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5 Nose Work Games for Dogs That Are “Scentsational”

Did you know that dogs who exercise their noses are more optimistic? This fact alone is reason enough to want to learn some nose work games for dogs. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could make our furry besties even more cheery! Who’s in?

Since we’re all about canine happiness here at Happy-Go-Doodle®, I was super excited by the thought that simply playing scent games can make our dogs happier. By the end of this article, you’ll have five “scentsational” games you can play with your dog that are fun and easy.

Dog using nose to sniff out treat under solo cup, photo

Why is nose work or scent work good for dogs?

First, let’s track down the science behind why scent work or nose work puts the pep in our dogs’ steps.

I was so happy to come across an article (Science Direct, Let me sniff! Nosework induces positive judgment bias) explaining how nose work increases dogs’ positive judgment bias, which is another way of saying optimism.

In summary, you can help your dog think positively simply by allowing them to sniff!

Why do dogs like sniffing so much? Unlike us “hoomans,” our dogs have extraordinary olfactory abilities. In fact, according to many experts, dogs have a sense of smell that’s 10,000 to 100,000 times stronger than ours.

Of the five senses, the sense of smell is the primary one for our doggos. It’s how they interpret the world.

Close up of dog's nose sniffing and blue sky, photo

So how can we help them? That’s where nose work games for dogs come in. To set the playing field for why these games are so fun for dogs, let’s get a brief definition of nose work.

What is nose work?

In the broadest definition, nose work (also called scent work) is any activity that allows your dog to use his or her innate sense of smell and detect scents. Plus, it gives you and your dog a way to bond and enjoy time together.

In a narrower sense, nosework is a relatively new sport where handlers and dogs compete together in competitions that mimic tasks of professional detection dogs. There are several organizations that offer scent work competitions including American Kennel Club’s AKC Scent Work.

In these sporting events the dog and handler work as a team as the dog searches for cotton swabs saturated with a dog-safe essential oil. (BTW…nose work or scent work is not be confused with the work of professional detection dogs.)

Also, there are a growing number of dog clubs that offer scent work classes for dogs and dog parents.

Joining clubs or formalized competition groups are a great activity, but you can also help your dog feel happier by playing nose work games in your own home. (BTW…wondering how happy your dog actually is? Check out my post: Is my dog happy?)

My red Goldendoodle dog and I think these five games are “scentsational.” 🤣 We hope you enjoy trying them, too!

5 nose work games for dogs that are “scentsational”

These games are easy to play at home and require very few items. (Plus, they’re great boredom busters for a rainy day! And for more rainy day activities, don’t miss our list of 29 things to do with your dog.)

The warm-up

First, if you’re new to at-home scent games for dogs, it’s important to start by teaching your dog how to “Find it!” 

To teach this concept, simply place an item your dog loves just out of your dog’s reach. Then ask your dog to “Find it.”

When your dog finds it, goes to it, touches it with his or her nose, mark the behavior with a reward, tasty treat, or celebration. Continue playing and moving the object a little farther away each time.

Your dog may initially use his or her sense of sight to find the item, but as you move it farther away, he or she will use his or her sense of smell.

Additionally, as you move the item farther away, you can brush the item along the floor so the smell leaves an “invisible scent” track.

Once your dog has the basics down, you’re ready to move on to these beginner scent games you can play at home.

1. Pick a Hand: A beginner scent game

Object of game:

Your dog uses his or her nose to determine which one of your outstretched hands holds a dog treat.

What you’ll need:

The first game on our list doesn’t require any special supplies. All you need is you, your dog, and smelly treats that your dog loves. Or, your could even try using a few pieces of your dog’s kibble.

Red dog using nose to sniff out which hand has the hidden treat, photo

How to play the “Pick a Hand” game:

Place a dog treat in the palm of one hand and nothing in your other hand.

Close both hands, making them into fists.

Turn both of your hands knuckle side up in front of your dog. Ask your dog to “Pick a hand” or “Find it. ”

If your dog picks the hand with the treat, give your dog the treat…and celebrate like you’ve both won the lottery.

If your dog picks the empty hand, simply open your hand, close it, and ask your dog to “Find it” again.

This simple game gets dogs excited because they’re using their sense of smell to detect favorite treats.

2. Hide it and Find it! (A search and find scent game)

Object of game:

Your dog follows his or her nose to track down the treats (or other items) that you’ve hidden. It encourages listening skills and uses the sense of smell.

What you’ll need:

You, your dog, some smelly treats, an indoor space where it’s safe for your dog to sniff.

How to play the “Hide it and Find it!” game:

Ask your dog to “sit” while you “hide” the dog treats in one room. (If your dog has trouble sitting, ask another human to distract your dog.)

Place some of the treats where they are easy for your dog to find, and make some treats more challenging to find. For example, more challenging spots could be under the edge of a rug or behind a chair leg. (By the way, so your dog doesn’t learn counter surfing habits, don’t place treats on tables or countertops.)

Once you’ve hidden the treats, ask your dog to “find it” using a happy, upbeat voice. If your dog has trouble finding the treats, give your dog verbal cues of encouragement when close to a treat.

Also, to make sure your dog doesn’t eat anything that’s been unintentionally dropped on the floor—always supervise your dog.

3. What’s Under the Cup, Pup?

Object of game:

Your dog uses his or her nose to determine which cup to tip over revealing a dog treat inside.

three red solo cups and red Goldendoodle waiting to play a scent game for dogs, photo

What you’ll need:

3 paper cups (or other small container or bowl that’s dog safe), dog treats or kibble, you, your dog.

How to play the “What’s Under the Cup, Pup?” game:

For this fun scent game, you’ll need three cups. (I use Solo cups.)

Turn all the cups upside down and sit them on the floor.

Place a dog treat underneath one of the three cups.

Point to the cups, and ask your dog to “find it” using an excited voice.

When your dog tips the correct cup over and reveals the treat (and eats it, of course), give him or her plenty of praise.

Variation:

Once your dog accomplishes this game, start moving the cups around after placing the treat under one of the cups.

4. Let the Good Times Roll…And Unroll!

Object of game:

Your dog uses his or her nose to unroll a towel revealing treats that have been sprinkled inside.

What you’ll need:

A large bath towel, kibble or treats, you, your dog.

How to play the “Let the Good Times Roll & Unroll” game:

Sprinkle treats or kibble evenly over the flat towel.

Starting at one end, roll the towel up. As you roll, the treats will be hidden inside the towel.

Next, ask your dog to “Find it.” Use an excited voice and point to the rolled up towel. (If your dog needs help, you can start unrolling the towel a little bit to encourage the behavior.)

As your dog uses his or her sniffer (or even paws) to unroll the towel, the treats will be revealed inside the towel.

Of course, your dog will eat the treats as he or she finds them. When your dog has unrolled the towel and found all the treats, celebrate!

Together, you and your dog are letting the good times roll.

Red dog using nose to find the treats inside a rolled up bath towel, photo

5.  Hide and Find Me

This is a dog-friendly twist on the classic children’s game of hide and seek. In the dog-friendly version, of course, your dog is always the “finder” who searches for you. You are the “hider.”

What you’ll need:

You, your dog, your home, or an indoor space that’s dog safe.

How to play the “Hide and Find Me” game:

Have someone distract your dog while you hide in a place where your dog can find you. (We like to hide behind a door, under a table, or behind a couch.)

Encourage your dog to come find you by giving a verbal cue such as “Find me!”

Allow your dog to use his or her sniffer to search for you and find you in your hiding place. When your dog finds you, celebrate like you won the lottery and your dog won a lifetime supply of doggy treats!

Variations:

Name the hider: For a three player (two humans and on dog) variation of this game, try teaching your dog to find a specific person.

One human and one dog are now on the finder team. The finder team goes out of the room or area while the hider hides.

The finder then asks your dog to “Find Name.” The finder team works together to find the hider. When they are all united, everyone celebrates.

An even hard challenge: If you take your furry pal to dog-friendly stores, you can try an on-leash version of this game by going to separate sections of the store and then asking your on-leash dog to “Find Name!” 

For example, we’ve played this game quite by accident while at a dog-friendly store. One of our family members wandered to another section of the store. I asked my dog to “Find Dad.”

My dog got very excited and tracked through the store following her nose…until we’re all reunited!

Scent work toys for dogs

On a related note, you might be wondering about canine enrichment toys that use your dog’s sense of smell.

Plush dog toys with pockets, dog puzzles with sliders, or even dog treat dispensers are just a few different types of scent toys for dogs that encourage your dog to use his or her sense of smell while solving problems.

These are also great ways to bond with your dog, and your dog gets much-appreciated nose work added to his or her day.

Have a scentsational time with your dog

By sharing these nose work games and toys, we hope that you and your fur baby enjoy many “sniffy” moments together. And if you’re ready for more fun, check out our list of 14 games to play with your dog.

Thank you for stopping by Happy-Go-Doodle®, and have fun helping your dog enjoy happier, more optimistic days…and bonding with you, too.

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