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Is your dog unsure? Get their nose to the floor! Benefits of sniffing and scentwork for anxious dogs

It's heartbreaking to see your dog experience fear or anxiety and you can start to feel totally helpless; fortunately, there is a simple way we can help them to feel better and cope with things they are unsure about, and it makes use of the dog's most important sensory organ - their nose!



A dog's sense of smell is astounding; the olfactory cortex, the part of the dog's brain that works out what and where a particular scent is and its relevance, is thought to be around 40 times greater than our own. Exercising this part of the brain provides a dog with lots of mental stimulation and releases a "feel-good" chemical called dopamine.


An increase in dopamine can help to boost mood and motivation, making sniffing a great behaviour to incorporate into training to alleviate negative feelings such as anxiety. One study also concluded that introducing more sniffing time and scentwork activity helped dogs to feel more optimistic! However, many dogs today don't get as many natural opportunities to use their nose compared to their ancestors thousands of years ago, when finding their food each day would have been their main goal.


I regularly recommend encouraging sniffing and scentwork activities to my clients with anxious or fearful dogs, and they are easy and simple things to fit into daily life. You don't need to spend hours doing it - it's thought that around 20 minutes of scent-based activity a day can provide the equivalent of an hour's walk in terms of enrichment. It doesn't have to cost much either; there's no need to spend a fortune on puzzle toys, you can use things you find around the house that you would normally just throw away.


Here are a couple of simple ways to encourage your dog to use their nose more!


Teach your dog to "go sniff" on cue


This one is particularly helpful for dogs who feel anxious about certain triggers they might see on walks, such as other dogs or people. It encourages them to perform a natural, alternative behaviour to lower their anxiety levels which can help them feel calmer in the presence of things that worry them. Putting the behaviour on cue also means you can redirect your dog before they get too anxious when they spot a trigger, preventing their behaviour from escalating. With time and practice, it can become your dog's go-to behaviour.


Whilst your dog's attention is on you, say "go sniff!" in a positive voice before tossing a small handful of treats onto the floor for your dog to find. When your dog lifts his/her head up to look for more, say "go sniff!" again before scattering a few more treats. Practice tossing the treats over a small area first, before scattering them around.


Practice in the house or garden first, before practicing on a walk.



Go on a Sniffari


New places have lots of different smells to offer, so walking somewhere new and exciting can provide a lot of opportunities to sniff. I call this a "Sniffari" (a mix between "sniff" and "safari"). Large, open, quiet and grassy areas are best for this because they take all other distractions away and grass absorbs different scents much better than concrete. So, if you have an anxious dog, try and get out for a "Sniffari" walk at least once a week or at the weekend.


You can also create this experience at home, using things you might find around the house or in your recycling bin. Collect things such as:


  • Cardboard boxes (bonus points for packaging paper inside, like Amazon boxes with brown paper!)

  • Scrunched up newspapers/magazines

  • Empty yoghurt pots

  • Plastic plant pots

  • Egg boxes

  • Plastic bottles with no lids

  • Old tea towels

Basically, anything you might be able to hide treats in or under! Starting with a smaller area in the house or garden, leave your dog in a different room and set these items up with treats inside or under them. Release your dog and watch them sniff out the treats!



I have many more ideas for scentwork games and activities for dogs! If you have an anxious dog or would like to introduce more sniffing into your dog's day, please get in touch.

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