Dogs have an incredible sense of smell. It's no exaggeration to say that in many ways they see the world through their nose. A dog's nose is utilized by law enforcement to sniff out drugs, dogs are able to smell changes in our emotions, and they can even smell cancer!
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A dog's sense of smell is highly sensitive, and smelling is a highly rewarding behavior for our dogs. There are a variety of scent based games that you and your dog can play together at home and there are even competitive scent-based sports you can play together!
Scent work, aka nose work
Scent work, or nose work as it is sometimes called, is a competitive dog sport where dogs are trained to sniff out and alert to the presence of specific odors. Unlike the scents that military, police, or search and rescue dogs might be looking for, in scent work dogs are searching for cotton swabs scented with essential oils. Specifically, the target odors are birch, anise, clove and cypress, depending on what level you are competing at and in which organization.
In scent work "trials," dogs will search interior and exterior locations. The two main organizations that conduct scent work trials in the United States are the American Kennel Club (AKC) and The National Association of Canine Scent Work (NACSW). Both organizations encourage participation of dogs of all breeds and mixed breeds.
Virtual scent work titles
In fall 2021, American Kennel Club (AKC) released their newest virtual dog show program that is accessible for people anywhere to do from home, and with any breed or mixed breed of dog. The Virtual Scent Work Test (VSWT) is an opportunity to earn scent work titles with your dog from home and offers a great entry point into dog sports.The AKC's Virtual Scent Work program has three titling levels: Beginner, Intermediate, and Experienced. Each title must be earned in order, and to earn the title a dog and the handler must pass two tests conducted at different times per level. For these virtual tests instead of needing to search for essential oils, your dog will be searching for the target odors of: treats, a tennis ball, or small dog toy. The AKC has provided complete descriptions of the specific criteria that must be adhered to in the video recordings. These rules include showing that your dog is in another area of the home and can't see where the treat/toy is hidden, that the dog must always be visible while they are searching, and at what height the treats/toys should be hidden - at the Beginner level toys and treats are on the ground.
Videos submitted to the AKC to be evaluated are sent to scent work judges for scoring, and then the results are emailed back to the dog owners. Once a dog has earned their title, an official certificate is mailed out to the handler by the American Kennel Club, and your dog can brag about their new title! If after completing the Virtual Scent Work Test you and your dog are interested in getting more involved in Scent Work, dog trainers in your area will be able to help you get your dog started with essential oils as a target order and prepare you for in person scent work competitions.
How to get started with scent work
Scent work is a game that comes extremely naturally to most dogs. You can start playing search games at home with your dog that will help prepare them for the Virtual Scent Work Test. Start by taking small pieces of treats, smellier treats are best for when you are first getting started and place those treats in easy to find places and encourage your dog to look for them. When your dog finds the treat, praise your dog, and let your dog eat the treat. For finding hidden toys, you'll want to start the same way, first with toys out in the open and encouraging your dog to go and get it. The better your dog gets, you can start to hide the treats or toys in harder places, like behind a pillow, under magazines, or behind or under furniture.
Fun for all
Scent work is an activity that is great for dogs of all ages, including puppies, and senior dogs as well as dogs with disabilities. Scent work is a highly stimulating sport and activity for dogs and can help build a nervous dog's confidence. Searching for hidden treats and toys via the Virtual Titling program is highly stimulating and a great form of mental exercise. As a result, scent work games are a great way to give your dog exercise and enrichment on days when the weather doesn't allow for spending a long-time outside walking or parting in other forms of exercise.