Scent and Scent-ability

The benefits of nose work for ‘naughty’ and ‘reactive’ dogs

By Luisa Dormer and Sienna Taylor.

The benefits of nose work for 'naughty' and 'reactive' dogs. Photo shows dog's nose

For many people, taking their dog to training classes is an enjoyable experience that helps to make the bond between them even stronger. For a number of dog owners, however, the thought of taking part in such activities can fill them with dread due to their dog’s ‘naughty’ behaviour. Examples of behaviours that are considered problematic include being destructive, hyperactive, straying and showing aggression towards other dogs (Wells and Hepper, 2000).

Dogs that are considered hyperactive, or have a tendency to stray or run off on walks, may have strong hunt, play and prey drives. Hunt and prey drives can be defined as the dog’s innate desire to pursue, capture and kill prey, whereas a play drive is the innate desire of a dog to want to play. Dogs that display behaviour such as barking, growling, snapping, biting and lunging when they see other dogs can be referred to as ‘reactive’.

One UK based survey found that 47% of dog owners reported owning a ‘reactive dog’, that showed aggression towards unfamiliar dogs when on a walk (Blackwell, Twells, Seawright and Casey, 2008). Reactive behaviour is deemed as one of the most challenging behavioural responses to deal with (Williams and Blackwell, 2019).  Behavioural problems such as aggression can result in a breakdown in the human-dog bond and are reported as one of the main reasons why dogs are relinquished to rescue shelters (Blackwell, Casey and Bradshaw, 2016).

So, if you want to have a go at an activity with your ‘naughty’ or ‘reactive’ dog, what can you do? Scentwork is a dog sport and training activity based on detection style nose work practised by search and rescue (SAR) dogs, military bomb explosive dogs, customs and excise dogs and medical detection dogs. Searches can involve vehicles, rooms with vertical space such as tables and items such as boxes and suitcases.

The benefits of nose work for 'naughty' and 'reactive' dogs. Even Pugs (pictured) can do scent work
Even brachycephalic dogs like Pugs can do scentwork. Photo: HalizovS/Shutterstock.

Many scentwork classes are run so that they don’t have to involve direct interactions with other dogs as they can facilitate dogs searching one at a time, with rest breaks in between away from other dogs. Should you want to compete in scentwork, trials can also often accommodate reactive dogs as searching is performed on an individual basis, or teams are given a specific time slot at which to attend. Alternatively, many trainers offer one-to-one sessions to get dog-owner teams started on their scentwork journey, to continue training at home.

Any breed of dog can participate in scentwork; research has shown that brachycephalic dogs such as Pugs are readily able to learn to discriminate odour and can outperform both German Shepherds and Greyhounds when both learning the odour, and detecting decreased concentrations of the odour (Hall, Glenn, Smith and Wynne, 2015). Furthermore, dogs that have high hunt, prey and play drives make ideal scentwork dogs; handlers and trainers that select potential SAR dogs commonly look for dogs with these traits as they are considered more trainable, showing increased motivation and determination (Beebe, Howell and Bennett, 2016; Jones et al., 2004).

Scentwork is also a great sport for nervous dogs too; recent research has shown that dogs who participate in scentwork are more optimistic than those that participated in heelwork instead (Duranton and Horowitz, 2018).

7 tips for finding and attending a scentwork class 

1. To find a suitably qualified trainer, check out the links at the end of this article. Before you book onto the course, discuss with the trainer the training methods that they use (look for welfare friendly, positive reinforcement training methods) and how they can best help you and your dog to feel settled and comfortable in the environment.

2. Check with the trainer as to what you should do with your dog when you arrive at your first class; if you aren’t sure, it’s best to leave your dog in the car and go and find the instructor to discuss this when you arrive. If your dog is nervous about working in a new environment, it is important to arrive in plenty of time to allow your dog to become familiar with the new environment and settle.

The benefits of nose work for 'naughty' and 'reactive' dogs. Photo shows Springer Spaniel doing scent work
A Springer Spaniel indicates during a scent game. Photo: GoDog Photo/Shutterstock

3. Class sizes and lengths will vary between instructors, but it is important that your dog has sufficient rest breaks between each exercise. Scentwork can be extremely tiring for dogs, so it is important that they aren’t on the go the whole time. You could consider taking a chew for your dog to have during the rest breaks if you think that they will get impatient whilst waiting for their turn.

4. Whilst your dog has a rest break, take advantage of being able to watch other dog-handler teams. This gives you the opportunity to look at how a dog’s body language might change when they think they’ve found the scent, something which can be difficult to notice in your own dog when you are stood right next to them working! Similarly, watch how others handle their dogs – are you able to spot any handling errors, or good handling practice? If you opt for one-to-one sessions, try to film some of your searches so that you can see these subtle changes in your own dog once they’ve found the scent, or to see how you could improve your handling skills.

5. Ensure that you take some high-value treats along to help teach your dog how to search, and to reward your dog for searching. In the first instance, dogs are often taught to search for food before introducing them to the target odour. For that reason, it is best to take treats along that aren’t too crumbly – for example, small cubes of cheese or slices of sausage; if you have treats that drop a lot of crumbs, you are laying a lot of scent! When dogs are confidently searching, they can then be introduced to the odour and rewarded with food for finding it. To ensure that you aren’t over-feeding your dog, you can ration their food by taking a portion out of their main meal. If your dog isn’t food-motivated, try taking their favourite toy to the class instead.

6. Some dogs pick up the game of searching quite quickly, whereas others are more cautious or require a bit more encouragement. Don’t be discouraged if your dog doesn’t pick it up immediately; there are plenty of training games that can be used to encourage dogs to enjoy searching at their own pace.

7. When dogs find a scent, they may display a range of natural behaviours including nosing or pawing at the scent; this is called an active indication. We can also teach our dogs a passive indication, such as a freeze or a sit to tell us that they have found the scented article. A passive indication may be appropriate to teach your dog if you are searching something such as a vehicle, particularly if they naturally scratch at the hide!

For further information on scentwork 

About Luisa Dormer and Sienna Taylor

Luisa Dormer working with Ted

Luisa Dormer, BSc (Hons), MSc, DLSHTM, is a lecturer in Animal Science at Hartpury University, Gloucestershire, UK, and a recognised Scentwork UK trainer. Luisa lives on a farm with her four border collies who keep her very busy! Luisa first became interested in scentwork as an activity to enjoy with her reactive dog, Ted, and they now compete in scentwork trials in their spare time.

Sienna Taylor training with Bailey

Sienna Taylor FdSc, BSc (Hons), MSc, FHEA is a Lecturer in Animal Behaviour and Welfare at Hartpury University, Gloucestershire, UK. Her research interests include human-animal interactions and the use of olfactory enrichment in companion animals. Sienna enjoys training her three year old Labrador Bailey and they are currently working towards their Grade 3 Gundog Test.

Check out the full list of guest posts at Companion Animal Psychology. If you would like to propose a guest post, please read the guest post guidelines.


Beebe, S. C., Howell, T. J. and Bennett, P. C. (2016) Using Scent Detection Dogs in Conservation Settings: A Review of Scientific Literature Regarding Their Selection. Frontiers in Veterinary Science.
Blackwell, E. J., Twells, C., Seawright, A., & Casey, R. A. (2008) ‘The relationship between training methods and the occurrence of behaviour problems, as reported by owners, in a population of domestic dogs.’ Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research.
Blackwell, E. J., Casey, R. A. & Bradshaw, J. W. S. (2016) ‘Efficacy of written behavioral advice for separation-related behavior problems in dogs newly adopted from a rehoming center.’ Journal of Veterinary Behaviour.
Duranton, C., and Horowitz, A. (2018) Let me sniff! Nosework induces positive judgment bias in pet dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science.
Hall, N. J., Glenn, K., Smith, D. W. and Wynne, C. D. L. (2015) Performance of Pugs, German Shepherds, and Greyhounds (Canis lupus familiaris) on an Odor-Discrimination Task. Journal of Comparative Psychology.
Jones, K. E., Dashfielld, K., Downend, A. B. and Otto, C. M. (2004) Search-and-rescue dogs: an overview for veterinarians. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association.
Wells, D. L., and Hepper, P. G. (2000) Prevalence of behaviour problems reported by owners of dogs purchased from an animal rescue shelter. Applied Animal Behaviour Science.
Williams, E.J. and Blackwell, E. (2019) ‘Managing the risk of aggressive dog behavior: investigating the influence of owner threat and efficacy perceptions.’ Risk analysis.

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