Are scent work classes the new form of enrichment for your dog?

Are scent work classes the new form of enrichment for your dog?

Training your dog to search for a scent isn’t as hard as you might think—and it’s great enrichment for your dog.

Photo: Barb Elkin/Shutterstock

Guest post by Izzy Swanston, Sienna Taylor, and Ben Brilot

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There’s no doubt that dogs have amazing noses. For example, dogs have 300 million scent receptors compared to our measly 5 million (Else, 2020) and possess the ability to detect odours at concentrations of up to 500 parts-per-trillion (Johnson, 1999)—the equivalent of one teaspoon of sugar in two Olympic sized swimming pools of water. 

We use dogs’ noses as biosensors for the detection of all sorts of things: explosives, bodies, drugs, cancers (Beebe, Howell and Bennett, 2016) and cryptic wildlife and/or their faeces (Karp, 2020). But the more we learn to understand our dog’s needs, the more scent work is being used not just for our benefit but also as a form of enrichment to benefit our pets.

Murtagh, Farnworth and Brilot (2020) highlight the importance of scent as enrichment to dogs in kennels. They found dogs spent significantly more time playing with a scented toy than an unscented toy, and those with a scented toy showed decreased stress behaviours and increased exploration behaviours. Murtagh, Farnworth and Brilot’s (2020) study helps us improve dog welfare by evolving our understanding of dog’s needs—in this case, it is scented enrichment. 

Can we take this a step further and implement searching for a scent (as used in working dogs) as a further improvement on their welfare? Dog owners are constantly looking for activities with their dog e.g., obedience and agility (Rutter et al, 2021), and one that has increased in interest is canine scent tracking. Scent work promotes mental and physical stimulation for your pets (Johnson, 2003; Rutter et al, 2021) and is now being offered by companies such as UK Sniffer Dogs and Scentwork UK.

Training your dog to be as “well-trained” as a working detection dog sounds like a daunting task, but it is not as unreasonable as it sounds. For example, in Rutter et al’s (2021) study 19 community volunteers with their dogs were paired with two professional Conservation detection dog trainers for a 12-week training program. At weeks 8 and 12 the volunteers were assessed in scent board and room search activities whereby 17 dog owners located the target odour in a minimum of 75% of all search trials where the odour was present (Rutter et al, 2021). 

The breeds in Rutter et al’s (2021) study varied as well, with breeds including Cocker spaniel x toy poodle, Samoyed, Miniature poodle, Border Collie, Whippet x greyhound x Staffordshire bull terrier, Cavoodle and Rhodesian Ridgebacks. This highlights that scent work is not limited to your traditional working breeds. Hall, Glenn, Smith and Wynne (2015) even suggest that brachycephalic breeds (e.g., French Bulldogs) can perform better than German Shepherds at scent work and at decreasing concentrations of the odour! 

Training scent work varies depending on the trainer; however, it generally involves firstly training positive association with the target odour, which could be a Kong, gun oil, clove oil, or any particularly pungent substance. This is done through Pavlovian conditioning by rewarding them with either food or a toy for touching the odour with their nose when presented with it, this could be on a cotton bud, or on some material at the bottom of a pot (Dechant, 2021). This encourages the dogs to touch the target odour for a reward. 

The dogs are then encouraged to find the target odour in a line-up of items such as bags, pipes, boxes, suitcases, etc. using operant conditioning whereby when they successfully find it (as confirmed by the handler checking if it is actually present or asking the person who set up the search to confirm). The handler then marks the behaviour with a “yes” cue and positively rewards the dog with food or a ball, creating a stimulus-response chain that involves the dog searching and locating the odour for reward (Dechant, 2021). At this point, the search behaviour is reinforced when the dog encounters the conditioned reinforcer which is now the target odour (Dechant, 2021). The dog then receives the terminal reinforcer of food or ball for a successful search of the target odour as confirmed by the handler/person who set up the search. 

The handler will know when their dog has found the target odour by small behavioural changes or more energetic interrogation of the area/item known as interest, (CPNI and HM Government, 2021). Rebmann, David and Sorg, (2000) and Duggan et al (2011) suggest specific behavioural changes that reflect encountering a target scent include: quickened movement, intensified searching and often tail-wagging begins (behaviours that also reflect excitement). However, the specific behaviour changes if the trained alert is not performed are not recorded in the literature. 

Throughout training sessions, dogs are encouraged to indicate/show interest for a longer period of time, until the handler is content that they can clearly identify when the dog has found the target odour. Some handlers prefer trained alerts such as a sit, stare or freeze. Over time the size of the target odour can be reduced to however small the handler dares!

Scent work classes are a great way to enrich your dog but they can also assist with behaviour problems whereby in nervous dogs it can increase your dog’s optimism (Duranton and Horowitz, 2018) and is ideal for demand barkers or ball-obsessed dogs because they have high motivation, making them well-suited to detection work and even a desired trait in the field (Beebe, Howell and Bennett, 2016). 

Finding a good trainer is important to ensure their style of lesson suits you and your dog- this could be session length, environment or setup. To help find a suitably qualified trainer follow the links below:

Izzy Swanston, BSc (Hons) in Animal Behaviour and Welfare, is a dog carer/driver at Bruce’s Doggy Day Care. Her research interests include dog body language with a special interest in scent work and using it to assist with behaviour problems. Izzy loves to see how useful scent work is for behaviour problems and is hoping to gain her Bronze Sniffer Dog UK Instructor qualification soon!


Beebe, S. C., Howell, T. J. and Bennett, P. C. (2016) Using Scent Detection Dogs in Conservation Settings: A Review of Scientific Literature Regarding Their Selection. Frontiers in Veterinary Science. 

CPNI and HM Government (2021) Understanding detection dog indications (‘hits’, ‘misses’, ‘false alarms’ and ‘nuisance alarms’). Available at: (Accessed: 11 Aug. 22)

Dechant, M. (2021). Training and Experience Factors Impacting Detection Dog Performance. Doctoral dissertation. Texas Tech University. Available at: (Accessed: 11 Aug. 22)

Duggan, J. M., et al. (2011). ‘Comparing detection dog and livetrapping surveys for a cryptic rodent’. The Journal of Wildlife Management, 75(5), pp.1209-1217.

Duranton, C., and Horowitz, A. (2018) Let me sniff! Nosework induces positive judgment bias in pet dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science.

Else, H. (2020). Can dogs smell COVID? Here’s what the science says. Nature, 587(7835), 530-531.

Hall, N. J., Glenn, K., Smith, D. W. and Wynne, C. D. L. (2015) Performance of Pugs, German Shepherds, and Greyhounds (Canis lupus familiaris) on an Odor-Discrimination Task. Journal of Comparative Psychology.

Johnson, G. R. (2003). Tracking Dog: Theory & Method. Pennsylvania: Arner Publications.

Johnston, J. M. (1999). ‘Canine detection capabilities: Operational implications of recent R & D findings’. Institute for Biological Detection Systems, Auburn University, 1(7), pp.1-7.

Karp, D. (2020). ‘Detecting small and cryptic animals by combining thermography and a wildlife detection dog’. Scientific reports, 10(1), pp.1-11.

Murtagh, K., Farnworth, M. J., & Brilot, B. O. (2020). The scent of enrichment: Exploring the effect of odour and biological salience on behaviour during enrichment of kennelled dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 223, 104917.

Rebmann, A., David, E., and Sorg, M.H. (2000). Cadaver dog handbook: forensic training and tactics for the recovery of human remains. Florida: CRC Press. 

Rutter, N. J., Howell, T. J., Stukas, A. A., Pascoe, J. H., & Bennett, P. C. (2021). Can volunteers train their pet dogs to detect a novel odor in a controlled environment in under 12 weeks?. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 43, 54-65.

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Are scent work classes the new form of enrichment for your dog?

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