Should you train your dog to be a sniffer dog?
One of the most well-known facts about dogs is that they have fantastic sense of smell. In fact, dogs’ ability to detect odours is thought to be around 10,000 – 100,000 times stronger than our own! This gives dogs the incredible power to detect and differentiate smells which are almost exactly the same, even at low concentrations – paired with their impressive trainability, dogs and their noses can achieve some incredible feats. Dogs have been used in the military, in law enforcement and in search and rescue operations. They can even help us in conservation efforts, detecting protected species in a given area!
Scent detection is – happily – becoming more and more popular and accessible in the dog training world. So, what exactly is it? And why might the average dog owner (and their dogs!) enjoy and benefit from taking part in detection training?
Scent detection is more than just sniffing – a detection dog is trained to search for a specific scent and then “indicate” to their handler to let them know the odour is present. For example, firearms dogs can be trained to detect gunpowder and gun oil, while drug dogs will be taught to indicate only for specific narcotics. Detection dogs learn to perform this task in varied environments and around numerous distractions, to ensure they indicate reliably. Even the way the dog indicates needs to be reliable – for example, it’s important the explosive detection dog indicates “passively,” without touching the source of the odour and potentially disturbing an explosive device! A trained detection dog is a prime example of how impressive dogs can be, both displaying their incredible olfaction and their ability to learn complex tasks and work alongside their human handlers.
So, why might the average owner want to teach their dog to detect and alert to scents? Usually, a distinctive but harmless odour such as cloves is used when we work on scent detection for fun – so what exactly is the point?
Dogs LOVE it!
As many of you will already know simply by observing your own pets, dogs love to use their noses. It’s no surprise, given how developed their sense of smell is! The odours in the environment make up a big part of how our dogs perceive the world – going for a walk without the opportunity to sniff is, for our dogs, similar to us going for a lovely walk in the countryside with a blindfold on. Scent work is a great way to offer our dogs an outlet for a behaviour they already love to engage in, while making ourselves a part of that fun! So much training, understandably, is about teaching our dogs how to behave in ways which are most appropriate or convenient for the humans around them. The wonderful thing about scent work is that it’s really tapping into what our dogs were born to do! It doesn’t matter what breed your dog is, they can get great joy out of using their noses – and we humans get to see what our amazing dogs are capable of!
Just like physical exercise, providing our dogs with mental enrichment is not optional. We’ve all unfortunately experienced the desolation of being stuck indoors with nothing to do over the last couple of years, and finding ways to provide ourselves with physical and mental exercise quickly became a priority for many of us. Training our dogs new skills is a wonderful way to do this, and scent work is the pinnacle of mental enrichment! Activating parts of the brain that no other training can, why would you ever deny your dog the chance to take part in the ultimate doggy brain game?!
Promotes Positive Emotions
There are lots of myths out there about the right and left side of the brain, especially when it comes to humans. But did you know that, for many animals - including dogs, the right-side hemisphere of the brain is active when they are perceive something new or unfamiliar and while they are exhibiting aggressive/defensive behaviour? In other words, it is involved in the fight or flight response. Meanwhile, the left side of the brain is involved in routine behaviours and the perception of familiar things. Our dogs’ noses do something similar, with the right nostril alerting the right side of the brain to novel odours while the left nostril activates the left side of the brain when the dog smells something they are familiar with. This means that activities that involve our dogs sniffing odours they are familiar with, such as a target scent during detection work, can help to promote calmness and effectively disengage the stress response. This makes scent work a feel-good exercise for ANY dog, but particularly something to consider for those of you with anxious or fearful dogs.
You Can Do It Anywhere
Unlike many other activities, scent work can be done indoors or outdoors; in large or small spaces; with others around or with no one else around. Scent work is therefore an incredibly versatile activity, which you and your dog can enjoy even if your dog is uncomfortable around other dogs or when the weather interrupts your plans. Whether it’s a harsh winter’s day or the sun is out and it’s too hot to go for a walk, you can still engage in some scent work.
It'll Tire Your Dog Out!
Scent work has also been shown to tire dogs out very effectively. Around 15 minutes of concentrated scent work can be as tiring as an hour of physical exercise – combined with the fact that scent work promotes a calm mood and can be done even when you’re cooped up indoors, and it’s easy to see how this activity can be incredibly beneficial for us humans as well as our dogs!
Now that you know all the benefits to both dog and human, you must be keen to find the first scent work course you can attend! We offer our popular Scent Detectives course both online and in-person. The course is run by Zoe Willingham, who is a qualified scent detection instructor through the UK College of Scent Detection. Zoe has been trained and assessed by operational scent handlers and instructors from the metropolitan police, elite firearms support dog unit and medical detection dog unit.
Find our upcoming dates for our in-person Scent Detectives course at our purpose-built site in Barham and book a place via our website, here.
Check out our Dogversity online learning platform for more information about accessing our online Scent Detectives course.