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9 Fun Scent Games For Your Dog

Though newborn puppies are essentially blind at birth, their sense of smell is fully developed and active. It’s a dog’s most powerful sense and the one we humans overlook the most. 

While we focus on what things look like, our dogs’ attentions centre on a smorgasbord of scents floating through the air: what the neighbours are having for dinner; which possum visited the veggie patch overnight; if the Labrador across the street just got a bath. 

MASTERS OF SMELL

 

Humans have a puny six million olfactory receptors whilst dogs have up to 220 million! A dog's brain is also specialised for identifying scents. The percentage of the dog's brain devoted to analysing smells is actually 40 times larger than ours! It's been estimated that dogs can identify smells somewhere between 1,000 to 10,000 times better than nasally challenged humans can.

This enables dogs to find lost hikers under the snow or discover buried truffles. It stands to reason then, that we should somehow be harnessing this amazing power in our own pets.

Once dependent upon their noses to survive, most domestic dogs today are a bit out of practice. But the good news is that, with just a little planning and patience, you can add fun scent games to your dog’s repertoire of behaviours and help him utilise this untapped smell power!

All you need to do is teach your dog specifically how you want him to use his astonishing olfactory powers. The easiest way to accomplish this is through games. Scent games are suitable for any breed at any age from 6 weeks on, but we recommend that these games be a regular part of your puppy's development. All of these games stress reliance on his nose, not his eyesight.
 

One of the most common problems with using food to teach scent discrimination or tracking is that you must ultimately teach the dog that the food is not what you really meant at all!

 

#1. FIND THE FOOD


This is a simple way to engage your dog’s scenting prowess. It requires you to do nothing but place treats randomly around the home in the hope that he will locate them by scent. Once he finds the first one (often by accident), he will quickly starting looking for others with his nose. Start by placing one or two treats down in full view, while he is out of the room. Then call him in. He will eat them happily and look for more. 

Repeat this process but start placing the treats in less obvious places: in a corner, just beneath a couch or coffee table, or even partially beneath his bedding. Place them while he is outside, or in a different part of the home. Then simply let him find them on his own. You will soon see him sniffing for them rather than looking for them.

Vary placement and quantity; some days just hide one treat. Once he “gets it,” vary the hidden item. Try hiding a food dispenser toy filled with treats. Hide a feather rubbed with cheese. Hide a frozen meat treat or stock (on a plate of course!). Then move it outside and do the same, making it easy at first then progressively harder. 



#2. PICK THE HAND

 

Here’s an easy way to rev up your pooch’s nose. First, get some small tasty treats that will fit into your hand. A bit of poultry meat or cheese will work better than kibble because of their stronger aroma. Next, take one into your palm and make a loose, palm-down fist. Then, with your dog sitting in front of you, offer him that fist, and let him sniff. While doing so, say “Find it!” Once he has sniffed it, open your hand and offer the treat, saying, “Good find it!” Repeat this a few times. 

Then, add your other empty fist. Don’t let him see which hand you place the treat into. Next, move your closed hands back and forth, then offer up both to him, saying “Find it!” When he sniffs at the treat hand, say, “Good find it!” and open your hand to give him the treat. 

Repeat this, alternating the hand in which you place the treat. As you continue, wait until you can see him nose really “zone in” on the treat hand before opening up. The idea is to teach him that the location of treats varies and can be found only by scenting it out. Once he gets it, add your partner’s two fists into the mix, making it doubly hard for him!

#3. NEW ANIMAL SCENT

 

Dogs are born trackers of prey and other predators. Take advantage of this by placing the scent of a new animal into your backyard and see if he picks up on it. Try this outdoors only as dogs will often urinate over another animal’s scent as a way of reclaiming territory.
To begin, give an old towel or rag to a friend and have them rub it all over his or her dog/cat. If possible, get a drop of urine on the cloth as it contains strong scents. If not, rubbing it will do. Then, without your dog present, place the cloth out of sight in the yard, beneath a bush or behind a tree. Then let your dog out and see what happens!

You can try this randomly with the scent of different animals to keep your dog guessing. After mastering dog and cat scents, try possum, bush mice etc. —whatever you can locate.


#4. HIDE AND SEEK

 

Here’s one that uses you as the treat. While your dog is distracted somewhere in the house, hide in a wardrobe, under a bed, or somewhere he wouldn’t normally expect you to be. Then just wait. He will inevitably begin searching for you. Once he finds you, praise and reward! If you are in a closet and you hear him sniff at the door, you’ll know he’s doing what dogs have done for centuries.

Next, take it outdoors to a dog-friendly off-leash area, preferably with no one else around­­. Have a friend hold your dog, then walk off behind trees and find cover. Your friend should wait 30 seconds, then say “Where’s, (your name)!” and release her. Your dog should take off with his nose to the ground, searching for you. Within a minute he should find you, at which point you should reward him with his favourite treat! Increase distance over time until he can find you no matter how far off.


#5. LIGHTS OUT

 

This one is great fun for the dog. Show your dog a treat (preferably crunchy) or his favorite toy, and then place it out of his sight but easily accessible in a dark room. Tell him to SEEK - follow him in to listen for his success which you will praise enthusiastically. Obviously, the rewards for the dog are multiple - he gets a treat or finds his toy plus a very happy owner. If using a toy, be sure to reward his find with some play before starting again.

#6. SHELL GAME



This game builds upon the “Pick The Hand” game. Get 3 sturdy, coffee cup-sized containers that she cannot break or easily knock over. Avoid glass or paper; glass could break and paper is too flimsy. 

With your dog sitting and watching, place a treat underneath one cup then move it back and forth. Then say, “Find it!” When he sniffs at it, lift the cup and say, “Good find it!” as he eats the treat. If he knocks the cup over, that’s fine. 

Next, add a second cup. Place the treat then move the cups back and forth a bit. Say, “Find it!” and let her sniff each cup. Wait until she sniffs the right one before praising and lifting the cup. Repeat until she reliably picks the right cup. 

Then add a third cup, and repeat until she gets it on the first try every time. At that point, you’ll know that she’s using her nose and not random choice.


#7. WHERE'S DINNER?

 

While wild dogs have to track and capture food every day, our dogs know they will find a meal in the same spot every day. But what if, when you called her for dinner one day, her bowl was in a different spot? The answer is simple: she would instantly begin looking for it. 

Try first placing it in the room next door; she will begin sniffing excitedly and find the scent-rich bowl in seconds. The next day, hide the bowl somewhere across your home and call her for dinner. It will take her a bit longer, but she will find it and wolf it down. Once you’ve established this game, move her bowl once or twice per week and make her hunt it down.

#8. SCENT TRAILS

 

Food isn’t the only thing dogs are interested in smelling. Unique scents such as essential oils (lavender and valerian work well) can motivate dogs and will excite their tracking instincts. To start, get a favourite toy (a ball works well) and put a few drops of essential oil onto it. Then, play a quick game of indoor fetch, followed by a reward. Do so several times in a day. 

The next day, with the dog absent, hide the same toy, then place tiny pieces of paper with the oil onto the floor, leading 20 feet away from the ball, like a trail of breadcrumbs. Then let the dog into the room where the trail begins and say, “Find your ball!” 

Most dogs will sniff out the pieces of paper then eventually connect that the smell with the ball. Keep at it and praise when he follows the trail. If need be, get him started by showing him the first scented paper. When he does find the ball, reward him! Gradually reduce the number of scented papers until he can find the scented ball all by himself. Once mastered in the home, move it out into the yard. Then change the scent and toy and begin again. You can use chicken fat, peanut butter—anything your dog loves.

#9. FIND THE SCENT ITSELF

 


Instead of using a scent as a means to help him find a ball, you can teach him to search out the scent itself. This is a simple version of what drug and explosive-sniffing dogs do.

If you have taught your dog to find a ball by following a scent trail, you have already taught him to key in on scent. To begin, take the same scented ball and place it in a shoebox. Then encourage him to come up to it and sniff it by saying, “Find your ball!” Eventually he will scratch and paw at the box, whereupon you should take the ball out (if she hasn’t already) and reward her with it. Next, repeat this, only with three boxes, the ball in the original box (to prevent cross contamination). Say “Find your ball!” and work it until she succeeds. Reward her with a quick fetch session.

Now, instead of putting the scented ball in one of the three boxes, simply put a slip of paper in the same box, with a few drops of the same essential oil on it. Hide the scented ball outside, wash your hands, then place a new, unscented ball in your back pocket. Say, “Find your ball!” again, encouraging him just as before. When he homes in on the box with the scented paper, praise him mightily then take out the ball in your pocket and toss it for him as a reward. Repeat this over time, increasing distance and the number of boxes. In no time, he will be an expert tracker!




These simple games only scratch the surface of a dog’s tracking capabilities. If your dog really takes to it and you feel so inclined, contact your local club and attend an introductory class. Who knows: your pooch could turn into a master tracker! 


The 10 Breeds with the Best Sense of Smell are:

 

1. Bloodhound

2. Basset Hound

3. Beagle

4. German Shepherd

5. Labrador Retriever

6. Belgian Malinois

7. English Springer Spaniel

8. Coonhound 


9. Fox Terrier

10. Pointer

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