9. Scent Detection & Nosework

Nosework training is super easy because most dogs naturally enjoy searching for scent!  Scenting is such a natural and integral part of being a dog.  Born with eyes and ears closed, puppies use scent to find their mother’s milk. If you scatter your dog’s food on the lawn you can be sure your dog will find his dinner!


Many behaviour problems that crop up in adolescence (typically 6mts – 1-2 years old) come down to dogs being bored, under exercised, and confined most of the day.  They spend so much time indoors and even when they are outside, they’re often on a lead and rarely allowed to sniff, dig, run, and jump to their heart’s delight. 


Physical exercise always needs to be managed in youngsters as you don’t want to risk damaging young joints from too much too soon so young dogs really benefit from a lot of mentally stimulating activities to burn all that excess energy.  This is especially the case if you have a herding breed (think Border Collie), a gundog breed (think Labrador Retriever, Spaniels,  Setters, Pointers) or a working breed (think German Shepherd, Doberman).


How do we get that doggie brain working and tire out our hyper dog with tones of energy then?


Answer: Nosework!


• Nosework is wonderfully stimulating for all dogs and burns tonnes of energy

• It's portable! You can set up searches anywhere that your dog is able to access.

• It's for all ages and breeds

• It's safe for reactive dogs

• It builds confidence!

• It strengthens your bond with your dog


Simply put, introducing your dog to Nosework will make your dog’s life (and yours) better!


My dogs practice nosework skills almost every day, even if it’s as simple as finding pieces of food hidden around the house and garden.


Nosework has a plethora of benefits for dogs, including:


  • Nosework helps your dog relax - the science gets technical fast, but sniffing is soothing for dogs. Blood flow to certain areas of the brain increases when your dog is sniffing really hard, and this can help calm your dog down.
  • Nosework teaches your dog how to problem solve - many dogs never get much of a chance to “figure it out.” Nosework allows your dog to use his nose to solve problems to find food which he will really get a kick out of.
  • Nosework helps your dog gain confidence and independence - learning a new thing is incredibly powerful for boosting confidence. I’ve watched nosework teach many shy and reactive dogs that new spaces are exciting to explore rather than terrifying.
  • Nosework is exhausting - Problem-solving is hard work! Pair that with the soothing effects of sniffing, and nosework is one of the most powerful tools out there for soothing a hyperactive dog.

All dogs can do nosework. Even if your dog is blind, deaf, three-legged, or all three, he can do nosework and will thoroughly enjoy it. It is especially great for dogs with hip issues, older dogs, shy dogs or reactive dogs.


There are multiple methods when it comes to nose work training, and each one has its own advantages and drawbacks. 


One of the simplest and most common is simply to put your dog away for a moment. Then lay out between 3 to 10 containers. You can use shoeboxes, Amazon boxes, bowls, Tupperware, or any other containers you’ve got handy. 


Put a piece of smelly cheese or meat into some of the containers then let your dog into the room and let him investigate, finding the treats as he goes.  Every time he finds a treat, give him a second one right where the first one was. This helps teach your dog to wait for you when he finds something because he’ll get paid double if he does!


The only snag with this method is that it can become cumbersome later on if you decide to do more serious nosework training when you need to start eliminating food and teach your dog to search for a specific scent.  Dogs who are less motivated can begin to lose interest, because they’re no longer discovering treats at the end of their search.  Also, food is actually used as a distraction in later training stages, which means the dog is expected to ignore it which doesn’t seem fair when he/she spent the first few months of nosework training searching for it!


So…on the whole I think it’s worth the extra effort of introducing your dog to nosework using a method that doesn’t pair food with the target scent.  Generally it’s been found that dogs seem to progress faster and with more reliability if they’re taught to find their target scent from the start and have food as their reward instead.


The training strategy we’re going to use employs a technique called Back Chaining so first of all here is an overview of what trainers mean by this term.


Back Chaining


With lots of obedience basics, we take our dogs through simple, single behaviours.  For example, Come, Down and Sit. Once training becomes more advanced though, we are often introducing our dog to chains of several single behaviours linked together to form a greater behaviour.  Back-chaining simply means teaching the series of linked behaviours backwards (i.e. in reverse order).  That is, starting from the last behaviour in the chain and working towards the starting behaviour. 


An example would be teaching your dog to tidy his toys away dropping them into a basket. To do this you would start out by teaching your dog to pick up and drop a toy already in the basket, rewarding every successful attempt.  You would repeat this step over and over until it has a strong history of reinforcement making the behaviour reliable. 


You would then continue the training by teaching the dog to pick up a toy placed right next to the basket and drop it in.  Then you would have him pick a toy up and walk just a couple of steps to the basket and then drop the toy in. 


Gradually you would continue extending the distance until he was able to collect his toys and bring them to the basket and drop them in from wherever they were placed in the room.


By training the last step first, all sections of the chain end up being strong and well understood.  The reason for this success is because each time the dog engages in the chain, as he comes to the end he is always doing something he knows very well.


Back-chaining is an incredibly effective way to teach your dog any new behaviour, because each new stage of training reinforces (i.e. strengthens) the behaviour that has just occurred.  You’re improving your dog’s fluency at each step, because of continuous repetition.


Here is a basic overview of one of the most reliable nose work training strategies to date, and why it’s worth following!


Nosework Strategy: Back-chaining, without food-scent pairing


Stage 1: The Indication


Understandably, most people want to get their dog out and searching as soon as possible. As a result, teaching the indication (the behaviour your dog offers to show you that they’ve found the source scent) is often done last or overlooked altogether. 


However, the indication is arguably the most essential step to get right.  We’re going to teach the indication first, employing the method of back-chaining.


Teaching the last behaviour in the chain (indicating) first, strengthens the indication behaviour, which means that your dog will be able to indicate faster, more accurately, more reliably, and with less false positives (indicating when the source scent isn’t present).


Stage 2: Distinguishing between different scents


Once you’ve solidified the indication, you can begin to introduce decoys. In this stage, you present your dog with an object that is visually identical to the one you initially trained on, however this time the target scent will be missing. You reinforce your dog only for indicating on the correct scent to ensure he doesn’t just think this game is about finding a tin/box.  This is where your dog learns to rely on what his nose is telling him, rather than his eyes.


Stage 3: The Search


Stage 3 puts it all together.  At this step, you can send your dog on basic searches, and watch the beautiful behaviour chain in action from start to finish.  Then you can expand on the basic behaviour by increasing complexity and distractions, so that he can perform solidly regardless of circumstances.


Nosework training - what you need:


A target scent - when picking a target scent, avoid choosing a scent that your dog will be encountering often, like herbs or spices that you regularly use in cooking.  This is essential, as you want your dog to associate the scent with precise indicating behaviours, and subsequent reinforcement.  Kong Catnip and Napier Gun Oil are popular training scents in the UK.  You could also use a tea bag but I do recommend Kong Catnip as this is something unique that’s easy to work with.  If you use an oil, put some Q-tips in a jar overnight, with a few drops of the oil on a cotton bud inside.  (Oil placed directly on the Q-tip would be far too powerful).  Use gloves where necessary and ensure the Q-tips never fall on the ground, or touch anything nearby. 


A Pavlov’s Breakfast Jar – say what?!!  Just a glass storage jar containing the target scent and something scent absorbent that you dog can sniff – see Exercise 9.1 below.


A couple of small metal tins (one will always be used with your chosen scent – aka HOT.  The other should never be used with your chosen scent and will act as a decoy – aka COLD.)


An airtight Tupperware box to store your HOT tin in.  You have to be very careful not to inadvertently contaminate items in the house with the target scent so always keep the scented items in airtight boxes and preferably in the garage so they are well away from the home.  If you accidentally contaminate something with the target scent it can linger for months and confuse your dog.   While you may not smell it, the lingering scent can cause your dog to alert or indicate without reward, which will weaken the behaviours we’re trying to teach.


High value treats


A number of containers with holes, to place your hot tin into at a later stage.  These are ideal: https://amzn.to/3aypos6


A clicker, or marker word to let your dog know the exact moment they’ve done something right


You can purchase Nosework starter kits on scentdog.co.uk or buy the items separately on Amazon.


Let's get started with the first exercise!


Exercise 9.1 - Pavlov's Breakfast

Pavlov’s Breakfast is a nosework term used to describe ‘conditioning a positive emotional response’ to a target scent.  In other words - we want our dogs to recognise the scent then correctly predict that something great is going to happen…


This Rapid Reinforcement game is all about prompt, accurately timed, continual reinforcement!


Present your jar, with the target scent inside, on the ground and quickly feed your dog one piece of food at a time continuously!


You can place the jar next to your dog’s food bowl when you feed and also present the jar before going for a walk or getting a ball.  If you present the scent before everything great in your dog’s life, then pretty soon he or she is going to be super keen to hunt out that scent!


Stay tuned for Exercise 9.2 next time when we start teaching the indication (how your dog will let you know when he’s detected the target scent).