When NOT to Play Scent Work

Updated: Sep 2

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