When NOT to Play Scent Work

Oct 30, 2021

That’s right, there are indeed times you may want to steer away from playing formal Scent Work with your pup. Before you start screaming, “BLASPHEMY!”, consider this: especially for those teams competing in Scent Work trials, what would happen if your dog suddenly had a negative association with the activity of Sent Work? This could undo months, even years, of training, planning and playing. With that in mind, let’s discuss some specific situations when doing a formal Scent Work training session may not be the best idea.


Let me start by saying every dog is an individual and every situation is different. One dog may still want to run and play after breaking their leg whereas another will curl up into a heap after chipping a toenail. Likewise, what the dog is inflicted with may change our assessment of the situation. Meaning, a dog who is recouping from an ACL injury may have a different approach than one who is recovering from bloat surgery.

The question we should be asking is, “Could this training session detrimentally affect how my dog approaches the game of Scent Work in the future?”

What if your dog was in pain as they were sorting out the odor puzzles? Could they then make the association of being in pain with the game?

Allow me to give you a non-Scent Work example to illustrate my point. When my prior Doberboy, Valor, sustained a neck injury, we were driving three times a week to physical therapy, which he loathed. It only a took a week of this back-and-forth for him to balk going into the car. The same dog who loved car rides for years suddenly despised it. The reason being: he was associating the car ride with the physical therapy sessions, being stressed, uncomfortable and likely in pain. It took a concerted effort on my part afterwards to make going for car rides fun again. Meaning, only going to fun places, even ridiculously short “go hunt lizards and pee” trips, all to rebuild his positive association once again. The kicker: all of this happened after years of deposits in the “car rides are awesome” bank. Imagine what would have happened if I did not have long positive history?!

There are a ton of contextual cues that go along with going for a car ride. When Valor made the association that car rides were now “bad”, all those contextual cues kicked in too! So simply grabbing his everyday collar would cause him to slink away and curl up on his bed, trying to disappear.

Scent Work also has a ton of contextual cues, especially our formal training sessions. These are there by design, to help our dogs understand which game we are playing and put them into the right headspace. One of the most powerful contextual cues are the target odors themselves. What if your dog had a similar reaction Valor did, but instead to the everyday collar it was to Birch? This is the stuff of nightmares.

So, if your dog is not feeling well, think long and hard if doing a formal Scent Work session is a good idea or not.


Scent Work can be a fantastic outlet for dogs, helping them to settle and think. It is for this reason trainers and instructors recommend adding Scent Work as an adjunct activity for many behavior modification programs. However, the way one uses Scent Work is crucially important.

For instance, asking a dog to do Scent Work immediately upon finishing a challenging and stressful behavior modification exercise may not be the best idea. An example would be a reactive dog working on disengaging from another dog who is stationed on the opposite side of the street. Straining to stay under-threshold, the reactive dog takes the food rewards with ever greater intensity. Even if the reactive dog does not outwardly explode, they are clearly demonstrating that they are quickly approaching their threshold. Helping this dog recover is something that should be done. However, asking them to do so with formal Scent Work may not be the best idea.

Stress-stacking is a very real concern and the last thing we want is for this dog to think the target odors are in any way associated with the very triggers you are tirelessly working to get them to work through! A better alternative: bringing them to safe and enclosed space far away from the trigger and have them snorkel for treats in the grass or using a Snufflemat. Getting them to sniff and hunt is beneficial in this context, helping them to recover, but trying to do the same thing formally with target odors could be problematic.


Another scenario that may call for you to refrain from doing a formal Scent Work training session is when your available rewards are limited. This is a situation I find myself in right now with my Doberpuppy, Archer. He is currently on a strict food trial, which means no high-value food treats of any sort. Well, it just so happens after working on primary for well over a year, I had planned to introduce him to target odors this month. I laid out detailed short and long-term training plans, all leading up to us competing a few months if all went well. All those plans were thoroughly scrapped since I want to ensure what I am using for the pairing and my supplemental rewards are super high-value. Simply put, his strict diet kibble is not going to cut it.

Now, could I use toys or get creative and have the kibble in a bag with a piece of liverwurst, so it smelled like liverwurst? Both of those are real possibilities. However, I know that while Archer has fantastic toy drive, his food drive is higher.

Furthermore, I want him to have the best impression possible of the target odors. This means we will simply wait to introduce those target odors until we can use high-value treats again.

Does this mean I do not do Scent Work at all with him? No, just the opposite! Having worked with primary all this time makes my job immensely easier. We just keep doing what we’ve doing! If it is a more straightforward search, I will use the kibble, being super aware of my jackpots and parties. The more challenging puzzles (we just started full inaccessible hides, as an example) are all done with his toys. I am delighted that is love for the game has not diminished at all and leads to believe transferring that joy to the target odors will be a snap when that time comes.


I am a huge fan of Scent Work and strongly believe it is an activity for ALL dogs. However, there are specific times when doing a formal Scent Work session, especially with target odors, may be more detrimental than helpful. Being thoughtful about potential pitfalls is crucially important for dog owners, handlers, trainers and instructors alike.

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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