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What Is Scentwork Training For Dogs?

Updated: Oct 12, 2023

A german shepherd husky mix dog is standing with their front paws up on a flower bed and their nose pointing at a tiny square on a fence panel. The dog is indicating the presence of a scent for detection and their body is frozen still.

If you've spent any amount of time on dog training tiktok, you may have seen some dog owners or trainers talking about scentwork. But what actually is it? How is it different from hiding your dog's toy in the house and making them find it? How do you get from scentwork to airport detection dogs? Which dogs can do scentwork?

Let's start at the beginning! Simply put, scentwork is training your dog to find and indicate upon a scent. The indication is the biggest part of it, dogs can always find a scent because their noses are incredible but it's teaching them how they can communicate where the scent is to us without them touching it that makes it scentwork.

If you hide your dog's toy in your home and let them find it (which, still a great game btw) your dog will go find it, pick up the toy and bring it back. Which is all well and good until you need a festival dog to detect a bag of cocaine on a person. Not only do you absolutely not want that cocaine anywhere near the dog's mouth (for obvious reasons), the dog also won't be allowed to touch the person they're searching. So we have the freeze indication.

If you've ever seen a dog practising scentwork, you've likely seen the freeze indication. If you haven't, it's exactly what it sounds like (and Mars is demonstrating it in the blog photo above!). The dog sniffs around to find the scent and when they find where it is, they point their nose at it and, well, freeze. They go completely still to communicate to their handler that they've found something, the handler then rewards the dog for finding the scent and indicating on it and, if required, passes the findings onto the police or event organiser.

So, the difference between scentwork and airport drug detection dogs? Nothing. It's one and the same. Scentwork IS drug detection. It's also bomb and explosive detection, gun residue detection and cadaver detection. It's also allergy detection, used for people with severe nut or gluten allergies. Scent is even how dogs are able to detect changes in heart rate, blood pressure and blood sugar levels. As long as you have a scent, you can train your dog to indicate when they find it.

Fun fact: While science hasn't isolated the change that causes it yet, some dogs can even detect changes in epileptic patients up to 30 minutes before they have a seizure, giving the patient time to prepare. It's not something that can be actively trained until the chemical the body releases is isolated, so the dogs can practice on it, and sometimes the body only releases it up to two minutes before a seizure which isn't the most warning, but still incredible and a very real future possibility for people with epilepsy.

Now we know what scentwork is, which dogs can do it?

Recreationally, literally any and every dog! And before you say "My dog is such an idiot there's no way", I know frenchies, pugs, chihuahuas, pomeranians, toy poodles and all kinds of poodle mixes that are excellent at scentwork. Mars was incredible at it at 6 months old and I've met 12 year old dogs that have just learned it for the first time. There's no age or breed limit to recreational scentwork. Your dog's nose is way more advanced than you can even imagine!

Professionally speaking though, in the U.K. at least, your dog must either be a Labrador, Spaniel or Pointer breed to work as a detection dog, apart from cadaver dogs which accept German Shepherds. Police will also use German Shepherds for tracking criminals. The breed specification is partly to do with size, you want a dog that can nimbly get around to detect but can also reach everywhere needed, but largely is about temperament and working drive. Detection shifts are long, often 12 hour events and if you've ever tried any scentwork with your dog, you'll know how tiring it is. The dogs also need to be comfortable and being in new places and being around new people and able to ignore distractions so they can focus on their job.

Speaking of being tiring, scentwork is so mentally exhausting that working dogs are only allowed to detect in 20 minute intervals. After 20 minutes of work, they must have 20 minutes of rest before being brought back out. While the dogs might not be physically moving very much, they have to use their brain and concentrate so hard that it wipes them out. This makes scentwork perfect for a rainy-day activity with your dog or a general activity if you have a working-line breed. Scentwork provides an unparalleled level of mental stimulation.

What do you think, have we inspired you to give scentwork a try? We have a lot of videos on our instagram and tiktok of Mars in scentwork sessions you can check out if you're curious!

Happy Training!

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