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8 Scent Activities Your Dog Will Adore

8 Scent Activities Your Dog Will Adore

Dogs have super sniffers so powerful that they can locate things that “mere humans” cannot. There is nothing quite like a dog’s nose! Dogs are utilized for scent work in a variety of fields. They sniff out bombs and drugs, buried truffles, and find lost hikers. They can even alert humans to high or low glucose levels, diseases, or the presence of allergens in foods. This ability is pretty amazing and is one of the many reasons dogs make such great service animals! Their senses extend beyond our own and help us, humans, in so many ways.

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The Science Behind Your Dog's Sniffer

Newborn puppies are nearly blind at the time of birth. However, their sense of smell is fully developed. Dogs’ sense of smell is their most important but often overlooked by their humans. We hurry them along on walks to get back to our to-do list or discourage them from sniffing around in the grass because they are taking too long to do their business. While we focus on the visual aspects of things, our dogs focus on all the smells around them. They can smell what the neighbors are cooking for dinner, which pesky squirrel walked by the house when they weren’t looking, and if the dog next door has stopped by recently. We may see the sniffing as inconsequential, but it is a significant way dogs interact with the world around them.

8 Scent Activities Your Dog Will Adore

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Sniff-tastic Dog Facts

There is a lot of smell power behind the nose of a dog! This enables them to locate items, perform rescue missions, or know of oncoming medical needs to alert their handler.

  • Humans have about 6 million olfactory receptors, but experts say dog noses have up to 300 million olfactory receptors.

  • A dog’s sense of smell is 10,000 to 100,000 times stronger than humans.

  • The part of the brain that analyzes smells in dogs is 40 times larger than in humans.

Most domestic dogs today are a little rusty since they no longer rely on their noses to survive. The good news for you and your dog is that, with some planning and patience, you can add fun scent games into your dog’s regular routines to help harness his untapped sense of smell and sharpen his sniffing skills.

Fun Scent Games Your Dog Will Adore

Scent games provide mental stimulation and are also confidence-building and fun for dogs. These scent work games or nose work games are a great way to connect with your dog in a way he naturally enjoys! You may feel like you’re just playing games, but your dog will see this type of activity as a sign of affection. What you’re actually communicating is a big ‘I Love You’ in dog language!

8 Scent Activities Your Dog Will Adore

1. Locate The Treat

This is a simple game for engaging your dog’s sense of smell, and it’s really easy to do.

How to Play: Place treats randomly around your home for your dog to locate by smell. When your dog finds the first treat, he’ll realize there may be others, and it will activate his sniffer. While your dog is in another room, place one or two treats in a very visible spot in the middle of the room. Then call him in. He will spot the treats, gobble them up, and look for more!

Keep playing over a few days. Changing where you hide the treats makes the game progressively more challenging. Hide them in less obvious locations, put them in another room, and let your dog hunt for them on his own. Change where and how often you give treats. Some days hide one treat, others hide two treats, and so on.

Once he catches on, change it up. Instead of individual treats, hide a treat dispenser toy with a few goodies inside. Then, let him find the hidden goodies by himself. Keep repeating this process until your dog begins to locate the treats by scent instead of visually.

You don’t have to limit this to just your home; you can take the game outdoors or try it in your car or at a friend’s house. Keep it fresh and fun for your pet, and help them maintain a routine of regular physical exercise while participating in a fun and rewarding activity.

2. Which Hand?

This is a fun game for dogs that will test their skill. You can play this game anywhere.

How to Play: This game incorporates positive reinforcement by treating your pup when he locates the treat hidden in your hand. Before you begin, get some small, tasty treats that will fit into the palm of your hand. Choose items with a more pungent smell, like meat or cheese over kibble.

To start, put a treat into the middle of your palm and make a loose fist, palm-down. Once your dog sits in front of you, offer him that fist for a quick sniff. While he sniffs, say, “Find it!” Once he has smelled it, open your hand and offer the treat, praising him and repeating the phrase again, “Good. Find it!” Do this a few more times.

Then, add your other empty fist into the mix. Without your dog seeing it, place a treat into one hand. Next, with a treat tucked into one fist, move your hands back and forth. Offer both to him saying, “Find it!” When he sniffs at the treat hand, say, “Good find it!” and open your hand to dispense the treat. Continue to repeat this. Alternate which hand you place the treat in. Continue until you see his nose “alert” to the treat before opening your hand to give him the treat.

The goal is to teach your dog that the location of a treat can vary and can only be found by scenting it out. You can add a level of complexity by recruiting a friend to help. Add their two fists into the game to make it more challenging.

8 Scent Activities Your Dog Will Adore

3. The Cup Game

This is a different, more complex version of the “Which Hand” game.

How to Play: You will need four coffee cup-sized cups. Choose cups that cannot be broken easily. A sturdy plastic cup works well for this game. While your dog watches, place a treat under one of the cups, then move the cup back and forth. Pause and say, “Find it!”. When your dog sniffs the cup, lift it and say, “Good. Find it!” as you treat him. Your dog may knock the cup over as he alerts you, and that’s okay.

Add a second cup, but only use one treat. Place the treat under a cup and move the cups back and forth, mixing it up. Give the command “Find it!” and let him sniff each cup. Wait until he sniffs the right cup and then offer praise and give your dog the treat inside. Repeat this until he consistently picks the right cup. Then add the third cup, and repeat until he gets it on the first try every time. Then add the fourth cup. Each cup you add brings a new level of challenge and causes your dog to really use his nose to locate the treats.

4. New Animal Scenting

This is an outdoor game designed to highlight the senses of high-energy breeds. This game will test their scenting ability to see if they pick up on the scent of a new animal. You definitely want to play this outdoors as dogs will urinate over another animal’s scent as their way of claiming the territory.

How to Play: Have a friend take an old towel and rub it all over their dog or cat. You don’t have to use urine for this game, but if they can also get a drop of urine on the towel, it adds a strong scent that your dog will identify much quicker.

Then, while your dog is inside, place the cloth out of sight in the yard. You can put it under a bush or hide it behind a tree. Let your dog out and see what he does! If your dog enjoys this game, you keep them guessing with the scent of different animals; a dog, cat, hamster, horse, whatever you can find.

8 Scent Activities Your Dog Will Adore

5. Classic Hide & Seek

Here’s a simple game that will test all of your best hiding spots and uses you, the pet parent, as the reward!

How to Play: While your dog is distracted, hide somewhere he wouldn’t normally expect you to be (a closet, behind a piece of furniture, in the shower, etc. Then wait for him to find you. Once he finds you, praise and reward him with a special treat! If you are behind a closed door and you hear sniffing at the door, you’ll know he’s searching for you.

Increase the difficulty by taking this game outdoors to a dog-friendly area where your dog can be off-leash. It should be somewhere with no one else around. You will need another friend to hold your dog, then hide out of sight. Have your friend wait for 30 seconds, then say, “Where’s _________, (your name)?” and release your dog to search for you. Trust me, he’ll come looking – you’re his source of food and tasty treats! Once he finds you, reward him with a high-value treat! Increase your distance over time until he can find you no matter how far away you are. Be sure to give lots of belly rubs and tasty treats for this one!

6. Where's Dinner?

Domesticated dogs enjoy the luxury of knowing that they will find their meal in the same spot, often at the same time, every day.

How to Play: Move the location of your dog’s food bowl, so he has to track it down. He’ll be motivated to find it quickly! Try placing it in the next room. The next day, hide the bowl somewhere else in your home and call him to get dinner. It will take him longer, but he will find it and wolf it down.

Once you’ve established this as a game, continue to change up the location of your dog’s bowl once or twice a week to keep him engaged and actively utilizing his scenting skills.

8 Scent Activities Your Dog Will Adore

7. Follow the Trail

Dogs are interested in more than food and treats. Plenty of other unique scents can be a big motivator for dogs that will awaken their tracking instincts.

How to Play: Create a scented ball using a tennis ball or other favorite toy. Add a few drops of a pet-approved essential oil onto it. Play a game of fetch indoors, followed by a reward. Repeat this several times a day.

On the second day, while your dog is out of sight, hide the same toy, then make a trail 20 feet away by placing tiny pieces of paper with the oil onto the floor. Bring your dog into the room where the trail begins and give the command “Find your ball!” Most dogs will scent out the pieces of paper, then connect that smell with the ball. Continue working at it, and praise him when he follows the trail.

At first, you may need to start by showing the dog the first piece of paper. When your dog finds the ball, reward him! Gradually reduce the number of scented papers until he can find the scented ball all by himself. You can move this game outside into the yard to switch things up. Or change the scent and the toy you are using. You could also use food such as chicken fat, cream cheese, or peanut butter – anything your dog likes will work!

8 Scent Activities Your Dog Will Adore

8. Find the Source

Instead of using a scent as a means to find a ball, you can teach your dog to search out the scent itself. This is a simplified version of what drug and bomb detection dogs do.

How to Play: If you have taught your dog to find a ball by following a scent trail, you have taught him to key in on a scent. You take a similar approach with this game. Take the scented ball you created and place it in a small box, like a shoebox or an Amazon box. Encourage your dog to come and sniff it by instructing him to “Find your ball!” Eventually, he will scratch and paw at the box to indicate that he located the scent. At that point, take the ball out of the box and reward him with it.

Next, repeat this, with three boxes this time. Keep the ball in the original box (to prevent cross-contamination). Give the command: “Find your ball!” and work at it until he can find it. You can reward your dog with a short game of fetch.

Now, increase the difficulty of the game. Instead of putting the scented ball in one of the three boxes, hide something smaller like a piece of paper in the same box with a few drops of the same essential oil on the paper. Say, “Find your ball!” again, encouraging him just as before. When he zeroes in on the box with the scented paper, praise him and play a quick game of fetch as a reward. Repeat this increasing the distance and the number of boxes over time.

Give it a Try!

These simple scent games only scratch the surface of a dog’s abilities, but they will activate his sniffer! It’s a win-win for you and your doggo. He gets to play, exercise, mental stimulation, and treats, and you get some quality time with your best friend!

ESA or PSA Certification?

The benefits of an Emotional Support Animal certification and a Psychiatric Service Dog certification are drastically different. Fortunately for you, American Service Pets’ network of active board certified doctors can help you find the right path to certification. To find out whether you need an ESA or PSD letter, take our easy, three-step Pet Owner Survey!


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