Serious About Sniffing

Having fun through the nose
By Karen B. London PhD, September 2014, Updated July 2016

“Tucker is serious about sniffing,” my husband said about 10 minutes after we met him, and I agreed. Tucker is an 8-month old puppy who is mostly German Shepherd, but has something else in him, too. We were watching him for a few days while his guardian attended a wedding on the east coast, and we had never met him before.

My first priority when new dogs come to our house is to make them happy here, and that involves several stages. The first step is making sure that their initial introduction at the house is a positive experience. We make sure that water is available, that they get to explore the back yard to find toys, and that every member of the family generously provides treats. If the dog is not overwhelmed and is used to leash walks, we head out for a short one as soon as the initial meet-and-greet is over.

The second step is all about finding out what makes the dog happy so we can provide it. That means figuring out what the dog does for fun and how we can help him have a good time while he is here with us. For many dogs, the fun and happiness is all about treats, and lots of exercise outside. For others, it’s a tennis ball or nothing. Most love the opportunity to chew on bones and other dog-safe items intended for this purpose. A few simply want lots of loving—petting, massage and the opportunity to be up on the bed at nap time and at night.

Tucker is all about sniffing, so the first thing I decided to do was teach him to play “Find your treat.” This is a game in which you hide treats and then instruct your dog to find them. To begin, put some treats on the floor or furniture near you without your dog seeing you do it. Say the cue “Find your treat” and tap or point to the treats. Repeat this many times until the dog starts to search for the treats as soon as you say the cue. Then, you can drop the tap or point from the process.

Once the dog is doing well at this, you can spread the treats out further, progressing to a 5-foot spread, then a 10-foot spread, and even over a broader range and in harder-to-find spots. As your dog continues to succeed at this game, you can advance to putting treats all over a whole room and then to putting treats all over several rooms before giving the cue. At first, most dogs find the treats visually, but then progress to using their nose for the task, especially if you begin to hide them.

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In addition to playing “Find your treat” with Tucker, we also went on walks to new places as often as possible so that he could sniff to his heart’s content. We allowed him to choose the pace on walks so that he could take time to smell the fire hydrants. Tucker would be a great candidate for nose work, but even with no formal work, it was easy enough to satisfy his need to sniff by taking him to places full of great smells and playing search games in the house.

Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression. She has authored five books on canine training and behavior.

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