Diversify Your Dog’s Sniffer

Jun 8, 2023

We are in a renaissance of sorts when it comes to scent sports. More and more organizations are being formed to provide fun sniffing opportunities. What should we do? Could playing in multiple scent sports confuse our dogs? Should we shelf or outright avoid certain sniffing activities to ensure we are indeed successful within the realm of “Scent Work”?

In short, the answer is, no.


Every time your dog is scenting, they are learning, building their odor library of skills that can then be applied to formal Scent Work searches later.

The fact is this is happening right now. Every single day. We simply do not think about it.

Let’s say your dog is a ball fanatic. They will play fetch until they drop. If you are anything like me, some tosses and throws are halfway decent whereas others leave much to be desired. For one of your less-than-ideal throws, the ball lands inside a dense bush. Your dog rushes over and when they cannot visually locate the ball, their nose magically kicks in. Suddenly, they are offering bracketing behavior as they squirt from one edge of the odor plume to the next. Back-and-forth they go until they zero in on source, sorry, I mean the ball, and thrust themselves into the bush and back out again with their prize.

Think of all the skills the dog just learned in this experience. Once they trusted their nose over their eyes, the odor plume gave them a trajectory to follow to get their ball. You have the interaction of the vegetation with the odor plume not to mention the presentation of a deep accessible odor puzzle, and this is only scratching the surface. So much goodness and all you had to do was toss a ball, albeit poorly, stand and watch!

The point being is this experience doesn’t exist inside a bubble. Rather, it is filed away inside your dog’s library of odor knowledge to be drawn upon later, such as when they are posed with an exterior search with an inaccessible hide.

“Are you saying other scent sports could help in the same way?”

Yes, yes, I am.

“That can’t be right…the dog is being trained to find things that could be potential distractors in a Scent Work search! That’s terrible…right?!”

Not so much.

We need to pause and revel in how brilliant our dogs truly are. Remind yourself of this often. So long as we provide clarity for which game the dog should play in this exact moment, they are fully capable, willing and delighted to focus their nose on finding the thing associated with THAT game.

Again, think of your searches right now. Have you ever practiced at home? Are you telling me you never eat at home or that you only eat 10-15 hours before you search, after having a white-glove cleaning treatment of your house from top to bottom to ensure every single crumb and granule is picked up before setting your hides? Do you collect every single toy and chew and item of interest, toss them outside or hide them inside your car, so your search areas are completely devoid of any remnants of those types of "distractors"? My guess is probably not and yet your dog has done just fine.

Perhaps a better example is a group Scent Work training class. Regardless of the set-up, you will have a room full of people with clouds of yummy or fun goodness emanating from their person, be it their pockets, treat pouches and so on. Yet, the dogs can discount all of this and still successfully find their hides. This is especially impressive for dogs hunting for primary. They are not running and alerting on every single person in the room. No, they are going into the space and focused on finding THEIR hides.

Point being is that our dogs are brilliant. They are capable of differentiating between various stimuli in the environment and so long as we have taken the time to make our objective clear, they can successfully find their hides.

"FINE, but is that the only reason I should be doing these other scent sports?"

I'm glad to you asked and spoiler alert, the answer is no.

Other scent sports offer unique challenges that would be beneficial in a Scent Work context.

Take Barn Hunt for instance. The rat tube is moved for every single dog who runs. Well, rats leak. This means the dogs must work through an incredible amount of lingering odor and discount rat leakage for actual source aka the rat. Also, the placement of the tubes within the hay or straw maze oftentimes has a high tendency for odor pooling opportunities. If your dog can see and sort this out, they will have a huge leg-up on solving a similar odor pooling puzzle in a Scent Work search.

Additionally, in Barn Hunt, dogs are required to climb the hay maze and go through a tunnel in addition to finding their rats. This means the dog is working on proprioception, building a comfort for working within tight spaces and having an ability to seek height. All three of these skills will serve them brilliantly in a Scent Work search!

If you have a dog with mobility issues, then Happy Ratters may be a good alternative for you. With the removal of the hay or straw mazes, your dog will need to tackle set-ups that may even look similar to a Scent Work search. Perhaps sorting out an odor puzzle with a busy, cluttered corner. How wonderful would it be for your dog to have an understanding for this type of odor puzzle the next time they tackle an interior search?

Still on the fence? NASDA’s Shed Hunt class is another excellent example. Dogs are tasked to work increasingly large, outdoor, natural areas for shed antlers. Off-leash. Out in a large field. This means staying focused on the task of hunting, while still staying connected to their person so as not to run off into the wild. Wouldn’t these skills serve your team well when tackling a large exterior search?

These are just a few of the sports out there which leverage our dogs amazing sense of smell. We should leverage as many of these as possible. Doing so will not only be fun, but also greatly beneficial to our Scent Work game.


The fact there are so many sniffing opportunities available to us and our dogs is something for us to celebrate and maximize on. The more ways we can help our dog hone their hunting ability in a variety of situations and scenarios, the better. Not to mention, they love to do it! Each scent sport offers its own allure and can tap into a specific innate drive and desire your dog has.

For instance, my tiny terrier LOVES critters...no surprise, he is a terrier! Now, I could be signing myself up for endless headaches and frustrations if I tried to make the terrier NOT care about the critters.

Instead, I will go about building his value in the hunt for his Scent Work hides AND providing him an appropriate outlet to hunt for critters in Barn Hunt, Happy Ratter and NASDA. We may even look into tracking, which I am certain he will excel in, I will just need to hope my broken body cooperates! For us, MORE sniffing is the going to be the name of the game, not less.

So, take the time diversify your dog’s sniffer and play all the sniffing games you can.

Learn more about a few scent sports here:

Dianna has been training dogs professionally since 2011. She has done everything from teaching group training classes and private lessons, to specializing in working with fearful, reactive and aggressive dogs, to being a trial official and competition organization staff member.

Following a serious neck and back injury, Dianna was forced to retire from in-person dog training. But she was not ready to give up her passion! So, she created Pet Dog U and Scent Work University to provide outstanding online dog training to as many dog handlers, owners and trainers possible…regardless of where they live! Dianna is incredibly grateful to the amazingly talented group of instructors who have joined PDU and SWU and she looks forward to the continued growth of PDU and SWU and increased learning opportunities all of these online dog training platforms can provide.

In June 2021, Dianna and her business partner, Sean McMurray launched Cyber Scent Work, Inc., an organization that operates in the gray space between training and trialing in Scent Work. With Cyber Scent Work, Inc., handlers have the opportunity to earn Qs, titles and ribbons while also receiving helpful training advice regardless of whether they qualify or not! Be sure to check out Cyber Scent Work, Inc., you will be happy you did!

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