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The Science of Scent, Part Two: The Benefits of Scentwork and How to Introduce It at Home

Updated: Aug 27, 2023

In part one of this blog, I looked at the science of scent and what the canine nose knows. If you missed it, you can read it here:

In part two, I take a look at some of the many benefits of scentwork, and how you can introduce it at home through enrichment activities. Read on to find out more!

The Benefits of Nosework

Dogs use their noses to interpret their environment and they love to sniff and forage. Scentwork encourages natural behaviours and helps to build confidence, resilience, and understanding. It provides mental stimulation whilst giving them a job to do, and builds a trusting bond between dog and handler. Scentwork can be engaged in by dogs of any age or breed to keep them physically and mentally active, even by those recovering from injury, illness, or on restricted exercise. If there simply isn’t much space, it can be practised both indoors and outdoors.

Searching is more intense than sniffing alone and is hugely rewarding. Because of the way in which a partnership of trust and communication forms between dog and handler as they work together, it can even help highly reactive dogs. In part one of this blog, I wrote a little about my experience of scentwork and mantrailing lessons with my nervous dog, Jack, who struggles around new people and unknown dogs.

When dogs are scenting, searching or foraging, the action of sniffing while processing oxygen and scent simultaneously has a relaxing effect, lowering the pulse rate and using a lot of energy, which is why ten minutes of scentwork equates to about an hour of physical exercise. The more intense the sniffing, the greater the benefit to the dog. The study can be found here:

Tails up, noses down! Trailhounds enjoying foraging together

How Can I Introduce Scentwork to My Dog?

You might be wondering how you can introduce scentwork to your dog, and whether you need to take lessons in order to provide your dog with nosework activities. The great thing about scentwork is that it doesn't need to be carried out as part of a formal setting, but can be introduced at home, through enrichment. It is a really useful way to counteract raised arousal levels from physical exercise and any trigger stacking, as it helps to empty the dog’s stress bucket, and boosts relaxation. In addition, this outlet for stress and prevention of boredom supports the dog's need to express normal, canine behaviours. Problem solving with food is an excellent way to do this, particularly for nervous dogs, as no human contact is necessary.

Introducing some games will help hugely in building confidence and self-belief, as long as it isn’t used to lure the dog towards things or people he is worried about; this can lead to approach avoidance conflict and a fear of hands. You can read more about approach avoidance conflict and the risks of luring here:

Watching how our dogs tackle these tasks teaches us a lot about their current levels of confidence, optimism and resilience. Anything which involves sniffing will be of enormous benefit as it is mentally and physically tiring, as well as extremely fulfilling for the dog. Scatter feeding smelly foods such as finely chopped liver or grated cheese outdoors on short grass is a great way to start, or if the dog isn’t yet able to cope with being outdoors, a good alternative is a towel folded in half, with treats placed in the middle. Using high-value treats will motivate the dog and provide a two-fold reward, alongside the positive feelings from his success.

Trigger enjoying a sniff

Food is a primary reinforcer and triggers dopamine, providing a memory and motivation boost whilst also satisfying foraging, scavenging and hunting needs. Toys can also be used to boost dopamine, but not all dogs love toys, nor indeed will have experience of them, or know how to play with them. If your dog is anxious, worried or at all nervous, sit and watch from a distance, looking toward the dog, rather than directly at him. Make the activity really easy to start with, to ensure success. As he gains confidence over time, the activities can gradually increase in difficulty. Snuffle mats, items with pockets, odd socks, licki-mats, Kongs etc, can be included as part of the daily routine; any household items such as recycling materials can also be used for enrichment, as long as they are safe, and don't pose a choke hazard.

My own hounds really enjoy a “busy box,” which is an empty cardboard box with toilet roll tubes, in which I hide treats, and then seal the ends with paper. To make it more challenging, I sometimes wrap the treats as well, and add extra shredded paper to the box. They absolutely love foraging and ripping up the cardboard, and I have taught my more confident dog to tidy up, picking up all the rubbish and putting it in the empty box for more treats! However, it is important to start at a simple level and not add any pressure, so that the dog can succeed and build confidence in making choices. Watch to see how your dog approaches the tasks and provide some gentle vocal encouragement, if that is appropriate for the individual dog.

To ensure that the activity is enriching, the dog should not be hungry; he should be observed to ensure that frustration does not creep in and that he does not lose confidence at any point. Environmental enrichment is a fantastic way to enhance a dog’s life and will provide entertainment for both of you, as well as being empowering for your dog. It can be a great confidence booster if managed carefully; enrichment which promotes trying new things and uses the brain to problem solve builds resilience, and can provide much-needed respite for anxious or fearful dogs.

If you have found this useful, why not subscribe to receive my future blog posts? Don’t forget to check your junk mail folder, just in case! You can also find my blogs, along with other science-based, dog-centred posts and articles over on my Facebook page: Trailie Paws For Thought | Facebook

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