How to teach your dog to seek by scent

Co-authored by

Nick Jones

Dog Behaviourist and
Dog Expert Witness
Approved by

Brian Faulkner

Veterinary Surgeon
RCVS Registered

Dogs have an amazing sense of smell, so incorporating some scent work into your dog’s activity routine is a great idea.

Playing games with your dog helps keep their minds active – and scent work makes the most of their natural abilities. Scent training for dogs can be carried out all year round, but it’s especially well suited to rainy days when you might need some indoor entertainment to keep your dog happy.

Most dogs will enjoy seeking out three different things:

  • A high-value (i.e. preferred) food treat
  • A toy, with or without a food treat inside
  • A person (save this option until your initial training is complete)

How to train a dog to find a scent

Scent games don’t have to be complicated! This four-step plan is an easy and effective way to introduce the activity into your dog’s playtimes.

1. Start small

Select something safe and appropriate for your dog to seek from our list above. Knowing what motivates your dog will help – but, if in doubt, using a favourite food treat usually does the trick!

Start the game in a room without any distractions from other toys, pets or people. First, throw your chosen treat or toy a small distance along the floor, so it’s really easy to spot, and tell your dog to ‘seek’. When your dog finds the toy or treat, give them plenty of praise. Repeat this for 10 minutes.

While we’ve suggested the command ‘seek’ for this game, you can use any word you prefer. The important thing is to stay consistent once you’ve chosen a command word, so your dog starts to associate it with this particular activity.

2. Up the training

The key to scent training for dogs is starting small, and setting them up for success. This means hiding the toy or treat in easy-to-find places, such as under a plastic flower pot on the floor, or just behind a chair. Allow your dog to watch as you hide the treat, then ask them to seek.

When your dog can consistently seek and find whatever you’ve hidden, start placing it in a slightly harder-to-find location, so they rely more on their sense of smell – but still in the same room. Always give plenty of praise if your dog successfully finds the item. Again, keep sessions short: around 10 minutes is plenty.

3. Increase the fun factor

As your dog starts to realise what they need to do, you can hide the item in another room before asking them to seek. Again, start with an easy-to-find place, so your dog can transfer the skills they’ve already learned to new locations.

4. Step up the challenge

Once your dog has got the hang of seeking for a treat or toy, you can start to add in other items or challenges. If your dog loves toys, they probably know the difference between their ball and their frisbee. A fun scent game for them would be to hide both toys and ask them to ‘seek frisbee’ or ‘seek ball’.

Many dogs absolutely love scent seeking for a person. Once they understand the ‘seek’ command, asking them to ‘seek Mike’ or ‘seek Rachel’ can be great fun for dogs and humans alike. Make sure whoever the dog is seeking has some treats in their pockets for when they get found! Your dog might not have the same level of training as a professional sniffer dog, but if they show aptitude for this game then you can increase the levels of difficulty and find more and more challenging hiding spots.

Watch Petplan expert dog behaviourist talk through the process of teaching a dog to seek by scent.

Can all dogs carry out scent work?

Absolutely! While certain breeds – such as Beagles, Cocker Spaniels and other working breeds – can show a natural affinity for scent work, this is a great game to play with any breed. It might be easy to assume that snub-nosed or brachycephalic breeds like Pugs won’t be as talented, but research shows they’re just as capable as other breeds. So whatever breed your dog is, this can be an enjoyable game for them to try.

Remember to keep things fun and easy, to ensure a high success rate for your dog. Spend as long as you need at each step before moving on to the next. Your pet will soon be impressing all your friends with their new sniffer-dog skills!

Does your pet have the makings of a brilliant sniffer dog, or do they have other amazing talents? Share your favourite dog games with us on our Facebook page (@PetplanUK) or Instagram (@petplan_uk), using the tag #PethoodStories

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