"As we see the world, the dog smells it." - Alexandra Horowitz, 'Inside of a Dog'
What are YOUR dog's strengths? Weaknesses? Likes? Dislikes? Take moment to think about this. Does your dog constantly sniff the air or ground as you watch him outside? Does she always have to be the embarrassing one who stuffs her nose in some innocent person's crotch, not so subtly? Does she enjoy games where she has to "sniff it out"? Does he do the "smell search" every time you walk in the door, seemingly checking every fold of your britches and laces of your shoe for details about your time away from them? These are a few examples of a dog who may be scent driven. Most dogs actually are and some are just simply out of practice in domestic life. This article is specifically written to help you find ways to enrich your scent driven dog.
First I want to start with a bit of science just to give you an idea of what we're working with here. We, humans, have six million olfactory receptors. Wow!!! That sounds like a lot, eh? Dogs have up to 300 million. Additionally, the part of the brain that analyzes smells is 40 times bigger in dogs than humans. I once heard it described this way: A human walks into the kitchen and smells spaghetti cooking. A dog gets a whiff from three doors down and smells basil, oregano, parsley, tomatoes, garlic, onions, mushrooms, the oil you used, and most likely a few smells that came in from the grocery store where you got the bread to go along.
So if this is true, I can't help but wonder how dogs are adjusting to all of the smelly things around their homes. Bathing them in 'Jasmine Delight' shampoo and washing their bedding in 'A Cool Spring Breeze' soap and plopping it down beside the 'Hawaiian Escape' Febreeze plug-in. I would venture to say, modern day dogs may be a little overwhelmed by all this scent we are spraying, washing, and dabbing everywhere. An astronomical increase in dogs presenting allergies in the past decade may have a wee bit to do with a few things other than food. But I suppose that is a topic for another day, my friends. ;)
Once you have an idea of what your pooch enjoys and what their strengths are, using these extremely simple activities to enrich their surroundings may just be the ticket to having a happier bud! So with out further ado, here are my go-to's for activities designed to stimulate the scent driven dog...or cat. ( Keep in mind, some modern dogs are a little out of practice and may need to re-learn scenting...if your bud doesn't get it right away, be patient! )
" Mental exercise tires a dog more than physical exercise does. "
-Dr. Ian Dunbar, Director of The Center for Applied Animal Behavior
Activity 1: Hide and Seek
Begin by using some high value treats (see below if you have no idea what that means). Keep your dog or cat in another room while you put a few treats out in plain view on the floor, scattered about. Let them in while using the cue words, "Where is it?" (I also hold my hands, palms out, to motion that I don't have it). If they seem confused prompt them a little by looking at the treats when your pup looks at you. Once they find the treats, repeat this a few times, keeping it exciting and FUN! Once they understand the routine, begin to hide the treats in bit harder places to find. Maybe closer to the fringes of the room, beside the legs of a table, or just under the outside edge of a rug or their dog bed. Remember to use the cue words "Where is it?" when they enter the room each time. You will probably watch them go from using their eyes to find the treats to sniffing about until they find them, this is great! A few weeks in to utilizing this activity, you may feel comfortable enough to stop using high value treats and just use kibble. Or you may hide their favorite toy. The possibilites are endless when your companions understand and enjoy this game. Ideas for a 'seasoned' Hide and Seeker: stop using treats and start using kibble by grabbing their mealtime portion and scattering/hiding it around the house or in the yard. Do they have a favorite toy? Hide that! The yard is fun because it is more challenging, your pup is guaranteed to love this game!
Activity 2: Which Hand?
This one is super simple as well! Grab a high value treat and sit on the floor in front of your bud. Once you have their attention, place the treat in one palm and close your fingers around it, holding it out in a loose palm down fist. Keep other hand out of sight. Cue, " Which hand?" When they sniff your fist (with the treat) and touch your fist, open your palm and cue, "Yes!" Do this several more times, making sure to wait until the dog has touched that fist with their nose/paw before rewarding.
Make it more challenging by adding in the other fist (treat free). Reward and cue, "Yes!" when they touch the right hand. (If your pup is having a hard time with this one, maybe start with "touch"...it is super easy for most dogs to learn and could provide a good basis for this game if needed. Learn here.)
Activity 3: Natural Born Tracker
Your dog is a natural when it comes to tracking scents of other predators, prey, and other competitors. Help them exercise this ability! Give an old rag to a friend and ask them to rub it all over their dog or cat. Place the rag outside when your pup is not around, maybe under a bush or in a back corner.
Warning: Do not do this activity inside...it may make your bud want to urinate inside, lol! Let them out into the yard and observe! It is surprising how well dogs can track a scent like that! This one is especially fun when just before raking the yard in the fall!
Activity 4: A Sprinkle Here...A Sprinkle There
Build your dog's scent smarts by sprinkling a tiny amount of cinnamon, basil, lavender, mint, etc. on their bed from time to time. How about making a "crumb trail" of sprinkles throughout the house for them to follow leading up to....you guessed it, a treat! Or dinner! Or a toy!
Have an empty box laying around? Sprinkle some treats/kibble in it, maybe throwing in some newspaper to make it a little bit of a search once inside. Close it up so that it can easily be opened. Get your pooch really really really excited about what may be in there and then put it down for them to tear into.
Once your buds understand that when the cue "Where is it?" is used, that means they will want to look for something...which opens up so many other pathways to scent games and activities. When playing these games, pick up other distracting toys or chews so it is easier to find what you want them to look for! If they are having a hard time with finding toys, etc. get them excited about THAT toy before you hide it.
A side note or two: Some people are concerned about using cardboard boxes or paper boxes for enrichment as the pooch shreds it...will they swallow it? In my experience it is perfectly safe and dogs usually won't chow down on paper products. If they do ingest a little, no big deal. Of course, YOU know YOUR friend...if they have a history of eating phonebooks...you may want to stick with the store bought "indestructible" ones.
Others ask, "Will using things out of my recycling make my dog want to dig in the trash?" Absolutely not! Dogs naturally want to shred things....giving them an outlet for that behavior is healthy! In fact, it may KEEP your dog from digging in the trash! Ha!
***High Value Treats - usually something that no dog with a working nose could turn down. It's different for every dog. We have worked with our pups enough that theirs is plain 'ol kibble or veggies...sssshhhhhh don't tell em! Don't get too excited about buying some $7 treats, you probably have them in your fridge right meow. Examples: hot dogs, chicken, carrots, cheese, apple...or if you have a dog that has learned just HOW much they love fruit/veggies, a few more may be tomato, strawberry, avocado, carrot or green beans.