The Nose Knows: Nose Work Games for Dogs

Do you know that your dog’s nose can be 10,000 to 100,000 times stronger than your own? They can also categorize what they’re smelling too!

Basically, they have an amazing nose. To put it in terms we humans understand better, if you can see a third of a mile away, your dog can see 3,000 miles away. That’s how big the difference is and how important your dog’s sense of smell is to him.

Part of the reason his sniffer works so well is that the part of your dog’s brain that regulates his olfactory sense is some 40 times larger than that same part of your brain.

As a good dog parent, you’ll want to ensure that his sniffer is kept in good shape, and one of the best ways to do that is with K9 nose work. Most of the time when people think of dogs’ scent work, they think of police dogs or rescue dogs who are working for a living.

But scent games are just as important for your best friend as they are for working dogs. Your dog needs not only the nose work but the mental stimulation that comes from dog training that involves these kinds of enrichment games.

What are the Benefits of Nose Work?

lab with a treat dispenser ball toy

Nose work is an important part of your dog’s life. It’s important for his emotional state of mind. That’s an important part of his well-being. Your dog’s nose is how he investigates the world, and to keep him happy, he needs to use that sniffer because it’s one of his natural behaviors.

Researchers in the U.S. and France who are specialists in dog behavior and cognition tested the effect of nose work games for dogs on their emotional states. They concluded that nose work activities make dogs more optimistic which improves their welfare.

Every loving pet parent wants their four-legged family members to be happier, and using his nose makes your dog happier. Now you can get him involved in nose work classes to give him that mental stimulation.

But you can also play DIY scent games at home or you can get a number of great dog toys and puzzles that you can use for some fun games that will keep your canine buddy happy for a long time.

According to the American Kennel Club (AKC), these enriching games will make your dog’s life a lot better. Let’s explore some of our top picks for dog-friendly scent games.

How to Get Your Dog Started with Scent Games

dog playing with balls

The easiest way for pet parents to get their canine buddy started with nose work is to begin with a few simple games. You don’t need a lot of equipment for this, and they will give your puppy a great experience.

Here are a few easy, fun games you can set up with very little equipment and that are recommended by the AKC:

Beginner Nose Work Games for Dogs: Muffin Tin Puzzles

Introductory scent games really only require a few items, and you probably already have these in your home. For this game, you need an empty muffin tin, 12 tennis balls, and some smelly dog treats that you know your puppy loves.

Just put the treats into some of the muffin tin holes and then cover those with tennis balls. After that, put tennis balls into all of the remaining empty muffin tin holes. Now bring in your nosy buddy and let him start exploring to find those treats.

Each time you play, be sure to change the location of the treats so your dog needs to effective follow a scent trail to find his reward.

Shell Game/Magic Trick

dog looking at cups. nose work games for dogs

This is a great introductory dog scent game, and it only requires three cups. If your dog is small, you can use something like paper cups, but if your dog is large, you might need those larger plastic cups or even flowerpots.

While your dog watches put a treat like some kibble under one of the cups. When your dog noses the cup or paws at it, give him plenty of praise and let him eat the treat. Do this a few times, and you can bring in a second cup after he has got it down.

With two cups in place, put a treat under one. Don’t move the cups initially, just let your dog find the treat. Each time your dog sniffs at the correct cup or paws at it or signals it in any way, praise him profusely and let him eat the treat.

If your pooch picks the wrong cup, lift it and show him nothing is there. Then you can lift the correct cup and show him the treat. Put it back down and let your dog select the right cup before you let him eat the treat.

As your dog gets better, you can start adding more cups and moving them around. It’s like a game of hide and seek for your dog’s nose. Because you hide treats under different cups and move them around, your dog can’t simply memorize their location. He has to use his nose to find them.

Box Search

All this game requires are some empty boxes. These are effectively your hiding places for treats. Put them out on the floor, and in one or a few of the boxes, put some kibble or other kinds of treats.

After you’ve hidden the treats, bring your dog in and encourage him to search. When he finds a treat, praise him profusely and let him eat the treat.

After he’s found all the treats, rather than let him keep searching, bring him another treat and lure him away from the boxes before giving it to him. That will help your dog to realize it’s a game you’re playing, and it will prevent him from getting frustrated when he can’t find any more treats.

What Are Some Advanced Nose Work Games for Dogs?

multipuzzle dog game

After your puppy masters the easier scent games, you’ll want to up the ante so that your dog stays engaged. Here are a few advanced nose work games for dogs.

Scent Trails

You can use different kinds of scents to entice your best friend. Essential oils like lavender, anise, and valerian are a few examples. To get your dog engaged with the scent, you can motivate him by using his favorite toy. Put a few drops of the scent on it, and then, play with him and his toy.

Repeat that a few times throughout the day. The following day, when your dog isn’t around, hide that same toy. Take a piece of paper and anoint it with the oil. Then tear it into tiny pieces and place them one after the other as a trail leading about 20 feet away from the toy itself.

You’re effectively creating a scent trail for your dog to follow to get to his beloved toy. When you bring your dog into the room, urge him to find his favorite toy with a command like, “Find your ball!”

When your dog finds it, reward him with lots of praise and play with him and the toy for a while. You can start inside with this game, and when your dog gets good at it, you can take it outside. You can also change the scent from time to time to keep it interesting.

Find the Scent

dog enrichment

This is a little more advanced than the scent trails game above. This is how dog trainers teach dogs to find certain scents like those coming from drugs or bombs. After you’ve taught your dog the scent trails game, you can move on to this one.

To start, use that same scented favorite toy from the scent trails game above. Put it in a shoebox. Once again, encourage your canine buddy to find the toy with your verbal prompt. It may take a while, but your dog will eventually find the toy.

When that happens, reward your pooch with some playtime. Now, after you’ve repeated this exercise several times, use three boxes. Keep the toy in the original box you used so that the other boxes don’t become contaminated with the smell.

Once again, encourage your dog to find the toy and praise him when he is successful. After your dog masters this phase, just place a slip of paper with the same scent in the same box as the toy was in.

Hide the original toy outside, wash your hands, and put a new toy with no scent on it in your pocket. Again, have your dog find the toy. As he gets close to the box with the scented slip of paper inside, praise him and throw the unscented toy out for him to play with.

Over time, you can increase the distance and the number of boxes you use. It’s in this way that you can train your dog to be an expert tracker.

You can also vary this game by hiding a small slip of paper with the same scent on a person. Have your dog smell several people in a row and reward him when he finds the scent on the correct person.

dog with treat dispensing ball

Competing in Nose Work Dog Sports

As a matter of fact, there are nose work dog sports! Three professional dog trainers in scent work started K9 Nose Work Sports in 2006. These dog trainers professionally train canine detection dogs for use by law enforcement and in rescue missions.

They founded the National Association of Canine Scent Work. They regularly hold skills challenges, workshops, and other events for getting your dog involved in nose work sports. It’s a great way to provide your dog with mental stimulation and physical exercise as well.

Final Thoughts & Dog Puzzles for Nose Work

Nose work games for dogs are really important for your pup’s mental and physical well-being. It allows him to use his natural skills, helps socialize him with other people and animals, and provides him with enriching games that will keep his mind sharp.

It’s a great way for the two of you to spend time together too!! You can use your peepers while your best friend uses his nose. Together, you’ve got all the bases covered!