Playing with Nose Work

Dogs having fun doing nose work

We all know that dogs have a superior sense of smell and that smell is arguably one of their strongest senses. Dogs love to read the world using their nose, that’s just how they roll. The activity/sport of nose work isn’t “work” at all for dogs, it’s the love of their life! As a fellow dog-lover you know as well as I do that dogs just want to have fun, so getting to play with their sense of smell is a win/win!


If you haven’t heard much about nose work, I encourage you to research it and find a class near you. In brief, dogs learn to reconnect with their natural hunting instinct and find target scents hidden in boxes, on vehicles, in the environment and so on, a lot like working dogs do, but this activity is specially geared for companion dogs – your dog.  Nose work is both an official canine sport and also just a fun activity to do with your dog if you are not into formal competition. Nose work is great for dogs of all abilities and ages, no prerequisite training is required. For example, older dogs might not be keen on obedience or agility as time goes by but they always love to get rewarded for using their nose and hunting around. An added benefit of nose work is that it is very tiring for dogs, even though there isn’t much cardio involved. Every hide is a blind hide for the dog so they learn to rely on their sense of smell to sniff out the target treat or scent for a reward.


When you think about it, in our busy world of boxes to check and things to cross off our list each day, it can be hard to remember that allowing your dog to sniff around on walks is part of the enrichment of the walk itself. How many times have you pulled your dog away from some seemingly juicy smell they encounter on the walk because you are in a hurry, need to get to work on time and get this dog walk chore completed? For me - guilty as charged!


Enter nose work, a fantastic activity for dogs and people who love to watch them do what they do best. I fell in love with this activity for my dogs about five years ago and I’ve been hooked ever since. Dogs are natural hunters but over time humans have discouraged them from enjoying their sense of smell based on human norms for behavior such as discouraging dog-to-dog butt sniffing, “calling card” sniffing, etc. Within reason, I say we should let dogs be dogs. They aren’t robots after all, and that’s why we love them.

One of my training studios has a fair amount of human traffic going past during my classes and when I’m teaching a group Nose Work class, people will always stop, watch and ask what we are doing. When I explain it’s a canine nose work class  in which dogs learn to search for target scents and rekindle their hunting drive like working dogs do they usually ask me, “Well what would I do with that?” I always tell them, “…it’s not for YOU; it’s for your DOG!” Honestly, they just need a ride to class! Not everything that dogs do needs to be in the service of people, does it? What about just having fun? After safety, fun is the first tenant of a successful canine nose work experience. It’s easy for dog owners to get caught up in the trap of constantly bossing their dogs around, telling them what to do and micromanaging them. Enough already. In some cases, there may be a need for that level of oversight but we should remember it needs to be balanced with letting the dog be a dog half the time. One of my favorite things about nose work is that there is zero “obedience” involved. We don’t want the dogs to check in with us and ask us for help like in a typical obedience class. We want them to become independent problem solvers and to think for themselves. That’s why it’s enriching for them and addicting for us dog geeks to observe. Beyond a search cue like the word, “Search” or “Find it” (best given once and only once), let your dog go and do what they do, and you keep out of the way.  Stay humble, watch and learn from them as they show you how odor works for them and how fantastic they are at using that strong sense of smell while they play.  



An excellent source of information about K9 Nose Work® is the National Association of Canine Scent Work, LLC® (NACSW™).

Are you a dog breeder? Sign up for the Dog Breeder Behavior & Training Program