Dogs see the world with their noses.
We can’t understand this. Humans are visual animals, meaning we learn the majority of our information about our environment through our eyes. Dogs are not. Their vision is ok, though not great: while they have good sensitivity for movement, stationary objects are pretty blurry in daytime light compared to human vision, and their color spectrum is limited to blue, yellow, and grayscale.
But their noses are amazing. The dog’s olfactory lobe—the part of the brain that processes smells—is enormous, taking up a huge percentage of their brain. In the same way humans get lost and sometimes overwhelmed by visually stunning art, beautiful, sweeping landscapes, or even just a busy shopping mall, dogs get wrapped up in complex, exciting smells.
Humans don’t have a ton of sympathy for this. How many times a week do we drag our dogs along on a walk because they can’t tear themselves away from a bush? If we let them stand there and work through the smell, our dog might take long, thoughtful minutes. But we humans have to go to work to pay for all those dog biscuits, so hurry up.
We can use that nose, though. Let’s visit how.
More Beyond the Bowl
We already dumped out the dog bowl earlier to get our dogs sniffing for kibble. But oh, the middle of the living room floor is just the beginning. There are so many other places we can make a big old mess!
If you have a fenced yard, this is a great trick to keep your dog busy.
Take that bowl of kibble and fling it out into the lawn. Yes. Just throw it on out there into the grass, every which way.
Your dog will give you a look. They almost always do. They will think that you have made a mistake, or that perhaps you have completely lost your mind.
And then they will go clean up this mess you’ve made.
Grass is great for this, because it does a good job of hiding the kibble but not such a great job that it’s actually hard to find. The dog just needs to sniff around a little bit, and then crunch what she’s found, then sniff around a bit more, and crunch that bit—and continue until she can’t find anymore. But wood chips and bare dirt can work as well, or even a cement patio if the pattern on the patio hides the kibble enough that your dog has to use her nose to find it.
If your dog has had trouble cleaning up his kibble in the house, then don’t jump straight to level-ten difficulty here: throw the food on a surface where he can see some of it. If the kibble is too well-hidden too early on, he might give up before the mess is cleaned up, and you might end up with the neighborhood crows throwing a party in your yard with the leftovers.
Dump out your dog’s dish in their crate, or in another contained area (like a small bathroom), and then toss a couple of towels and blankets in there too. Maybe also dump out the contents of the dog toy box, or other large lightweight objects like clean milk gallons and empty boxes. You want a tangle of materials that your dog needs to hunt through, sniffing, to find all his food.
This can also be a great way to help condition your dog to love his crate. Tossing a bowl full of kibble onto the dog bed in his crate, throwing a few small towels on top of that, and letting him root around in there could help take the sting out of your closing the crate door behind him.
As always, if you know that your dog will tear up or eat towels and blankets, or if your dog already rips up her dog bed, then make sure you supervise her. Terrycloth does not make a delicious snack, despite whatever your puppy insists.
With your dog in another room or in their crate, make a Handsel and Gretel trail of kibble through your house. Start with the kibble relatively close together-three inches between pieces, maybe. We want the dog keeping his nose to the ground while he follows the trail, and if the next piece is much further away than that, your dog is likely to look up and visually hunt for the food instead of following his nose.
But once you’ve played this game a half dozen times and your dog is wandering happily room to room with his nose on the ground and his tail in the air, you can start spacing the food out further and further. Trails might branch, or run into dead ends and start again somewhere else. Making a trail up a staircase is fun too!
A lot of folks already play this simple game, but it absolutely deserves a place here. Hiding cookies around the house for your dog is super easy and super satisfying. You should play this game all the time.
Start by hiding bits of your dog’s food in places that are fairly easy. They might be glaringly obvious to you, but remember that dogs have pretty lame vision for stationery objects and don’t see a lot of difference in many colors. They’ll have to use their nose at least some of the time. Beginners should start with all the food in just one room, but you can gradually expand to a bigger area.
When you’re ready to release your hound, let them smell the hand you held the cookies in, or give them a sample of what they’ll find hidden. This helps them figure out what to look for, especially if you’re hiding a kind of food they don’t get every day.
Never hide treats in places you absolutely do not want your dog taking food from, like coffee tables. Go ahead and hide cookies around the base of tables, but resist the temptation to put even one on surfaces where you might put non-dog snacks. Be really clear about where it’s ok to take food from (the floor, the footrest of the kid’s high chair, the base of the cupboards) and where a dog shall never ever find a delicious dog snack. You’ll have to decide in advance what’s okay and what’s not. If the floor is the limit, then don’t ever hide food on a surface that’s not the floor. If the seats of the kitchen chairs are not okay, don’t hide food their either. We want to keep this clear for our dogs so they don’t assume that bag of potato chips on the end table is something you hid there for them—what a great and generous human you are!
Snuffle mats are the New Big Thing. People who use them can’t say enough about them, and for good reason—they have some sort of magical power over dogs.
Originally crafted as a toy for pet pigs, a snuffle mat is any mat with fibers that the dog needs to push through with her nose in order to find food. Think like a rag rug, or a really shaggy bath mat: that’s what snuffle mats look like. The dog needs to push pretty deep into the fibers to find small pieces of food, which should be visually hidden and only findable by scent.
Take a small handful of food and sprinkle it over the snuffle mat. I like to use a mix of kibble, very small treats and shredded or cut-up cheese as the variety adds additional interest to the snuffle project. The dog is never sure what’s going to turn up in there next. Use your hand to fluff the fibers of the mat so the food falls down into the folds. It’s okay if some food is visible as your dog will probably turn off their thinking and visual brain pretty quickly once they get used to the process.
Once the mat is loaded up, offer it to your dog. Supervise while she searches through the mat so it doesn’t turn into a chewing session. While your dog is snuffling, you can slowly add more to the mat. This has the added bonus of being good practice to prevent resource guarding as your dog will associate your presence and the proximity of your hand with the addition of good stuff, instead of as a threat that might take away their cookies.
I have witnessed first-hand the impact snuffle mats can have on wound-up dogs. As the handler of a dog that does NOT like other dogs, I was in a situation where she needed to be in close proximity to a handful of excited dogs before a competition. One of these other dogs was barking and lunging at mine, and normally my dog would respond by barking and lunging too, and screaming bloody murder. But we had our snuffle mat out, and I kept putting bits of kibble and cheese into the mat for her, and she did not pick her nose up from the search once while that dog snarled and barked. She almost seemed deaf and blind to the intense emotional distractions around her, she was so focused on her nose, and when your dog is generally a high-energy, barky and wild beast spoiling for a fight this is an awesome thing to watch. She was a lot more comfortable that entire day because she had something else to think about—her nose—than the crazy things going on around her.
If you look for snuffle mats on Google, you’ll come up with fleece-and-anti fatigue mat projects that look easy to make. Here’s a hint: they aren’t. There is a LOT of time spent knotting little strips of fleece. Fortunately, though, the project is mostly just time consuming and doesn’t require any great skill. They’re also available via sellers online—Etsy is a good place to start—and there’s one commercially made mat as well.
You can also use a bathmat or rug with particularly high pile. Think seventies shag and you’ll be on the right track. You might have to experiment here to find something that keeps your dog interested and busy but doesn’t yield up the cookies too quickly.
Basic nosework games are extremely beneficial for dogs. They get dog brains working in a way that’s really elemental and satisfying. They also tire them out pretty quickly, which is very helpful if you have a hyper puppy with way too much energy.
The search discussed in Chapter 2 is a great way to get your dog started following their nose. We can do even better, though, and start teaching your dog to hunt like a real search dog.
You’ll need some supplies: at least half a dozen boxes about the size of a shoe box (a little smaller or bigger is fine), and some super smelly treats. I like to use dehydrated fish treats for this, but slices of hot dog work fine too. In addition to these special treats you should also have your dog’s regular kibble or food on hand.
You’ll also want a scent box—well-washed Altoid tins work just about perfect for this, but anything approximately that size will work—and a target scent.
Your target scent can be super special, like one of the nosework scents sold online for competition training, or an essential oil like lavender from the local hippy grocery store. But here’s a dog trainer secret: peanut butter is a GREAT starter target scent. It’s smelly, holds its smell for quite a while, and a lot of people already have it at home. Plus, your dog wants to find it anyway, because peanut butter is freakin delicious. Even if you’re not a dog.
To make a target scent box, smear a blob of peanut butter in the bottom of an Altoids tin, then poke holes in the top of the tin so the smell can get out. Or, if you’re using an essential oil, put a few drops on the end of a Q-tip and put that in your vented tin. Then tape the tin shut so your dog doesn’t open it on accident (or on purpose). This is just a target scent, it’s not a treat. They never get to eat the peanut butter out of this box. They also never get to eat the Q-tip, though I’m sure some of them would be happy to try.
Okay, you’ve got your boxes, your target scent, and your smelly treats. Most likely have an eager dog, too. Unfortunately you’ll have to make that poor dog wait a few more minutes. Put them somewhere they can’t watch you too closely, like in the next room or in their crate.
Spread the open boxes out on the floor in a room with space to move around. The boxes should have two or three feet between them at least, if not a little more, so the dog has to go from one box to the next to check them. Choose one box as your hide. In the first steps of teaching the dog how to play this game, we’ll keep our target scent and treats in this one hide and just move the whole box around, instead of moving the scent and treats from box to box. This way the boxes won’t ALL smell like treats, making the game easier for the dog to figure out.
Set a few of your special smelly treats on top of the target scent box inside your hide.
Now that you’re all set up, let your dog into the search area. Stay quiet and don’t move around too much. You want your dog to do the work here. If they stare at you waiting for you to tell them what to do, just show them your empty hands and then ignore them. If they wander off, uninterested, call them back gently and move in the general direction of the hide. Don’t point it out to them, though. We don’t want the dog looking to you for direction here, but following their nose. Let them find the hide on their own; they’ll do it eventually. Your dog has a powerful nose, they just have to trust it!
When your dog finds the hide, praise them as they eat their special smelly treats. Drop a handful of their normal kibble or food in the box as well—this is how they’re earning their dinner, after all. Once all that good stuff is gone, pick the box up, tell your dog they’re amazing, and bring them back to the separate room or crate so you can set up another search.
Don’t do too many searches in a row. Four repetitions is plenty at first. This may not look like hard work, but your dog is using a part of their brain that takes a lot of thinking, and they’re learning a new skill on top of that, so make the sessions short and fun.
The great thing about using a target scent box right off the bat is your dog will make the association between the hide and the target scent. “Ooh, when I see these boxes, if I follow the smell of peanut butter there will be smelly cookies AND I get some of my dinner!” If you play this game with some frequency for a few weeks, you won’t even have to add the smelly cookies on top of the target scent.
When you think your dog likes this game enough to try searching just for the target scent, go ahead and set up a search without the smelly cookies in the box. Let your dog search for just the target scent. If they don’t find it after a while, take them out of the room and set up a search with the smelly cookies in the hide. Go back to a few more sessions of the old way before you try again.
If they do find the target scent, start praising them as soon as they stick their nose in the box! Drop that handful of their dinner into the box while you tell them they’re amazing and their hair looks great and everybody is always saying so on the internet.