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Can Any Dog Be Trained to Play the Game of Nose Work?

Nose work is a fun game and a way for your dog to use their brain to find target odors. For some dogs nose work is a job. We teach dogs the game of nose work to help us humans find things. Just a few ways that we train dogs for nose work and scent detection are: drug dogs,  bed bug dogs, diabetic alert dogs, human remains detection dogs, cell phone dogs, cancer alert dogs, peanut allergy alert dogs, competitions in nose work trials, and the list goes on.

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Which by the way if you want to read an excellent book about a woman who got into nose work and human remains detection because she tried everything else she could think of to tame her shepherd’s never-ending energy. The story of how this high energy, sometimes aggressive dog named Solo, was finally able to channel that energy into searching for the bodies of missing people will have you hooked. Solo is proof that if you are willing to put the time and energy in any dog can be rehabilitated and find a positive outlet for their energy. Read What the Dog Knows: Scent, Science, and the Amazing Way Dogs Perceive the World.


A dog walks around experiencing the world guided by one main sense amongst others: olfaction. Part of the reason dogs began connecting with humans was because humans wanted to harness the power of the dog’s nose to help them hunt. A dog has up to 300 million olfactory receptor cells compared to a human who has 5 million.

After the dog smells an odor and it travels up their nasal cavity the odor hits their turbinate bones and the paranasal sinuses. This is a very complex system comprised of folds of bone covered in mucous membranes. This air continues to travel posteriorly and is then processed by the main olfactory epithelium (MOE).

The unique thing about the dog is it not only has this complex olfactory system but also another way for the odor to be processed and that is through the roof of the mouth; the vomeronasal sensory epithelium (VNsE), found in the vomeronasal organ (VNO). This VNO is lined with olfactory receptor cells, which relay these chemical messages to the dog’s amygdala and hypothalamus. Both the amygdala and hypothalamus play a big role in the dog’s emotional and behavioral responses. Which is precisely why nose work can have such a calming effect on a dog. Nose work is a great game for dogs who tend to be nervous and fearful.

If you have ever seen drug dogs playing with white rolled up towels, it is because they are not only getting the dog to learn the odor through the nasal cavity but also the vomeronasal organ (VNO).  By biting on and playing with these scented towels another pathway to the brain is created and associated with that odor. The information from these sensory cells in the vomeronasal organ is transmitted through a separate neuronal pathway to the brain.

The above video shows Goosey in the beginning stages of learning that the white towels are fun by playing with Sherlock, the retired bed bug dog I worked with for 5 years.

How can all of this information benefit the common household dog? You can teach your dog to sniff out and find things, by starting with a target odor like birch oil. (below you will find information on how to start teaching your dog this by enrolling in a class) Since dogs have a much bigger part of their brain dedicated to olfaction, just 20 minutes of sniffing can be exhausting for a dog. This is a great way to tire your dog out on a rainy day. After playing a nose work game, most dogs will be ready for a nap.

There are nose work kits available too which you can find here. The kits are good because they come with the basic items you will need to get started. (glass jar, q-tips, metal tins with holes, forceps, and an airtight container to hold it all)

The first step in teaching your dog how to find a target odor is to find out what motivates them.

If your dog is motivated by toys find out which one your dog likes the best. Some examples are tennis balls, tug of war toys, or any other toys. If you use a tennis ball I recommend this one on a rope, because it allows you to play tug with the dog.

If your dog is motivated by food when you are first introducing the game use a food with the highest value. One that the dog loses its mind over. I have found that my dogs will do anything for lamb lung treats. To start your dog off with developing the skill to search hold the dog on a leash and just throw the motivator somewhere that the dog can see you throw it, then let the dog go and find it. Make it really easy the first few times. This will also let you know how much work and patience you will need with your dog to get them started on this game. Some dogs will start looking for the item and not give up until they find it and others will give up right away. Once again, make it easy! Make the reward worth it!

Here is an example of Laguna my dog who used to be very fearful learning the game of “seek”.

This video was her 3rd time playing this game. I put her in another room and let her watch me drop a treat into a box, I then went and pretended to also drop treats in a few other boxes. On leash, I gave her the cue “seek” and when she got to the box with the treat I made it a mini event and let her eat the treat in the box as well as throwing in a few more. If your dog is already very high energy and knows how to play fetch, you can begin pairing the target odor with the reward on day 1. Laguna needed to first learn how to find treats because she was very unsure of this new game, now she loves it! She cannot wait to have her turn when I am playing it with each of the dogs I live with. Laguna is now at the point where her final response is a “sit”, so as soon as she smells the target odor, which for her is bed bugs, she sits.

If your dog’s motivator is a toy then you would drop the toy in the box and when the dog finds it, you would then make a big deal out of it, play tug of war, and let your dog know you are very happy with them.

Next step after your dog reliably knows the game of “seek”, “search”, or “find it”, you would begin pairing the target odor with the dog’s motivator. For many dogs, this can be done right away, it just depends on the dog. There is no exact method to this, each dog will be a unique case and you will adjust the initial nose work training based on the individual dog.

The best way to do this in the beginning stages is to have cinder blocks or PVC pipes. This allows your dog to stick its nose into the cylinder and get a big whiff of the target odor and the motivator. In the beginning stages as soon as the dog sticks its nose into the right one you would throw a reward at the block or PVC pipe. I like to throw the reward without my dog seeing me do it, this allows my dog to think that the reward just appeared after they smelled the target odor. You would then begin decreasing the motivator until all the dog is smelling is the target odor. Some dogs will arrive at this point of only target odor in a few days and others might take a few weeks. Keep each training session short, fun, and positive.

Laguna sticking her nose into a PVC pipe and alerting on bed bugs.

An example of Laguna giving a final response and alerting on a vial of bed bugs in the PVC.

Your dog will begin to associate the target odor with a reward, and soon enough you will see them get so excited when they think its time to play this nose work game.

This is how I began to teach Goosey, my W.D.D.O. certified NYC bed bug dog how to find the bed bugs. I trained Goosey on the bed bug odor every single day and she passed a rigorous double-blind test and we are now a certified NYC bed bug team. If you want to know more about how I trained her, feel free to email me. You can also take a look at our NYC bed bug dog website, Doctor Sniffs, by following this link.

This is just one of many methods to teach a dog scent detection for sport, work, or fun.

Eventually, you can teach the dog a final alert like sit or lie down. When the dog smells the odor they will automatically sit.

Enrolling in a nose work class can be a very fun and rewarding thing to do with your dog. By attending a class you and your dog will have more structure and homework to keep both of you on track. You can find a list of certified canine scent work instructors on The National Association of Canine Scent Work web page. If your area does not have a certified instructor then I would highly recommend enrolling in an online class at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Here is the full list of their scent work classes. https://fenzidogsportsacademy.com/index.php/courses/scent-sports