Scentual enrichment for dogs

(Part IV of the Dog’s Nose Knows series)


Scentual Enrichment

By Dr. Jeannie Thomason (Animal Naturopath)


scent enrichment for dogs

As many of you may be aware, captive exotic animals can become very bored, frustrated and anxious without having some kind of daily environmental enrichment in their lives. I am not a big fan of zoos and animal parks however, a few of them have come a long way and have worked hard at enhancing the animal’s lives by incorporating varying enrichment exercises and objects to help mimic their “natural” environment in the wild.

Have you ever stopped to think that our domestic companion animals may become just as bored, frustrated and stressed in their lives with us?

With most people working outside of the home, leaving the dog(s) alone, cooped up all day with no fresh air, unfiltered sunlight, exercise, etc. can be quite boring for them. Their brains simply are not being engaged, they are not being stimulated as they were designed to be.

I know some of you breeders out there are aware of the fact that puppies are not able to develop properly mentally or physically if they are not stimulated and exposed to as many new objects, sights, sounds and of course smells as possible – on a daily basis as they mature.  Animals’ senses were designed to be stimulated daily; especially dogs and their highly developed sense of scent/smell!

Living with us humans can be pretty frustrating, especially if we don’t do what we can to make our dog’s life more interesting, and allowing them different experiences. Dogs need all their senses stimulated, but even when they use their other senses of touch, taste, vision and hearing, as you have been reading, they still will always use their nose to back up the information they are receiving!

The brains of dogs that get little stimulation don’t develop properly and their physical development is compromised as well. They can’t become habituated to (get used to) different things so they become frightened of new or different experience or encounter. Enrichment promotes their naturalistic behaviors that stimulate their mind and increases physical activity. Enrichment reduces stress and therefore promotes overall health by increasing their perception of control over their environment and by occupying their time.

I would love to encourage you to begin thinking of our dogs more of as house wolves – domesticated wolves if you will; rather than as furry children. What would they do during the day if they lived on their own in the wild?

Wolves and wild dogs (all wild animals for that matter)  forage, hunt and practice their hunting skills through play.

Surely you have noticed that wild animals are fed from bowls or dishes and they handle their food in ways that are natural to them. Interesting results from a study showed that when dogs solved a problem and earned a reward they wagged their tails more. These dogs were also more likely to try to solve the problem again, rather than if they were just given a reward.  While it may hurt our feelings a bit, the study found that food was a preferred reward, compared to spending time with another dog, or even by being petted by a familiar human.

Studies have also shown that when animals are given an enriched, stimulating environment (a variety of things to do, smell, and explore) they live longer, they are better adjusted, more relaxed, better able to develop problem-solving skills, and they remember what they learn. This directly relates to our dogs (or other companion animals) at home! Bored companion animals are easily frustrated, and frustration often leads to destruction. You can avoid boredom and the usual resulting destruction by enriching your dog’s (or cats’s or birds’s any companion animal’s) life!

Enrichment exercises at home have proven to increase an animal’s natural behaviors, and as result, increases their health, longevity and overall, life!

As most of you know,  I a raw feeding proponent.  I feed mainly “prey model” but whenever possible I love to feed whole prey and when the weather is nice, it can be fun to hide a couple of whole chicken or quail caucuses around outside – in shrubs, up in a small tree or bush – just high enough they have to work a little bit at getting down to eat it.  The dogs LOVE this game and it is so much fun to watch them!  Let’s face it, the traditional method of feeding animals out of a bowl does nothing to stimulate complex feeding behaviors.

Other fun and enriching ways to feed your dogs could be to stuff a cow hoof with green tripe, or a Kong toy with ground meat and freeze them.  You could also put a chicken or turkey neck or two, into empty paper towel rolls or an old shoe box with a lid on it and give it to the dog to “find”.  Puzzle toys are great too – just be sure to used dehydrated or freeze-dried meats instead of kibble in them.

Playing Scent Games with our puppies or dogs can be great fun and even prepare them for tracking trials and events!

Though newborn puppies are essentially blind at birth, their sense of smell is fully developed and active!  Aa you have learned in this article series, the dog’s sense of scent is his or hersmost powerful sense!

There are many great Scent Games you can play with your puppy and/or adult dogs.

Two great ones I like to do are Scent Trails and Find The Scent

Scent Trails

Food isn’t the only thing dogs are interested in smelling. Pure, non-synthetic scents such as essential oils (lavender, valerian, and conifer oils work well) have been found to motivate dogs and can excite their tracking instincts!

To get started, use a favourite toy (a small stuffed toy or even a ball works well) and put just a drop or two of essential oil onto it. Then, play a quick game of fetch, followed by a reward (playing in the house for starters if you have never played fetch with the puppy or dog before). Do this several times in one day. Then, the next day, with the dog absent, hide the same toy, and place tiny pieces of paper that have been rubbed on the toy that you applied the oil to, onto the floor, leading from about 20 feet away from the toy, rather like a trail of bread crumbs. Then let the dog into the room where the trail begins and say, “Find” or “Seek” or what ever word you want to have the dog associate the sniffing out of the toy with.

Most dogs will scent out the pieces of paper at first but eventually they will connect that the smell with the favorite toy. Keep at it and praise lavishly when he/she follows the trail. You can get started by showing the dog the first scented paper and then when the toy is found, reward with a treat as well as praise and a quick game with the toy! Gradually, reduce the number of scented papers until the scented toy is all that is left to be found. Once mastered inside the house, you can move it out into the yard.  Then change the scent and the toy and begin again.

Find the Scent

Instead of using a scent as a means to help the dog find a toy, you can teach them to search out the scent itself. This is a type of  simple version of what drug and/or bomb-sniffing dogs do.

If you have already taught your dog to find the toy by following a scent trail, you have already taught him/her to key in on scent! To begin, just take the same scented toy and place it in a shoebox. Then if the dog does not do so on its own, encourage him/her to come up to it and sniff it by saying, “Find your toy”.  Eventually, he/she will scratch and paw or bite and tear at the box, whereupon you should take the toy out (if the dog hasn’t already) and reward him/her with it. You can repeat this, as often as you like with differnt scents and toys and then use three boxes, keeping the toy in the original box (to prevent cross contamination). Say “Find your toy!” and work it until the dog succeeds. Reward him/her with a quick game of tuggie and/or fetch session with the toy.

Okay, time to switch it up, instead of putting the scented toy in one of the three boxes, simply put a slip of paper in the same box, with a drop of the same essential oil as on the toy, on the paper. Hide the scented toy outside of the house, wash your hands,  and then place a new, unscented toy in your back pocket. Say, “Find your toy!” again, encouraging him/her just as before. When he/she homes in on the box with the scented paper, praise enthuseasticly and then take out the toy in your pocket (that has NO essential oil on it) and toss it for the dog as a reward. Repeat this and over time, increase the distance and the number of boxes. In no time at all, your dog will be an expert tracker!

There are also classes in “K9 Nose Work” being offered around the country.  You can check with your local kennel club to find out more.

K9 Nose Work is the specific term used to describe the canine scent detection activity developed by Ron Gaunt, Amy Herot & Jill Marie O’Brien. The three founders of the activity wanted to use their extensive experience from working in the professional canine detection world to give pet dogs and their people a fun and easy way to learn and apply scent detection skills, and so they crafted a new activity: K9 Nose Work. Here is the K9 Nose Work offical website.

These simple scent games only scratch the surface of a dog’s tracking capabilities. If your dog really takes to it and you feel so inclined to go even farther, you can do a web search to locate a local tracking club and attend a introductory class. Who knows: your dog just might turn into a master tracker!

Enrichment keeps our canine companions active and interested, and calm while encouraging their natural behaviors – it is a Win/Win for them!

Above all, as you have read, dogs love using their noses, it gives them pleasure and calms them down. For them, smelling and sniffing is the most natural thing in the world!


NOTE: If you are a dog breeder or you work with puppies at an animal shelter or resuce organization, you may be interested in learning more about how to raise more intellegent, “bomb proof” puppies using Puppy Culure Protocols.

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