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How to Train Your Dog to Use Their Nose: A Beginner’s Guide to Scent Work

Scent Work for Dogs

If you are new to dog training, you may think scent training your dog is too advanced. Most people associate scenting exercises with working dogs such as police K9s and explosive detection dogs.

But for our dogs, nothing is more natural than using their nose to discover their world. 

Dogs possess 100-300 million sensory receptors in their nose (in comparison, we have about 6 million). That means dogs get much more information about their environment through their nose than humans can imagine.

But there is more to getting dog sniffing than the fact that they are just good at it. When dogs sniff, their blood pressure drops, and the brain releases dopamine (the feel-good chemical). So, I often use it in my training sessions to give the dog a brain break or to relax if they seem frustrated.

Scent Training Releases Dopamine

Scent training a dog provides them with mental and physical stimulation that isn’t as likely to cause the adrenaline spike that many more physical activities (such as fetch) might create.

The best news is that you do not need any special equipment to get started! This article will give you a few different levels of scent training exercises. If you are new, start at the beginning and see where your dog’s nose takes you!

Scent Training For Dogs: Easy

In the beginning, use your dog’s favorite food or treats. Your first step is to condition a cue that tells your dog to “find it.”

Step 1: While gently holding on to your dog, throw a treat just 1-2 feet in front of him. While he is learning to use his nose, we want to motivate him by visually seeing the treat. Tell him, “Find it,” and let him pick up the treat. Repeat this 3-5 times.

Step 2: Start to toss the treat further away and repeat. 

Step 3: Hide the treat behind a wall or obstacle. The first few times you want the dog to see you hide it (so you may need a helper to hold him or put him in a stay). Then release him to “find it”.

Step 4: Place the treat out in the open before bringing your dog into the room (so he doesn’t visually see you placing the treat). Bring the dog into the room and tell him to “find it.” Because we are making the exercise more difficult (there is less visual information for the dog to understand where the treat is), keep the treat in sight the first few times you work on this step.

4 Basic Steps to Scent Training (Easy)

You can point it out if he has difficulty finding it the first few times. But then repeat some of the easier steps to ensure he has connected your verbal cue with looking for a treat.

Is your dog having fun?

Then mix it up by adding some boxes to the game. Boxes are one of the easiest dog scent work tools. You can use any old boxes (or order a few things off your Amazon wish list to get new ones).

Choose one box as the bait box and mark it with an X. This box will always hold the food. The food will leave behind a “scent ghost” that may confuse and frustrate your dog in future game sessions if you use it as a distraction box.

Place your bait box out with some food in it. Tell your dog to “find it.” You can encourage your dog to look in the box if he needs help. 


If your dog is afraid to stick his head in the box, do not force the issue! This is a game, and fun is our top priority! You can use dog bowls or something more shallow, such as shoe box covers.

As your dog learns the game, you can gradually start to include boxes to see if he is willing to sniff inside the box, but it should never be forced.

As your dog gets excited to play the game, add empty boxes so he has to use his nose to determine which box holds the treats. Start with just 1-2 empty boxes. As he is successful, you can add more.

Finally, start to get creative about box placement! Put some on their side or one on a chair. Watch as your dog starts exploring!

Old Boxes Make Great Tools for Scent Training

Here is a great video to help you get started.  This trainer starts her training a little differently than described, but go ahead and try both methods and see what makes the most sense to you.

You can use this as a fun outlet for your dog’s energy, or you can build on this. I am personally motivated by working with my dogs toward titles.

Any dog (even mixed breeds)  can register as a Canine Partner with the American Kennel Club. If your dog was successful with the above exercises, you can consider participating in AKC’s Virtual Scent Work Titles.

Scent Training For Dogs: Intermediate

If your dog enjoyed the last exercise, you may wonder if you can use scent training to help you in your everyday life.

You absolutely can. And if your dog liked the easy exercises, he will likely enjoy this next step, too.

First, decide what you want to teach your dog to find. In my house, the most helpful target item is my keys! But some people will choose their wallet or phone. 

After you choose your item, you will teach your dog to target that item. Here are the steps:

Step 1: Hold the object in front of your dog.

Step 2: When your dog sniffs it (as most dogs will offer when presented with a new object), mark (with a clicker or a marker word).

Step 3: Follow up with a treat.

Step 4: Try placing the target object on the floor as your dog catches on to the game. Mark and treat when your dog sniffs it.

Step 5: Name it! Once your dog is targeting the object, start making an association with a verbal cue. So, put the object down and tell the dog to “find the [insert name of object].” Click and treat when he starts to sniff the object.

As your dog catches on, start to place the object out of sight, beginning with  accessible hides.

Scent Training for Everyday Objects

Some dogs might naturally want to pick up the objects. Others may look excited when they find the object. You can train an alert response if you aren’t seeing a behavior change that tells you when your dog finds the object.

In the scent detection world, this is often a sit. 

You will return to step one and create a behavior chain to train this. When your dog sniffs the object, cue him to sit, then click and treat on the sit. Do this a handful of times, and then withhold the sit cue. If the dog sits on his own, click/treat.

If he doesn’t, that’s okay. He just needs a few more repetitions with the verbal cue.

Is your dog having fun?


There are also dog sports where you can earn titles for lost item recovery! The North American Sports Dog Association offers lost item recovery events online and in person. I enjoy attending live sporting events to talk with other dog handlers. These events often include workshops that can help you sharpen your dog’s search skills.

Scent Training for Dogs: Advanced

In the advanced stages, you will choose a scent to imprint with your dogs. 

What scent will you pick? Think about what you want to do in the future with your dog.

Suppose you want to try competitive K9 Nose Work. In that case, you will use an essential oil. The National Association of Canine Scent Work (NACSW) and the American Kennel Club (AKC) use birch, anise, and clove in their trials. The AKC also uses cypress.

But if you are just playing around, you can use an item like an herbal tea bag. I  use mint. Do a quick web search to ensure the herb you pick is safe for dogs..

Essential Oils Can Be Useful for Advanced Scent Training

Note about handling essential oils: A little goes a long way when using essential oils. One or two drops on the head of a cotton swab is enough. Also, when handling oils, wear gloves so no oil spreads to your hands. This will only confuse your dog.

Tools: Put the cotton swabs with oil in a scent container like this. Once a tin has one essential oil in it, keep that tin exclusively for that oil. If you get really serious, you will want a kit like this.

Also, get a small bowl and colander from your local dollar store.

Step One: Pair The Scent With Something The Dog Loves

In the pet dog world, I typically pair the scent with treats. When I was working with puppies that were being raised to be scent-detection dogs, we used toys more often.

You can pick whatever your dog loves most.

Put the oil container in a bowl and cover it with the colander. If your dog approaches the colander, start putting treats in.

If the dog steps away, stop adding treats. You are not asking the dog for any specific behavior. Your only goal is to create an association with the scent and the food.

Here is an excellent video of one dog’s first session with their target scent (birch) under a colander.

Repeat! You can feed meals this way also.

Step Two: Change How It Looks

With enough repetitions, your dog is probably excited when he sees the bowls. But has he made an association with the odor?

You are still conditioning the odor. Put the scent container in a box (or a container that looks different than the training bowl). If he goes to sniff inside the box, give him treats. But also start watching your dog’s body language.

Nosework is all about learning to read your dog.

Dogs will give you subtle cues when they are “in odor.” That is when we want to step back to let them try to source it.

Here is an example of what one dog looks like when picking up his target odor.

While each dog will show slightly different behavior (and intensity), this is a great example to get you thinking about what to look for.

Dog scent work outdoor and indoor examples

Step Three: Add Empty Boxes

Once your dog gets the hang of step two, it is time to start adding some distractions. Add another empty box. This one will not contain any odor—praise and reward when he sniffs the “hot” box (the box with the scent).

Do you start to see a behavior change when he gets closer to the hot box? Keep in mind that airflow will affect how the scent is distributed. So if you are near a drafty window, your dog will more likely catch scent on the side opposite of the window.

As your dog is successful, add more boxes.

Please note: Once a box holds older, it should always be a hot box. Even if we remove the scent box, there will be remnants of the odor in the fibers of the box, which could confuse your dog in future sessions. I mark my hot boxes with an “X.”

Step Four: Start Mixing Up Hiding Places.

Start introducing things such as wooden boxes, buckets, tires, etc, as hiding places for the scent boxes. Many scent boxes have magnets on the back so you can stick them on metal surfaces. 

When you change how the exercise looks, you will want to reduce the amount of distraction containers until the dog is clear that the exercise is similar to Step Three.

Scent Training For Dogs: Working Level

If your dog loves these exercises, and you want to see if you can take this even further, there are schools you can attend that will help you train your dog to those levels. These trainers have had their hands and eyes on hundreds of working dogs, and this experience will be invaluable.

There are so many options in the scent detection world. If you want to pursue these avenues, you don’t want to imprint any odors (as described in the advanced step). This could hinder their performance if they come across these scents while working.

You can run through these steps with food or toys, whichever they find more enticing.

Working Dogs and Scent Training

American K9 Interdiction runs handling courses for those interested in scent detection.

There are also opportunities to train your dog to be a Conservation K9. Dogs are taught to find anything from invasive species (both animals and plants) to animal scat.  K9 Conservationists runs training programs to help train you and your dog.

In Conclusion

Scent training your dog reaps so many benefits. It gives your dog a great outlet and provides both mental and physical stimulation. Dogs that sniff are happy dogs!

Reading through our steps, you can see that these exercises can be as easy as throwing treats in the grass or having your dog scent out an endangered species! So, no matter your goals, there is a nosework game that can help you reach them!


  • Devene Godau, CPDT-KA

    Devene obtained a BA in Journalism from Michigan State University and spent several years working in marketing. However, when she adopted her first greyhound (who came with some behavior challenges), she began researching ways to modify her problem behavior and found help with a local dog trainer. She became a volunteer assistant to learn more, and eventually started teaching classes and conducting private lessons. She currently trains puppies full-time to become scent detection dogs. Devene lives in Michigan with her husband and kids, as well as 4 dogs, 2 cats and a tortoise. Godau Devene
  • Morgan Messick

    Morgan Messick is a content creator for Dog Training Newbie, a website that is all about dog training tips, techniques, news, and more. Morgan has two dogs, three cats, and a lovely wife who support her passion for writing. Morgan loves reading murder mystery novels and listening to true crime podcasts in her spare time. She is also passionate about supporting small businesses by creating dynamic content that customers want to see. Messick Morgan

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