inefficient.

To add salt to the wound of sniffing, dogs even have a specific area in the back of the nose called turbinates that filter odor molecules based on chemical aspects and send electrical signals to the brain to analyze and identify them.

What does this all amount to? Besides making me reconsider my career as a candle scent tester, it means your dog lives his world experiencing smells in a way we can’t even begin to comprehend. His nose is so intensely part of his day-to-day life that it only makes sense to utilize and enrich this aspect of his life!

And this leads us back to nose work.

The Importance of Nose Work for Dogs: Why Strengthen Spot’s Sniffer?

The benefits of nose work are numerous. They include stimulating and enriching your dog’s life in a way you may have accidentally been overlooking before. Scent work also offers a unique opportunity to bond with your dog.

If you suddenly start recognizing odors too, your dog will likely start seeing you as considerably more interesting. After all, you’re sharing a new experience with your pooch, which will give you a new way to bond.

Nose work can also really help build confidence in young or nervous dogs. There is something about using his natural instincts and really diving into the details of a smell that can lift a dog up — especially as he starts getting rewarded and praised by you for doing something he does naturally. Personally, I wouldn’t mind it if I got praised and given a cookie each time I used my opposable thumb.

On top of all that, nosework is really fun for you and your dog!

Watching your dog decrypt a secret message you didn’t even know was there? That’s awesome to be a part of. And your dog will quickly show you how much he loves using his nose too. The nose work class I teach is filled with laughter and reports from owners on how much their dogs love the “game.”

But What Do I need to Get Started?

If you’re going to get into nose work, there are some supplies you’ll need. Don’t worry, they are pretty simple.

The most important supply you need to have is, you guessed it, an incredibly smelly treat. I’ve seen people use hot dogs (if your dog requires a low-fat diet, use beef hotdogs rather than pork), cheese (assuming your dog can tolerate it), freeze dried salmon treats or even the occasional bit of barbeque.

That might just be a Texas thing though.

Once you’ve found the extra yummy smelly treat, really all you need is space where you can hide it and a way to provide positive reinforcement when your dog finds it. You can do that verbally, with playtime with his favorite toy, or my personal favorite – even more food or treats.

With more advanced games you might need cups, a muffin tin, a big towel or blanket, or even those specialty dog puzzles you can get online. But to start out, you just need smelly food and a sniffer — preferably your dog’s sniffer since we’ve already established our own sniffers aren’t up to snuff.

Nose Games are the Best Brain Games

As when teaching your dog many other skills, you’ll often find it helpful to use games to help hone your hound’s olfactory abilities. I’ll explain a few of the best games to do so below, including some that are super-easy (and therefore awesome when you first start), as well as some intermediate and difficult games, which are great for keeping your dog’s nose on his toes.

Simple Games

To start teaching your dog to nose his sniffer “on command” so to speak, you should try the simplest of games first, then build up to more complex activities. Personally, I just start out with a nice easy “Find it” game. To play this game you toss a smelly treat out onto the floor and tell your dog to “Find it”. When he does, celebrate and give him another treat.

Start out really easy, super close to you and if he is having some difficulty, don’t be afraid to “slow motion”’ bowl the treat away from you — this will help him find the treat and get the idea of the game. As his competency and confidence in this game grows, start tossing the treat further and further away. This is a great warm up game that I play with a lot of my young or nervous dogs.

A good second game to try out is the “muffin tin game”. In a nutshell, you get a muffin tin out, put treats in some of the cups, and let your dog sniff, discover, and eat said treats. Be certain to make sure your dog is not concerned by the muffin tin itself before you start adding treats to it. Remember this is supposed to be fun!

Once your dog is comfortable and confident simply getting the treats out of the tins, you increase the challenge level by adding a barrier. You can do this by putting tennis balls on top of the treats in each cup. This way your pup has to manipulate the tennis ball to access the treats below.

Then, to make the game more challenging, you can start filling some tins with treats, while leaving others empty. But, you’ll want to make sure all of the cups are covered with the tennis ball.

Your dog now has to use his nose to identify which cup has treats, and which ones are empty. I personally like to make a big deal about my dog getting it right, and I will put extra treats in the tin after he has correctly identified it for extra reinforcement.

“Pick a Hand” is a variant on the same game. You put several extra yummy treats in one hand, and keep the other empty. I hide my hands while I’m “loading up,” so my dog can’t see which one has the treats. Then, you hold both hands out in front of your dog. I usually add a cute cue like “Which one is it?” and let my dog sniff both fists.

When he chooses (this could be by sniffing, licking, looking at intently or maybe even pawing), I open the hand he picked. If it’s full of treats, he gets to dig in and I give him lots of praise and compliments.

If he chose the wrong hand, no big deal. I don’t chastise him. I just say “oh well” and try again. He must correctly locate the treats to earn his reward. Always be sure to keep him honest by switching up which hand is holding the treats and don’t follow a regular pattern.

Intermediate Games
Along this train of thought, you can play the “cups” or “shells” game with your dog as well. This game can be a little advanced so I would try just the muffin tins or the “‘pick a hand”’ first, so your dog feels confident using his sniffer.

I do this with three plastic cups, so if he knocks one over it won’t break. Be sure to use opaque cups –, we don’t want your dog cheating!

To play, hide several smelly treats under one cup, and keep the other two cups empty. You shuffle and slide them around, and then let your dog indicate where he thinks the treats are hiding. When he chooses a cup, you lift it up.

If he picked the right cup, he gets a big pay day of treats. You can also play “Box Games”’ with your pooch. These games involve a treat that is hidden inside a box, with multiple boxes to choose from.

Much like “pick a hand,” this is just a bigger version of this game. Initially start out with boxes that have no lids, so that when your dog finds the correct one, he can immediately reinforce himself by getting to eat the treats.

Later you can build up to working with the boxes having lids on. When he selects the correct one, you praise him and open the lid so he can access the contents. If you are going to play this game, you want to be certain you’re not accidentally leading your dog to the correct box.

You can do this either by practicing off leash, and constantly circling all the boxes at the exact same pace no matter where he goes to sniff. This way your body language is constant and not “hinting” or “cueing” your dog.

Another way to do this, once your dog is really good at the first steps of the box game, is by having a friend hide the food in one of the boxes without you knowing which one it is. That way both you and your dog are going in not knowing. Be sure that the friend remembers which box is correct so they can tell you if your dog got ‘it right’.

Advanced Games
If your dog has mastered the simple and intermediate nosework games described above, you may want to ramp up the difficulty and let him play really hard games.

One fun and challenging game I like to play is “human hide and seek.” For this you will need a friend to hold your dog’s leash while you hide. Basically what you do is, go hide in another room while loaded with awesome smelly treats. When you’re ready, let the other human know and have them bring your dog into the room.

Initially, you’ll want to hide somewhere really easy to find — like behind the sofa or half way behind a curtain. You want your dog to be really successful at finding you. When he does, celebrate it BIG TIME. I usually praise, compliment, play, and hand out yummies. Then we reset and play again. Slowly increase the difficulty of your hiding places and the size of the room you’re hiding in.

As your dog gets great at this game, you can even take it outside. Just remember to play in safe, fenced in areas, or to have your dog on a leash with another human to avoid dangerous situations. Not only is this really fun, but also a great bonding experience. Literally, your dog is getting a bounty of treats for finding you — talk about relationship building!

Games your Dog Can Do without You (AKA Puzzles)

For games that aren’t so physically demanding for the human half, you can let your pup play with snuffle mats (felt or fabric mats with lots of crevices), bathmats, blankets, or towels.

The general idea with these things is to hide treats in the blanket or snuffle mat, and then let your dog spend his time sniffing and discovering the hidden treats.

I personally favor the “swirl” method, which is to say I scatter treats or even my dogs regular kibble over a blanket. Then I pinch a piece of the blanket and twist, making a swirl. I’ll do several of these swirls in opposite directions until it’s all twisted up and full of food loaded folds.

A really diligent dog can spend a good twenty minutes working on one of these games.

Dog Nose FAQs:

Dog noses certainly are interesting, and because they’re so different from our human honkers, people often have questions about them. I’ll try to answer a few of the most common questions below.

Why do dogs sniff each others butts?

The long and the short of it? They smell awesome! No really! As we now know, your dog’s sense of smell is incredible. This means he is able to discern a plethora of information by getting a good ol’ whiff. The odors associated with a dog’s booty provide info about where the other dog has been, what he’s been doing, how he is feeling (medically, hormonally, etc.). It’s like a “Hello! How are you?” and a personal biography all in one.

Which dog breeds have the best sense of smell?

All dogs have the capacity to be incredible sniffers, and it’s important not to discount a dog’s ability to do nose work or nose work related vocations just because of his breed. After all, dogs are all individuals. That being said, some breeds have physical advantages built in.

Any of the hounds especially were initially bred for scent work. Interestingly, those long droopy ears and big jowls help hounds get extra odors. The way the ears fall forward and the lips make creases and wrinkles while the hound is sniffing actually create funnels and pathways for the odor to enter their noses. And you thought they were just cute!

How far can dogs smell?

Though impressive, dog noses aren’t magic — dogs can only detect odors when scent-bearing molecules reach their nostrils. This is all heavily influenced by environmental and atmospheric factors, so it’s hard to give a concrete answer. Nevertheless, dogs can smell scents that have been diluted one to two parts per trillion. That means a dog can smell something that has been buried up to forty feet underground. In other cases, dogs can detect odor molecules long after the person, dog, or prey in question is miles away.

Are nose work games good exercise for your dog?

Absolutely! Think about how exhausted you are after taking a test or reading an academic book. Mental stimulation is by far more tiring and consuming than physical stimulation. I’m no Olympic athlete, and I can hike for hours. But if you sign me up for a big dog training conference, I’m whooped by lunch time. Also, because we don’t regularly stimulate this part of our dog, using those “muscles” will be much more tiring than simply playing chase or going on a walk around the block.

Overall, nose work is a great way to connect with your dog on a level he naturally enjoys. It’s stimulating, enriching, confidence building, and down right fun. It’s pretty easy to teach, and your dog will definitely thank you for giving it a try

About the Author

Claire Robertson

Claire Robertson is the owner and trainer of Candid Canines. She is a certified trainer, recognized by the CCDPT and is certified for Pet First Aid and CPR. Claire is a Certified American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen Evaluator, as well as a CARAT Assessor. Claire became interested in dog training the way most people do – she got a dog that was completely out of control! The more she worked with her dog, Charlotte, the better their relationship became. Claire believes training is a tool to help you and your dog become best friends, and uses relationship building, reinforcement based training, and creative problem solving as a means to create that friendship.

Click here to book an online consultation with Claire.