Beating the Boredom Blues: Sniffing Out New Opportunities for Dogs

7 scent-based tips to try at home - and the benefits for dogs.
Guest post by Sienna Taylor and John Binks 

7 scent-based activities to try with your dog at home
Photo: Heirloom Portrait/Shutterstock

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For many dog owners, COVID-19 has positively benefitted their relationship with their dog.  Restrictions on human movement has involved us spending more time with our dogs, providing us with companionship and making us feel less isolated in these uncertain times.  Greater restrictions have also provided a newfound opportunity for dogs to spend more time with their humans! For a number of dogs though, changes in routine can be unsettling.

Here in the UK, we are currently restricted to exercising once a day only. With limited opportunity to walk our dogs and undertake less exercise, some dog owners may have noticed a change in their dogs’ behaviour. Pawing and nudging for attention, sitting and staring at you whilst you are working from home – sound familiar? My dogs’ favourite trick is to ‘say hello’ and bark during my video conference calls! When dogs are bored they tend to look elsewhere for entertainment and this can result in undesirable behaviours such as chewing and destructive behaviour.

With so many of us under restrictions at the moment, now is a great time to strengthen the bond with our dogs and also have some fun!  To keep our dogs occupied and reduce boredom, we can target their strongest sensory ability, their highly developed sense of smell.  Dogs have an estimated 300 million olfactory neurons located in their nose (Brooks et al., 2015), compared to 2-5 million in humans (Szetei et al., 2003). The olfactory brain region in dogs is also 40 times larger than ours and their sense of smell is about 1,000 times better (Correa, 2011). The world that we see through our eyes, is the world that dogs sense through their nose, so smell is really important!

Seven scent-based activities to beat the boredom blues for your dog
Photo: Sienna Taylor

Using a dog’s keen olfactory acuity and providing them with opportunities to use their nose can promote mental stimulation and reduce boredom. For example, allowing dogs to perform olfactory “foraging” behaviour (searching for and consuming food) provides them with the opportunity to express natural behaviours. These are necessary for animal wellbeing as foraging is both stimulating and intrinsically rewarding for non-human animals (De Jong et al., 2008).

In a recent study by Duranton and Horowitz (2019), pet dogs’ that performed regular nose work training activities were found to be more optimistic. Dogs were trained daily by their owners at home for two weeks, focusing on either nose work or heelwork activities. Dogs’ were given a cognitive bias test prior to the training starting and also at the end of the two weeks training. The cognitive bias test involved training the dogs to move 3m from a starting position to a food bowl. When the bowl was placed on one side of the room it was considered a “positive” side as it contained a piece of cooked chicken. When placed on the other side of the room, the “negative” side, it was empty. The negative and positive locations were counterbalanced across dogs.

Once dogs had discriminated the positive and negative locations, a test trial was run. An empty bowl was placed in an ambiguous position which was in the middle of the positive and negative locations. Latency to approach the ambiguous bowl was measured before and after the two weeks nose work or heelwork training, with rapid movement indicating anticipation of food (optimistic judgement) or more slowly (a 'pessimistic' judgement). Dogs’ who practiced nose work were faster to approach the bowl compared to those that had practiced heelwork. Decreased latency to approach in the expectation of a positive outcome has been found to be a measure of optimism (Matheson, Asher and Bateson, 2008; Brydges et al., 2011). The authors concluded that allowing dogs’ to practice nose work regularly, which promotes more “foraging” time, improves pet dog welfare as dogs’ are increasing time spent performing a natural and rewarding activity.

Seven tips for scent-based activities with your dog

So how can we use olfaction-based activities to keep our pet dogs mentally stimulated whilst promoting wellbeing? Here’s our top 7 simple and inexpensive tips:

1. Try the ‘Find it’ game - hide tasty smelling treats around the home then get your dog to use their nose to find them (liver treats are nice and smelly). First of all, show the dog a treat in your hand and say ‘Find it!’ as you throw the treat across the floor. When the dog finds the treat say ‘yes’ so they understand that they have completed the task of finding the food. You can then build this up to hiding treats behind the sofa when your dog isn’t looking or make your dog sit and wait whilst you hide treats behind different pieces of furniture around the home and then ask them to ‘Find it!’. You can also use the garden to hide treats in.

2. Have a go at the Muffin Tin Puzzle game – use a muffin tin and tennis balls to encourage your dog to sniff out treats. You will need a 12 hole muffin tin, 12 tennis balls and smelly treats (tiny pieces of cheese work well). Place the treats in the muffin tin holes and then place tennis balls on top of the treats. The aim is to encourage your dog to dislodge the tennis balls in order to find the treats. You can make this game more complex by only adding treats in a few of the holes but still replacing every hole with a ball so they really have to use their nose to find the treat.

3. Make a snuffle mat – you can use a fleece throw, jumper or some felt to make the mat and also a shower mat or outdoor rubber mat with holes. Cut the material into long strips and then tie the strips through each hole of the mat (make sure the knots are on the underside and the strands are at the top).  Fill the whole mat, then bury tiny pieces of your dog’s favourite treats for them to find.

4. Create a search box – use an empty cardboard box and shred some newspaper, scrunch it up and fill the box. Scatter some treats into the box and watch your dog search for them! 

5. Play the Cup Game – this game makes your dog use their eyes and nose!  Place three opaque cups upside down on a flat surface.  While your dog watches, place a treat under one of them and then move the cups around and see if your dog knocks over or paws the correct cup with the treat in.

6. Play with your dog a few times each day outside in your garden (if you have one).  This gives them more things to smell and investigate to keep them stimulated.

7. Once you have finished playing or the game has ended, tell your dog ‘All done’ or ‘Finish’ so that they learn to associate the play session or game being over.  When using treats for enrichment, don't forget to adjust your dog's normal food intake to avoid upset tummies and excess weight gain.

For information on how you can use scent work as a dog sport and training activity:
1. Scentwork UK
2. Dog Detection Trials
3. American Kennel Club Scent Work
4. National Association of Canine Scent Work

Sienna Taylor FdSc, BSc (Hons), MSc, FHEA is a Lecturer in Animal Behaviour and Welfare at Hartpury University, Gloucestershire.  Her research interests include human-animal interactions and the use of olfactory enrichment in companion animals.  Sienna enjoys training her four year old Labrador Bailey and they are currently working towards their Grade 4 Gundog Test. Follow on Twitter.

John Binks MRes, BSc (Hons), PCAP, FHEA is a Lecturer in Animal Behaviour and Welfare at Hartpury University, Gloucestershire. His research interests include the use of sensory enrichment for non-human animals and animal welfare assessment. John enjoys exploring the cognitive abilities of domestic animals and measures used to enhance their quality of life.

You might also like:
Spending more time with your pet due to COVID-19? Strategies to cope.
COVID-19s impacts on the human-dog relationship
How will the economic fallout of COVID-19 affect pets?
COVID-19 and planning for your pet (on Psychology Today)

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Brydges, N.M., Leach, M., Nicol, K., Wright, R. and Bateson, M. (2011) ‘Environmental enrichment induces optimistic cognitive bias in rats’, Animal Behaviour, 81, pp.169–175.
Brooks, S.W., Moore, D.R., Marzouk, E.B., Glenn, F.R. and Hallock, R.M. (2015) ‘Canine olfaction and electronic nose detection of volatile organic compounds in the detection of cancer: a review’, Cancer investigation, 33(9), pp.411-419.
Correa, J.E. (2011) The dog’s sense of smell. Alabama: Alabama A&M.
De Jonge, F.H., Tilly, S.L., Baars, A.M. and Spruijt, B.M. (2008) ‘On the rewarding nature of appetitive feeding behaviour in pigs (Sus scrofa): do domesticated pigs contrafreeload?’, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 114(3-4), pp.359-372.
Duranton, C. and Horowitz, A. (2019) ‘Let me sniff! Nosework induces positive judgment bias in pet dogs’, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 211, pp.61-66.
Matheson, S., Asher, L. and Bateson, M. (2008) ‘Larger, enriched cages are associated with “optimistic” response biases in captive European starlings (Sturnus vulgaris)’, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 109, pp.374–383.
Szetei, V., Miklósi, Á., Topál, J. and Csányi, V. (2003) ‘When dogs seem to lose their nose: an investigation on the use of visual and olfactory cues in communicative context between dog and owner’, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 83(2), pp.141-152.

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