Looking For An Easy Way To Make Your Dog Happier? These Nosework Games Are Perfect For Dogs Of Any Size, Age Or Breed
Sometimes we learn something that, once we know it, it seems so obvious we wonder why we hadn’t realised it before. Understanding how important sniffing is to a dog has led me to provide many more nosework activities for my dogs.
As well as changing how I approach the daily dog walk, my dogs get to play nosework games at home too. Many enrichment games for dogs include fantastic opportunities for sniffing.
What is nosework for dogs?
Nosework allows your dog to indulge in and enjoy one of his natural instincts – hunting for things.
For a pet dog, nosework involves hiding things that we want our dog to search for. These could be hidden treats, toys, or scents. The dog then uses its nose to find the hidden thing.
Put like that, it sounds rather unimportant, but in fact, this one simple activity has the power to make our dogs happier and healthier. Put short: they need to sniff.
Is is good for dogs to sniff?
Not only is it enjoyable, sniffing has multiple health benefits for dogs – both mental and physical.
In a recent study, dogs that regularly took part in nosework activities were found to be more optimistic than a control group of dogs that did heelwork, rather than nosework, activities. The study concluded that:
By allowing dogs more “foraging” time, their welfare is improved.
In the study, they concluded that the dogs that did some nosework every day for 2 weeks were happier and less stressed.
The benefits of nosework for dogs
Playing a fun nosework game with your dog is great for bonding. As well as spending quality time with your pooch, you’ll be keeping her busy with an activity that is both physically and mentally satisfying. Bored dogs are destructive dogs!
Using her nose to solve cognitive problems will provide excellent mental stimulation. Dogs that are busy sniffing – a workout for their minds and their bodies – can be more grounded too.
Nosework can be useful when trying to address behaviour issues, such as reactivity, hyperactivity and distraction. If a dog can focus on sniffing and scent detection, it can help her learn to tolerate other dogs or distractions in her vicinity.
And of course, for any dog that has limited mobility, such as older dogs or post-op patients, nose work can provide a fantastic opportunity for taking part in normal doggy behaviour without having to run the risk of over-exertion.
This means that nosework is appropriate for any breed, size, condition or age of dog.
In addition, all that hard work sniffing will tire your dog out just as much as a walk would.
How to teach your dog scentwork / nosework at home
Start with high value treats or toys. If your dog goes nuts over cheese, use cheese – in other words, use his favourite treats or toys when you first begin (obviously you won’t be using any food that is not dog-safe).
When you teach any new behaviour, it’s usually best to teach it first at home, or in some other familiar and quiet environment. The same is true for nosework. We can’t expect our dogs to pay attention to us as much if we are in the middle of a busy park, trying to teach a new activity. Practice first at home and then as you and your dog get better at it, you can take it on the road if you want to!
If you don’t already play any nosework games, start simple:
Hide in hand
Hide a treat in one hand, and nothing in the other. Make a fist with your hands and present them to your dog. You might want to wear gloves to play this game, depending on how enthusiastic your dog is to get to the treat (talking from experience here!).
Your dog might indicate where the food is by nudging, pawing, sniffing or outright chomping your hand off! You can encourage the behaviour you want by releasing the treat when your dog does what you’re looking for.
You may need to help your pup out to begin with. If she doesn’t indicate where the treat is, try opening your fists up so she can see the treat. Once she makes a clear indication, give her the treat. Bear in mind that this might be nothing more than staring at the correct hand.
I play this game with my oldest dog as his mobility is now very reduced, and it’s perfect for dogs that can’t move around much like him. He struggles to paw at my hand any more, so I have to be more attentive to his signals.
It’s best to begin with a very smelly treat, to help your dog learn how to play. Each dog has its favourite treats, but both of my pooches go nuts for liver treats and this is my go-to, high value treat – see how to prepare them here.
Hide and seek
Hide and seek is so versatile. You can make it as easy – or challenging – as you like. You can do it at home, in the park, in the garden, when you’re visiting friends or family…
Step 1. So, with a nice pile of tasty treats or favourite toys, choose a place to practise (I like to use the lounge – it has lots of places to hide treats). Get your dog to wait, within view, while you ‘hide’ some treats around the room.
Use a marker word. I use the command ‘Find!’ to tell my dogs that they can go and get the treats. I think ‘Find!’ is now one of their favourite words (up there with Walkies! and Treats!). They shoot off and hunt for the treats.
Note: I can do this activity with my 2 dogs together because there is no risk of them fighting over the treats, but you might prefer to do this with one dog at a time if you have more than one dog and there may be a slight chance of food aggression.
Step 2: Make it slightly harder by tucking treats under the edges of rugs, under cushions, or in places that are just above their line of sight – I like to pop a treat on top of door handles. Clearly this won’t work if you have a chihuahua, unless she’s a fantastic jumper!
Step 3: Make it even more challenging by hiding the treats when they can’t see you – I just shut the lounge door with them on the other side.
You are gradually making the hunting process a little more challenging. This will keep it entertaining and also help your dog hone her sniffing and tracking skills. My dogs are so used to this game now that I can hide treats all around the house and it turns into a marathon sniff-fest for them to find all the treats. It keeps them occupied for ages, and they love it.
Hidden treats / toys within containers
Once your dog is easily finding treats, take it up another level. Still in the same room, make it a little harder to find the treats. You can pop a treat in an old loo roll and fold over the ends. Leave some empty. Put a treat inside small boxes. Put them at different heights in the room. The possibilities are endless.
Here’s a short clip of Toxa looking for treats inside loo rolls. I left some empty (I marked those with an X just so I could see her progress). This was the first time she’d played the game with loo rolls, though she plays some form or other of hide and seek at least once a week.
You can continue to increase the challenge by hiding the treat better, making it a smaller piece of food… or, move on to proper dog scent training.
How do I start my dog with nosework training at home?
If you want to take part in nosework competitions, you’ll need your dog to indicate where the ‘scent’ (treat) is when she finds it. So, rather than just hide treats and let your dog loose to find them all as per the games above, add on another step to encourage your dog to wait for you.
Hide the treats as you did before, but this time, when your dog finds a treat, give her another treat straight away as a reward. Then give her the “Find” command (or whatever word you choose) for her to move on to look for the next treat. Again, give her another treat as soon as she finds the treat.
Dog scent training
There are more and more groups being established to practice a more refined version of nosework – something more like the activities of sniffer dogs that are trained to locate a particular scent. These groups organise training and competitive events.
Here is a video by Scentwork UK to show you how to get your dog started looking for a particular scent.
UK Sniffer Dogs offer online courses, including a free beginner course with 5 scent exercises to try with your dog.
It’s incredible to think that, with the right training, dogs can sniff out not just drugs, but illnesses – they have been found to correctly identify people with Coronavirus in a recent study. Isn’t that fantastic?
Nosework for dogs it is a valuable activity for mental and physical stimulation, not to mention it lets them do what dogs do best: sniff.
These fun, dog nosework games can lead to more focussed scent training and competitions for your dog. It is a growing activity, with more and more nose work events being organised.
However, if all you want to do is play regular games of hide and seek, you are already offering your dog many of the benefits of nose work.
C. Duranton, A. Horowitz, (2019), Let me sniff! Nosework induces positive judgment bias in pet dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 211 (61-66).