The Nose Knows: An Introduction to Scent Work

Scent work is a great way to bond with your dog while providing a fun enrichment activity. Here’s how to get started!

May 31, 2024By Amanda Henry
introduction to scent work

Agility, obedience trials, and dock diving are just some breed-specific sports that many dogs enjoy. However, here’s a sport for the not-so-athletic canine: scent work. Here, rather than run through obstacles or race, dogs focus on picking up and tracking scents. Bassett Hounds, Bloodhounds, and many other dog breeds are suited for this popular sport.

If you’re looking to get started doing scent work with your dog, you’ve come to the right place.

First Things First: What Is Scent Work?

jack russell smelling
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Scent work, also called nose work, is a dog sport that mimics the work of search-and-rescue dogs. There are several different types of searches within this sport, including:

  • Container searches. For the container search, a dog checks a variety of containers, such as boxes and suitcases. Then, they alert their handler if they have a particular scent inside of them, usually an essential oil. The types and numbers of hidden odors depend on the competition.
  • Interior search-and-exterior searches. The interior and exterior searches are nearly the same, the only difference being where they occur. For these searches, the odor is hidden somewhere in a defined area, and the dog must track the scent and alert their owner when they've found the source of it.
  • Buried. Here, the target odor is placed within a small container, then buried again under sand or water.

The American Kennel Club (AKC) notes that the four difficulty levels for scent work include novice, advanced, excellent, and master.

How to Get Started with Scent Work

dog smelling bush
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As with most sports, finding a club or trainer is the easiest way to get started in scent work. Because this sport is gaining popularity as a fun and enriching activity, plenty of clubs and classes are available. If you’re looking to compete, you should become a member of the National Association of Canine Scent Work (NACSW) or register your dogs with the AKC. These are the two leading organizations that offer scent work trials. Both organizations have lists of trainers on their websites.

dog smelling a flower
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Although finding a club or a trainer is always a good option, the beginning levels of scent work can also be easy to train at home. There are many training methods for this sport that you can find online, but if you choose to train at home, you'll need some supplies.

First, you will need a bottle of birch oil, the scent most venues use at the first level of competition. You will also need cotton swabs to put the scent on and small metal containers to hold the scented cotton swabs. There are containers available that are used specifically for scent work, but you could also clean and drill holes in any small metal container, and it will work just fine.

Positive Reinforcement Is Key

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If you want to train your dog for scent work, above all else, you should keep two words in mind: positive reinforcement. You should never scold, yell at, or threaten a dog that doesn’t immediately take to a new task. Rather, you should take baby steps, rewarding each achievement (no matter how small) with a high-value treat.

Don’t underestimate the power of praise and treats when training your dog. Science says it really works!

What Dog Breeds Are Best for Scent Work?

bloodhound dog
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Every dog has more than 300 million scent receptors in its nose. So, any dog is suited for scent work. Yet, some dogs are more commonly selected for the sport than others. For instance, Basset Hounds and Bloodhounds have folds around their mouths and noses, allowing them to hold on to scents longer. This makes them two of the top contenders for scent work, but other breeds involved in scent work include Labrador Retrievers, German Shepherds, and Belgian Shepherds (not to be confused with Belgian Malinois, a separate breed).

Sports Similar to Scent Work

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If scent work interests you, there are a couple of other sports you might want to try. They include:

  • Barn hunt: This sport is quite like an interior or exterior search in that a dog has to find the source of an odor, except the thing they’re searching is a rat in a tube. A barn hunt arena has a maze of straw bales that a dog must climb and navigate through to find hidden rats. Once they’ve found a rat, they need to alert their handler of its location. Don’t worry: all rats in this sport are kept safe and are well cared for.
  • Tracking: This sport mimics the work of search-and-rescue dogs, having your dog use its nose to follow a scent trail. There are a few different tracking events that differ in the location and difficulty of the track, but the premise is all the same. A human will walk around, dropping a few objects in their path. Then, the dog must find them.

Is Scent Work Right for Your Dog?

navy dog smelling box
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Scent work is one of the best dog sports that any dog can participate in. There are no limitations on breed, age, or any physical impairments a dog might have. As long as you are willing to put in the time to train for it, your dog can do scent work.

Scent work is less of a time commitment than some other sports, making it an excellent choice for people with busy schedules. While it greatly depends on the dog, and more training will generally mean that you do better at a trial, you will quickly see results after training your dog for as little as five to 10 minutes per day.

Overall, scent work has the potential to be a great sport for any combination of dog and handler. So, if you’re looking for a way to enrich your dog’s life by giving them a job that allows them to use their strongest sense, then scent work is a fantastic choice of sport.

Amanda Henry
By Amanda Henry

Amanda is an animal lover with over 10 years of experience in dog training and animal care. She has two dogs, an Australian cattle dog named Murphy and a Labrador retriever named Zappa. In her free time, she enjoys hiking, and riding horses.