I often get asked at what age can I introduce my dog to scent work, my answer is always any age, the younger the better. Scentwork is the best activity in my opinion that you can do with your dog.
Raising a puppy can be hard work, puppies are busy little creatures that require a lot of stimulation and a lot of good quality rest and sleep. Many people think that in order to tire a puppy out the best thing to do is either to take the puppy for a walk or to play high intensity games with the puppy but truthfully these two things can do the opposite of what we set out to achieve. The best combination to satisfy and tire a puppy out is to have a nice balance between physical exercise (play, walks etc) and mental exercise (problem solving games, scent work etc).
Puppies navigate the world from the very second they are born, their nose immediately kicks into action, so they are never too young to start scent games!
The Dogs Nose And How It Works?
Depending on the breed, a dogs sense of smell is 10,000 to 100,000 times better than our own.
Dogs inhale through their nostrils and exhale through the slits at the side of their nose, which helps them to avoid pushing out any important scent. They can move and use each nostril independently and can tell which nostril the scent reached first, this allows them to locate the direction that the smell is coming from. When the dog breaths in, the airflow is split between two paths, one for breathing and one for olfaction, smelling.
The olfactory epithelium of a dog covers 150 square centimetres (23.3 square inches) and can contain 300 million scent receptors depending on the breed, compared to just 5 or 6 million in a human. Information from the olfactory epithelium is processed in the brain by the olfactory bulb. Relative to body size, a dog’s olfactory bulb is around 40-times larger than ours.
Find The Treat- The Cup Game
This is an easy game to set up, all you need are 3 plastic cups and some tasty treats.
Place one cup on the floor upside down, with your puppy watching place a treat under the cup.
Release the puppy with the cue 'Find It' and allow them to sniff, nudge, knock the cup over to find the treat. Praise them when they find the treat under the cup.
After a couple of repetitions add a second cup, repeat the game. Build up to adding a third cup to the game.
Once your puppy is getting good at this game you can start adding more cups and you can change the layout of the cups. By creating a larger search area with the cups then your puppy will start to have to use their nose to find the hidden treat rathe than memorising where you put it.
Find The Treats- Treasure Hunt
You need to use treats that are smelly, dried sprats or mild cheese are perfect. If your puppy can do a stay then great but if not you will need to keep your puppy in one place while you hide the treats, either have a helper or pop your puppy behind a babygate or in their crate.
Pop your puppy in a stay or have your helper gently hold them. Place a treat out in front of your puppy, allow them to watch you do this. Return to your puppy and ask them to 'Find it' or "Search'. With any luck they will go straight for the treat that you placed out in front of them. Repeat this several times.
Once your puppy is confidently finding the treat straight away that you've placed out you can begin to hide the treat somewhere a little harder but still obvious, for example behind the edge of the kitchen counter or round the side of a chair. At this point it should still be very easy for your puppy, you are looking for them to start actively searching for the treat and not being distracted by anything else laying around.
Time to take a break! Using their nose is very tiring.
By this stage your puppy should be eagerly trying to find the treat that you've hidden. Repeat the whole process again but this time hide at least 5 treats, encourage your puppy to continue searching once they find one treat until they find them all.
To add another level of difficulty pop your puppy into another room and then hide at least 5 treats in first room. Release your puppy back into the search room and let their nose get to work.
Find A Scented Toy
Engage in a fun game with your dog using the scented toy. This is the imprinting stage, while your dog is playing they are having fun whilst sniffing and tasting the scent from the toy. This is classical conditioning, you are aiming to create a positive emotional response to the odour. Repeat several times over a few days. Pop the toy away in the jar once you've finished.
Pick the cue that you will use for scentwork, I recommend choosing a different cue if you already use a 'Find It' for treats. Good cues are Search or Go Sniff.
Pop yourself in the hallway that leads into the kitchen or living room, gently hold on to your dog's collar or harness. Once you've teased them a little with the toy throw it into the room and cue your dog to search. Hopefully, they run into the room and pick up the toy, if this happens follow them in and play again before swapping with a treat to take the toy back. If this doesn't happen then you need to do more of step 1.
Repeat around 5 times.
Repeat the above step but this time when you throw the toy into the room try to make it land slightly hidden, use corners of the room or furniture or place some cushions on the floor. In this stage, the dog should see you throw the toy but not see it straight away so they begin to search more. Reward in the same way as step Repeat quite a few times.
Time to take a break! Using their nose is very tiring.
By this stage your dog should be super keen to run into the room to find the toy. It's at this stage that you can start to make the search a little more difficult.
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