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Kind Corner: Nosy pups – sniffing their way to happiness

dog training advice by AnimalKind accredited trainers-banner

AnimalKind accredited Harmony Dog Training and Behaviour

All about noses! Today, Brigette Mayer, owner and head trainer at Harmony Animal Training & Behaviour, explains what nose work is, why it is important to let your dog sniff and how to create an enriching, olfactory environment for your dog.

Let’s get reading!


Nose work as enrichment

Enrichment. The word has become a kind of buzzword in the animal behaviour and training circles.

But do dog guardians know what it means? Or how important enrichment is for our dogs’ well-being and happiness?

According to colleagues Allie Bender and Emily Strong, enrichment is defined as “…learning what our dogs’ needs are and then structuring an environment for them that allows them, as much as is feasible, to meet those needs.” (Dogwise Publishing. (2019). Canine enrichment for the real world: Making it a part of Your Dog’s daily life.)

dog sniffing

One critical aspect of our dogs’ needs is rooted in an instinctual behaviour – their sense of smell. Olfaction is a dog’s primary sense, and a large part of their nervous system is specially wired for this sense.

Author John Bradshaw states that dogs have more than a hundred times more of the nerves located between the nose and the brain than humans, and the olfactory epithelium devoted to trapping and analyzing odours is 30 times larger than a human’s (Basic Books. (2012). Dog sense: How the new science of dog behavior can make you a better friend to your pet.) And yet, a dog’s sense of smell is frequently overlooked and under-utilized by us as their guardians.

So, how can we create an enriching, olfactory environment for our dogs?

Sniffing and feeding time

Let’s start with something as simple as feeding our dog. Many dog guardians feed their dog’s regular diet out of a bowl. But how much more enriching would it be to have your dog search or forage for their food?

To provide an enriching environment, place a small portion of each meal in several dishes or containers, and hide them throughout the house. Cue your dog to start searching by saying “find it!”. You may have to help them along at first, but they’ll soon figure out this snifftastic game!

Another alternative is to use a snuffle mat – a piece of foraging play equipment where dogs need to use their nose to root through fabric to find kibble and/or treats.

dog sniffing snuffle mat at Harmony Animal Training
Photo by Brigette Mayer

Sniffing and daily walks

Another way to enrich your dog’s life is to use their on-leash neighbourhood walks as sniffing practice.

We can re-frame these walks in our own minds from a form of physical exercise to an amazing source of mental enrichment. Let’s face it, unless we’re walking at a brisk pace or jogging, these on-leash walks are not providing aerobic exercise for most of our dogs – (they are more likely to get that level of exercise from an off-leash romp.)

So, let your dog sniff!

Every blade of grass, every bug, every dog pee-mail, every critter scent will all provide ample sources of enrichment for our dogs.

dog sniffing during daily walk

The world of nose work

If you’re looking for a structured activity to enjoy with your dog, let me welcome you into the wonderful world of nose work!

Nose work is a relatively new dog sport that involves letting your dog use his nose to seek out a hidden favourite treat or toy reward.

One of the fantastic things about starting this engaging dog sport is that it takes minimal amounts of equipment to start out with – three to six shallow cardboard boxes of varying sizes appropriate for the size of your dog and some super yummy (read: super smelly!) treats. With all our recent online COVID shopping, almost everyone has cardboard boxes around right now!

Arrange the boxes centrally in your living room and place a treat into one or two of the boxes. Encourage your dog to interact with and sniff amongst the boxes. Soon enough, he’ll catch the scent of that delicious hot dog or cheese you placed and gobble it up enthusiastically! Repeat this exercise by placing the treats into different boxes each time.

Taking nose work to the next level

If your dog seems extra keen on using his nose, I highly encourage you to register in a nose work class. It’s such an awesome way to build enrichment into our dogs’ lives and to have a weekly source of fun, play, and engagement with your dog.

The dog sport then takes the innate hunting/seeking behaviour of our dogs one step further and they learn to search through four separate elements – containers (like the boxes!), interiors, exteriors, and vehicles.

And all dogs can play this exciting sniffing game – puppies, elderly dogs, mobility-impaired dogs, fearful dogs, and all dogs in between.

There are fantastic nose work instructors located throughout the Lower Mainland and the province – even if you’re not close to one, there are online, virtual options as well. So give it a try!


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