Harnessing the Power of the Nose!

By Cheryl VanVoorhies, M.ED,CTC


Canine scent work, called nosework, is sniffing out scents hidden in boxes, in rooms, and other areas, and is a great activity for any age, breed, or size dog. Nosework is appropriate for all ages and levels of training. You can take it from a game that you play at home to Nose Work competitions.  


In the many years I have taught nosework, many dogs have gone on to the competition level, but I would say equally as many have learned nose work simply for the fun of it, both for the pet parent and the dog.

The author with Rheign. (Says Rheign: “As a matter of fact I do know how to use my nose but in order to learn nosework you have to teach me the game.”)


When the weather is inclement or you have limited time to spend with your dog, nosework is an ideal activity! When dogs use their noses to search, the mental stimulation provided is equivalent to humans doing the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle….not once, but many many times in one day! Happy exhaustion! 


Recently, I began teaching a young, eager pup the game.


Name: Princess Sovereign (Rheign) 

Age: 12 weeks of age

Breed: Golden Retriever

Assignment: to learn scent games and have FUN!

Let’s watch Rheign learn the basics of nosework. You can follow these tips to begin to teach your own dog.

So let’s get you started. Follow Rheign on her journey to becoming a super sniffer!


Session 1: The basics. Start with boxes and food


Princess Rheign, as she has been royally dubbed, was introduced to nose work through high-value food placed in boxes. Many dogs will only become enthusiastic searching for chicken, cheese, or other yummy food morsels. Rheign was happy to search for dog treats.


Typically we start inside with few distractions, but here we were at an outdoor venue and simply made some adjustments to ensure her success. We kept her on leash so she would not wander off and lose interest when first learning the game. 


Our goal for Rheign was to get her to recognize the value and importance of the boxes by placing food in them. She began to associate the boxes with food and eventually she recognized that when the boxes were out the game was on.

Once she found the food, more was quickly tossed in to keep her head in the box. This increased the value of the box even more.

Notice in the following video sequences how Reign’s exuberance increases as she starts to understand the game.

First round

Initially, Rheign was concerned with placing her head into the box to eat the food.  She stretched out to reach the box, which meant she was ready to leave quickly if she thought it would be unsafe. Sometimes it is scary for dogs to place their heads into boxes with the top edge over their head. Take note in the video where I started with a box turned upright, with a lower side to make it easier, and less scary for her.


Second round

As Rheign became more relaxed and comfortable searching for food in one single box, more boxes were added to encourage searching for the box containing the food.


Session 2: Making it harder


Princess Rheign understood very quickly that boxes meant food was hidden in one of the boxes and began to search immediately.

Rheign is satisfied and calm after a session of scent games.


Scents at higher elevations were added and she needed to raise her nose to find the odor/food source to be successful. Most dogs instinctively sniff the ground, so encouraging them to search higher is a slightly harder mission.


Another increased criteria option is placing boxes inside boxes so she has to move a box to get to the food reward.


At this point, it’s optional to start using the odors that will be found in competition including birch, anise, and clove essential oils.


Increasing the challenge

Rheign has evolved into searching intently when she sees boxes. Now, searches can be multiple boxes, elevated off the floor, and/or boxes inside boxes.




Try these tips if your dog is not finding the box, or seems to be losing interest, or getting frustrated.

1- Toss treats into the box as your dog searches to draw them over to that box.

2- Walk across the room near, but not right next to the box so your dog follows.

3- Toss a box in the direction of the treat box to draw attention to that area.


Thanks for joining Rheign on her nosework journey. If you want to have as much fun as Rheign, start doing some easy searches at home and then look up a qualified Nose Work instructor near you to join work through greater challenges.

[Tip: be sure to check out our recent article on Enrichment: an Essential Part of Your Dog’s Life. In addition, you may like to try other scent games. Find the article here.]