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Solving common behaviour problems using scentwork

Are you ever amazed by how much your dog sniffs? They experience the world in a way which we could never understand, our sense of smell is terribly poor in comparison to our dogs’. When your dog spends what feels like hours intently sniffing one small area of grass, it’s easy to wonder what on earth they’re finding so enthralling. For them, that small area is full of information to process and investigate.

Sniffing is one of life’s great pleasures for many of our dogs, it’s something they love to do, and it keeps them endlessly occupied. It’s hardly surprising that channelling this instinct into an activity can do them the world of good.

What is scentwork?

Scentwork is about harnessing the natural power of your dog's nose to search and find a scent.

All dogs love scentwork and all breeds can do it. It's one of the most easily accessible dog sports and you can do it anywhere!

Your dog can be trained to:

  • Search and indicate on a specific scent

  • Follow your track and find dropped items on walks such as keys or your phone

  • Search for toys hidden on walks

  • Sniff out treats hidden or scattered

  • Search for people (like hide and seek)

How you use scentwork is entirely up to you, that’s the great thing, it’s as easy and simple as you’d like it to be. If you decide to take it to the next level then there’s endless options for teaching specific scents and indications to your dog.

What are the benefits?

The biggest benefit of scentwork is that it can be an effective way to tire your dog without increasing their arousal levels (i.e. stress levels).

For dogs who are easily excited, frustrated, or nervous, it can be hard to find activities they can enjoy without having a detrimental effect on their behaviour.

Going for walks can cause a lot of stress or over-excitement at times, so having alternative activities or calming games to play during walks can make a huge difference.

It's perfect for

  • Puppies

  • Excitable dogs

  • Reactive dogs

  • Nervous dogs

  • Senior dogs

  • Dogs on crate rest or lead only walks

Scent detection has many benefits for dogs and their owners including:

  • Building a stronger bond between dog and owner

  • Great for boosting confidence for nervous dogs

  • Provides mental stimulation

  • Lowers stress levels

  • Promotes calmness and focus

  • It's a low impact, physical workout for your dog

Scientific research tells us that the act of sniffing actually helps lower a dogs’ pulse rate and impacts their nervous system in a way that helps them relax.

The activity of scentwork activates the seeking system, this releases dopamine which can reduce anxiety and stress levels.

Dopamine release is also linked to increased feelings of motivation and reward, increased attention levels and enhanced memory.

Another study also found that scentwork activities can increase a dogs’ optimism and lead to a more positive emotional state (See “Let me sniff …” Duraton & Horowitz, 2019). What benefits might these have to your dog?

Lack of Focus

Scentwork can be a great way to build more focus from your dog. If you have a dog who is easily distracted by the environment around them or struggles to stay focused on you, it can be a good way to start teaching more consistent focus.

Since dogs love to sniff, channelling their energy into this activity is not only fun for them but also helps them connect better with you. It’s a relatively simple activity to teach, you can certainly make it more complex, but the initial starting point is easy for all dogs to grasp.

Remember, the dopamine release from searching for a scent will increase your dogs’ motivation and attention levels. This means when your dog is having a hard time listening or focusing on you, getting them to simply search for a scent, item, or food is an effective way to get their brain thinking more productively. In this sense, it can be pressure-free and fun … the perfect way to engage a distracted dog!


With a dog who loves to spend their walks trying to hunt and chase wildlife, it can be hard to find ways to keep their attention and teach them to enjoy walks in other ways.

By playing some simple hunting games on your walks, you can re-direct predatory urges and give your dog a safe and controlled outlet for their instinctual desire to hunt.

You can train your dog to perform safe parts of the predatory sequence instead of the unsafe part, i.e chasing wildlife.

Searching for hidden treats for example covers the first and last part of your dogs predatory sequence (searching and consuming) and both are linked to low arousal, so they're a great way to calm your dog down at the start of a walk, after stressful events or between high arousal games

Teaching your dog to backtrack and search for dropped items on walks is the perfect game for dogs who like to chase, grab and possess. If you ask them to find a toy stuffed with treats like a lotus ball, your dog can eat when they find the toy, which means you'll satisfy the the final part of the prey sequence (consuming). This will in turn lead to the release of endorphins which will calm your dog down.

When your dog is 'hunting', hormones are released into your dog's body, filling them with adrenaline and dopamine. The thinking part of their brain is disengaged and their primal brain has taken over. So your dog will find it harder to listen and respond to you. This is why your dog might hold onto their toy a little longer after retrieving it or why they might parade around with it.


Scentwork helps to lower arousal and stress levels in many dogs, the act of sniffing is a relatively calm behaviour which doesn’t lead to increased stress. For dogs who find certain situations stressful, frustrating, or scary, scentwork can give them a different focus and reinforces a calmer mindset.

Learning is also a great confidence builder, as is the success of an activity (who doesn’t love to feel like they’ve achieved something good!).

Scentwork acts on both these events, firstly learning how to find a specific scent or item is rewarding and confidence building for a dog.

Secondly, successfully finding the scent or item is a huge reinforcement and achievement.

Reactive dogs often struggle to control their emotions and think calmly, scentwork is a good way to keep them in a thinking mindset or bring them back into a calmer state after a reaction.

Used in the right way, preferably with the guidance of a knowledgeable trainer, scentwork can be used to build more positive associations with things which trigger your dog to react. For example, if your dog is nervous of people or dogs, scentwork activities could be played at a safe distance from these triggers, allowing your dog to have positive exposure to these scary things and gradually build their confidence and control.

Nervous Dogs

A great benefit of scentwork is the confidence boost it can give many dogs. Not only from the positive experience of learning and succeeding, but also from the familiarity of the activity and the positive association it comes with.

If you have a dog who lacks confidence in different situations, whether that’s anxiety of travelling in a car, nervousness near traffic, or being easily overwhelmed in an unfamiliar environment, scentwork can be really beneficial.

Once you’ve taught the skills at home and in relaxed environments, you could take these skills and apply them in places where your dog is less confident.

For example, getting them to search the inside of a car, playing scentwork at a comfortable distance from traffic, or starting a walk in a new place with a few minutes of scentwork.

Puppies and adolescents

Puppies and adolescent dogs can feel endlessly energetic at times, it’s as though we can’t keep up with them or give them enough activity to keep them busy. While we must remember this sense of needing constant activity can actually be a sign your dog needs more sleep, it’s also important to find ways to channel their activity needs productively.

Scentwork can provide physical and mental stimulation in a low impact form of exercise, so for young puppies or dogs on restricted exercise, it’s an ideal way to meet their needs without an energetic activity.

You can also do very short sessions of scentwork and find your dog is tired from it, so it’s the perfect activity to fit into your day for 5 minutes!

For puppies and young dogs, scentwork can provide a great way to positively expose them to different environments, for example, searching for a scent across different items and surfaces, or using scentwork to help them adjust to a new outside environment.

All in all, scentwork is an easily accessible activity which all dogs can excel at. Whether you want to teach your dog to search for a specific scent, or just want them to sniff out hidden treats or toys, there are proven benefits to health and wellbeing when we harness our dogs natural sniffing abilities.

Wrriten by Naomi White

Do you want to give scentwork a go with your dog?

Try our Online Academy to access scentwork training, tracking games, hunting games, hide and seek and scented items finds! There's a 2 week free trial, so give it a go!

We also run UK Sniffer Dog Classes in Guildford and Medical Detection Workshops

If you want to train your dog to detect a medical event, join the online Assistance Dog Programme to follow step by step tutorials from home.

Or you can find a UK Sniffer Dogs Instructor anywhere in the country

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