Training Your Dog For Scent Work

October 27th, 2008

Irrespective of size and breed, your dogs nose is capable of amazing feats of discrimination and detection, putting our own olfactory abilities to shame. Dog trainer Karin Larsen Bridge from Get S.M.A.R.T Dogs shows you how to use your dogs scenting abilities to play games, find lost items or perform life-saving work.


A dogs sense of smell is 10,000 to 100,000 times stronger than our own, and can easily differentiate between hundreds of individual smells in much the same way that we can visually identify hundreds of items on a tray.


The dogs olfactory abilities have been used to detect just about everything, from gas leaks, termites, drugs, explosives and cancers, to people lost in earthquakes, avalanches, the wilderness and even underwater.

The most important thing to realise with scent work is that your dog already knows how to do it. All you need to do is work out a communication system whereby your dog does the work and you both reap the benefits.

To succeed, your dog needs to understand three things:

1.       Which scent you want him to detect.

2.       How to alert you when hes found it (sitting, barking or retrieving).

3.       What hes going to get when he finds it. Most dogs love to use their nose, and the main reward will be finding the scent, article or person. Nevertheless, to keep your dog keen and motivated, a game of tug or a couple of food treats provide extra incentive.

Scent Games

There are a variety of ways in which you can use your dogs amazing scenting abilities to play games, find things or perform life-saving work. Training scent work should always be fun, with lots of positive reinforcement for finding the right things.


Punishment should never be used, as the dog will quickly become confused and de-motivated. If at first your dog seems to make mistakes, just take your time, make the job a little easier and try again.


1. Find the scent that smells like me

Its easy for your dog to identify your scent on an object. The more recently you have touched the object, the hotter your scent will be. Your job is to teach your dog that he will be rewarded for choosing an object with your scent on it over an object without your scent.


Wearing gloves or using tongs, lay a few unscented articles, such as wooden dowels, on the ground close to one another. To help your dog, make sure the articles are of equal value – in other words, don’t try and get your dog to retrieve something he doesn’t like (for example, a scented metal spoon in preference to an unscented rope tug). If all the toys are equally liked, your dog will be happy to choose the scented one.

Take one article and throw it a few times in the opposite direction, allowing your dog to scent it by retrieving and returning it to you. Next, face the articles and throw the scented dowel a little to the side of the group before sending your dog to get it. Praise and reward as he returns.

The next step is to throw the same dowel into the pile of unscented or cold articles. If he picks up and returns the scented dowel, praise lavishly; if not, quietly take the wrong one and send him again. Soon your dog will realise that only the dowel with the recent or hot scent leads to rewards.

This exercise is often most difficult with dogs who are mad about retrieving and want to pick up everything at once. For these dogs, you may prefer to start by showing your dog just two objects one with your scent on it and one without. If your dog goes to take the scented object, praise and reward him. If he chooses the unscented one, say nothing, pause and try again. Next, put the articles on the ground and ask your dog to find it again, praise and reward for the right article, while ignoring any mistakes.

Once your dog understands the game, don’t allow him to watch as you place the scented article in the pile, ensuring he is using scent alone to find the correct article. Eventually, your dog will be able to find your hot scent among a hundred or more objects.


2. Hide and Seek

This is a great way to expend lots of mental and physical energy indoors or out. You can hide food treats, favourite toys or even people.


Start with a yummy treat or favourite toy. Show it to your dog and tell him to sit and stay (or get someone to hold him). Hide the object somewhere simple, such as under a pillow or behind a table leg. At this point, your dog is allowed to watch. Go back to your dog and release him in an excited voice with a cue like Find it. Your dog will race to your hiding spot, feeling very clever, and be rewarded with his find. Repeat several times, hiding the treat in different places.

Next, remove your dog from the room while you hide the treat in one of the places you used before. Bring him in and tell him to find it. Your dog will rush around looking for the treat. Depending on how smell orientated your dog is, he may first look in the previous spots, but soon hell realise that the quickest way to get the goods is literally to follow his nose.

There are lots of variations to this game. If you prefer, you can hide multiple treats, then allow your dog into the room while you encourage him to find them all. Your dog may spend quite a lot of time double-checking that he hasnt missed any with this one. If you hide a toy or a person, reward your dog with a little treat or short game.


3. Search and you will find

A combination of the first two games, this search will teach your dog to find any article with human scent in a given outdoor area very useful the next time you lose your keys or mobile phone.


Start as before by playing retrieve with a favourite toy. Hold your dog by the collar, throw the toy into some long grass, then quickly send him after it. Keep the game fun and exciting with lots of rewards and activity. On a still day, it doesn’t matter which direction you throw the toy, but on a windy day, throw it into the wind so the scent of the article is blown towards the dog. 

The next step is to reduce your dogs visual cue. Throw the toy while holding the collar, then turn your dog in a circle once before sending him to retrieve it. For the next few throws, vary the turn of the circle so the dog is not facing directly in the direction where the toy was thrown this will encourage your dog to use his nose to find the toy.

The final step is to prevent your dog seeing you throw the toy at all. Take the dog downwind from the toy before sending him. In the early stages, you can use praise to let the dog know hes getting warmer, and always praise lavishly upon return with the article.


4. Tracking competitions

If you think watching your dog do what comes naturally in the rugged outdoors would appeal to you, consider taking up tracking. This sport is enjoyed by dogs of all breeds and sizes as they follow a scent trail to earn a reward.


It is believed that dogs do not actually track human scent on the ground, but rather the disturbances to the ground that occur when a person walks over it. The scent is also affected by the type of ground cover, the altitude, the age of the track and most notably the weather conditions, with damp, still conditions holding scent far better than dry, windy conditions. 

Training for tracking

You will need a tracking harness, a 10-metre lead, some track markers and a reward, such as a toy or container of food, to mark the end of the track. Start by having someone your dog knows hold it walk about 20 feet away and vaguely hide behind a bush. Let your friend encourage your dog to find you and give a reward. 


Next, let your partner hide about the same distance away. Reward with both the finding of the person and a game or food treat. Continue to use someone your dog likes while slowly increasing the distance. Some dogs will track just for a toy or food reward, while others are really motivated by finding an actual person. 

Tracking competition

Tracking is run under the auspices of the Australian National Kennel Council. For a club near you, go to, and for clubs in New Zealand, go to to get in touch with the New Zealand Kennel Council.


Tracking titles are awarded to dogs and handlers who successfully complete six increasingly difficult test tracks. In all but the first level, the dog must track an unknown person. 

The length of the track increases from 800 to 1200 metres, as does the number of turns, the angle of the turns and the age of the track up to three hours. Decoys are added to the more advanced tracks by having a known person cross the track once or twice after it is set. Natural unplanned decoys also occur, such as rabbits, kangaroos and horses capable of distracting all but the most focused trackers.

Dogs are required to follow the track precisely cutting across country, even if the person is found, is not permitted. Some dogs keep their nose low to the ground, while others hold their head higher, sniffing the air and vegetation above the ground and crossing the track laterally (known as quartering) many times. Provided the dog is continually following the scent, these variations in tracking style are permissible. Titles gained are Tracking Dog, Tracking Dog Excellent and Tracking Champion. 

The most important thing for handlers to learn is how to read their dogs to know when they are on track, searching for the track or off track. The novice handlers most common mistake is not to trust their dog. After all, when it comes to tracking, your dog usually nose best.

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