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Why do scentwork?

You know when you walk past a bakery and the smell of fresh bread hits you? It’s one of my favourite smells. The scent of the warm bread baking in the oven and maybe a slight whiff of cakes too. Mmm! Our dogs however, if they were with us, would be smelling the flour, yeast, water, salt, milk, butter, jam, the baker’s sweat and aftershave, the cash going in and out of the till, the stressed woman rushing past late for work, the coffee in her hand, the paper cup and plastic lid.

Dogs can find a single drop of blood on a football pitch, they can find cancer, epilepsy. They can even detect the scent of nightmares. Why would they need to do that? Rob Hewings from the UK College of Scent Dogs who I do my instructor training with is involved in a groundbreaking project where dogs are trained to detect the hormonal change in veterans suffering from PTSD when a nightmare is about to begin. They then gently wake them and provide comfort. How amazing are dogs?!

So it’s clear that our dogs’ amazing noses benefit us – but dogs also LOVE to search!

One of the most important systems in the brain is the one which allows dogs to search for, find and acquire all the resources that are needed for survival. Igniting this ‘seeking system’ feels really good for dogs – it’s exciting!

  • The seeking system releases dopamine, the ‘feel-good’ hormone.
    Sniffing energises dogs and is essential to health and wellbeing
    Seeking provides cognitive enrichment – in other words, it’s good for the brain!
  • It is part of the natural predator behavioural cycle – it wakes the inner dog!
    Nosework doesn’t have to be used for anything specific – it should be available to all dogs.

This video nicely explains the wonders of your dog’s nose:

The difference between food/toy searches and scent identification

Food or toy searches are where we hide treats or a favourite toy in the environment. It’s a nice, straightforward activity where dogs get lots of successes and can build up in complexity until they are able to search larger areas for a longer time and with more distractions. 

Scent identification is a different kind of scentwork where we train dogs to find articles that have been scented with a target odour e.g. gun oil, clove, truffle oil or even tea bags! Some scentwork organisations use cut up pieces of Kong – dogs can be trained to find any scent! Because they are not searching directly for food or toys it requires a little more motivation – but that’s not to say beginners can’t excel at it! 

The advantage to scent identification over food/toy searches is that it gives dogs that little bit more of a challenge. It’s the more ‘serious’ approach to scentwork and the sort you would do if you wanted to enter competitions. However, I don’t think you don’t need to choose between the two activities – your dog can enjoy both!