Power of Choice in Scent Work

Oct 9, 2022

Think about how it feels when someone tells you to do something. You may grumble under your breath, roll your eyes, or just think to yourself, “Well, now I don’t WANT to do it!”. Juxtapose this feeling to when you choose to do this task all on your own. Suddenly, the dynamic is entirely different.

This is the power of the choice in a nutshell. Readjusting how the participant perceives their role within the interaction. Having the opportunity to choose is empowering and can increase engagement and enthusiasm.

The same applies when training or working with our dogs.

But what does this look like within the context of Scent Work?


Quite simply, this is the dog having the freedom to see the odor puzzle to the end or saying, “Nope, I’m not doing that.”


So that you may enjoy an active conversation with your dog and realize when they lack the skills to complete a search, are too hot, too tired, too overwhelmed or you have simply pushed too far, too fast.

The fact that you and I cannot experience odor is a major factor in all of this. If we could just visualize what an odor plume is doing within a space, to actually SEE how incredibly complex it may or may not be, our dogs would be much better off!

Take these two mazes for instance.

One is clearly more straightforward than the other. If you were teaming up with a friend who was recuperating from back surgery and suffered from severe anxiety, I would sincerely hope you would opt for them to tackle Maze A as opposed to Maze B!

But what if you didn’t know how difficult the mazes were beforehand and your friend tried to tackle Maze B? In the middle of their attempt, they throw out their back, start to panic and plead for help. They are choosing to stop trying to solve the maze. I would sincerely hope you would honor this choice and step in to help them, as opposed to standing there proclaiming, “Well, just try harder, it is the whole point of the game!”

This same dynamic applies to our dogs.


We must come to terms with the fact that we cannot force our dogs to use their nose. They must WANT to play the game.

This means our training must be designed to cultivate and promote this desire to play. To offer our dogs a multitude of choices where the “correct” choice, of seeing the odor puzzle to the end, is the most obvious and beneficial choice to them.

However, for this to work, it must be a two-way channel of communication. If our dog clearly demonstrates that they CANNOT solve a given puzzle, then we need to honor this and pull them from the search. Doing so without any negative emotion or reactions, allowing them to rest and then making any necessary adjustments to better promote success is the name of the game.

If we are thoughtful and incremental with our progression, our dogs will find that choosing to use their nose, playing the game, and finding their hide worked.

Thus, even when posed with a challenging puzzle or environment, the dog will CHOOSE to stay engaged and give it their all to find their cookie opportunity.
However, none of this happens overnight nor is guaranteed!

The way we design our training exercises and reward our dogs have an enormous impact on their calculation of whether choosing to find their hide is indeed the best choice for them to make.


Our essential odor hides are inherently BORING! Without our training intervention, they are meaningless to our dogs. These hides do not move. They do not run away. They could not be more boring if they tried.

The environment, on the other hand, is a cacophony of super exciting stimuli!
Speaking solely about odor, our dogs are bombarded with an insane amount of odor stimuli every time they step the start line. Each is competing for their attention.

“There used to be some yummy food here, pay attention to me.”

“No, look at where the chipmunk was hanging out before, pay attention to ME!”

“Forget that, look at this awesome doggie text, pay attention to MEEEEE!”

You get the idea.

Hate to break it to you, but you cannot force your dog to ignore all those other stimuli and focus on their hide instead. The dog must CHOOSE to do so.

Once we truly allow this distinction to sink in, we can more effectively design our searches to highlight what we want: the dog to CHOOSE their hide over the environment.

Yet one of the most common pitfalls is doing just the opposite: placing all the attention and focus on the DISTRACTOR as the hide fades into the background.

Setting up exercises where the dog is enticed to make the correct CHOICE to find their hide and then heavily rewarded for doing so is the name of the game.

Essentially, making it so the dog thinks finding their hide was their idea in the first place…because it the most obvious choice for them to make.


Leading the search. Demonstrating independence. Having confidence within the space. These are all skillsets and goal posts touted within Scent Work and are what training programs should strive to achieve. At the end of the day, the common thread that runs through all of them is the power of choice being granted to the dog.

The dog choosing the step out into the space and take the lead as opposed to following behind their handler who points out every square inch of the search area.

The dog choosing to independently work their way toward a deep accessible hide far underneath a table to get to source, as opposed to fringe alerting on the outside of the table.

The dog choosing to enter a large, booming interior space with high ceilings and slippery floors the find their hide as opposed to the handler dragging them in.

All our training should be designed to promote the dog to choose, to enhance our ability to listen to the conversation and heed when the dog when they may need an adjustment to be made.

How can you leverage the power of choice when training Scent Work with your dog?

Learn more about the power of choice as it pertains to proofing in our latest webinar series:

Find Your Hide – Proofing for Crittering Webinar
Find Your Hide – Proofing for Dog Odor Webinar
Find Your Hide – Proofing for Food or Toys Webinar
Find Your Hide – Proofing for Messy Odor Profiles Webinar

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!

Join Our Newsletter