Hands up anyone who has ever stood in the pouring rain, feeling slightly guilty for sighing as your dog sniffs every lamp post on your walk, wondering why they feel the need to sniff every blade of grass when you could both be snug indoors? Or why they feel the need to investigate things with their nose that there is no way you would consider appropriate for sniffing, like dead things and other dogs’ back ends?
Scent is a very different thing to a dog than to a human. We know it is important to them – we can see it and we all talk about taking our dogs out to check their “peemails”, but do we really appreciate just how important it is to them?
Scent: your dog’s secret superpower
Scent plays a huge part in your dog’s life. 41% of your dog’s brain is given over to scent/scenting/everything to do with scent. They use it for all aspects of life.
- learning about each other
- finding out who/what is in the area
- finding out what is going on in the world
- finding food
- finding their family
- finding a mate
With scent playing such a massive part of dogs’ understanding of the world, it is no wonder their nose is their go-to piece of kit. We humans are far more visual creatures and sometimes that can cause difficulty as we attempt to communicate with our dogs.
Speaking your dog’s language
Because scent just isn’t as important to us as humans, we neglect its importance to our dogs and that can lead to real communication issues – like we are speaking a different language. Recognise that scent is your dog’s secret superpower and learn how to harness it and you will massively improve your ability to communicate with and work with your dog.
Scent games harness that power to benefit everyday life. Scent can switch a dog from a fear headspace to a headspace of seeking out reward. Scent work gives your dog a job and builds their confidence as they increase their skills and work for reward.
We often spend a huge amount of time trying to stop our dogs doing what they naturally love to do and managing it. Scent work allows you to work with your dog’s natural instincts and to use them to transform your training and your dog’s experience of everyday life. You make yourself part of that experience rather than trying to avoid it and that pays massively into your Relationship Bank Account.
What kind of dog will scent work benefit?
All dogs have the ability to use their noses. Some, such as sighthounds and herding breeds, might initially prefer to use their eyes, but they will ultimately use their noses to find what they are after.
Some breeds are stronger in scent due to breeding and their nose will always be the first thing they go to. Some dogs just naturally love to use their noses and will revel in scent work.
Scent work is also particularly good for Naughty But Nice dogs, dogs who are shy, and dogs who have confidence issues. Tapping into that ability that comes to dogs naturally allows them to achieve quickly and easily, growing their skills, increasing their optimism, and building their confidence.
“But I don’t want to teach my dog to sniff!”
What if you already have a sniffy dog? If your dog’s nose is constantly on the ground and you find it difficult enough to register as part of their life when they are busy sniffing, it could be tempting to dismiss scent work as the very last thing you would want to teach your dog.
But here’s the thing: your dog is going to do it anyway.
You have a dog who is exceptionally nose driven. You can either choose to work with that – and celebrate it for the bonus that is undoubtedly is – or you can spend your time fighting it and trying to manage it. Very often, we see people choose the latter, simply because they do not appreciate how playing scent games could turn that struggle into a massive strength.
By playing scent games, you will be channeling that energy into something your dog loves and putting that to good use. You will be using your dog’s natural talent more effectively and – and this is really cool bit – putting it on cue so your dog will use it more efficiently. Suddenly, working with you is way more exciting than sniffing the ground. You become the centre of your dog’s universe and you do together the thing that they love to do most – how cool is that?
Getting started: foundation games for scent work success
So how can we get started in scent work?
Here are two cool games you can play to prepare your dog for scent work:
Game 1: Tell me when you’ve found something
In this game, you are going to work on the position that your dog will use to indicate to you that they have found the scent.
Pick your dog’s best static position. Down works really well for this, but sit is also an option. Stand works too but sometimes it can be difficult to be sure that your dog is indicating and not simply pausing before resuming their search.
We are going to go back to basics and really power up that position. It has to be rock solid for scent success.
For the down, you want a nice drop down where your dog folds backwards into the position, bending their elbows and lowering their bum to the floor, rather than sliding out their front legs to go into the down.
Once your dog is in position, reward by placing a piece of food on the floor between their front paws. Don’t feed from your hand as you don’t want your hands to be part of the picture as you go forward to scent work.
Feed them in position to build duration, then gradually lessen the rate of reward while they continue to hold the position.
Add a release cue so they know when it is time to move.
A speedy and reliable down is a super handy life skill to have. It is one of those exercises that it is easy to think “oh, we’ve got this” but is often not as reliable or as speedy as it could be, so it is great to go back to basics on this and really polish it up.
Game 2: Love your harness
How often we see harnesses being placed on dogs who are backing up and clearly enduring having it put on, rather than actively seeking to get into the harness. This is due to poorly conditioning the harness. You know that putting your dog’s harness on means awesome things are going to happen, but your dog doesn’t. Your dog has to place its head into a small space, then have something odd feeling and close fitting wrap around its body. How cool would you be with that?
Harnesses are great. We recommend them at absoluteDogs for all aspects of life. They play a key role in scent work so it is important to make sure your dog sees their harness as something to be excited about.
So how do we condition a harness. Well, as ever, “THERE”S A GAME FOR THAT!”
I love my harness game!
Hold your dog’s harness in a U shape. Reward any interest in/movement towards the harness. If your dog puts their head over the harness, mark and reward.
Once your dog is happy with that, hold the harness so the neck piece is open. Again reward any interaction with the harness until your dog is confidently placing their head through the neck piece. Reward just beyond the harness to keep the momentum of your dog putting their head through the harness (i.e. while the harness is around the dog’s neck) – this will encourage them to keep coming forward and not back off.
Build up until you can clip the harness on. Your dog will soon be running to get into harness.
Once the harness is clipped and secure, do something fun with your dog. Scatter feed or do some moves that your dog finds fun such as Twist or Pretty. You want your dog to associate getting their harness on with great things happening.
Unleash your dog’s superpower
Scent work rocks. It harnesses your dog’s natural ability, channels their enthusiasm and energy, builds their confidence and gets you involved with the thing they love to do most in the world. Scent games really are the key to communicating with your dog and pay hugely into your Relationship Bank Account.