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Scent work is a pretty big deal for dogs.
Dogs have evolved to use their nose. Their nose is capable of INCREDIBLE things. They can sniff out truffles, medical conditions, help with conservation efforts, track and trail scents, and so much more.
Their sense of smell is how a dog sees the world. Through smell, they gather information, determine how to respond, find good things and avoid noxious things. There are very few things as definitively “dog” as an incredibly powerful sense of smell.
You may have heard us discuss species-typical behaviors a time or two (or million), and harnessing a dog’s sense of smell is one of the most effective and simple ways to provide an enriching experience for your dog. The positive impacts of olfaction-based activities are numerous. There are a plethora of scent games you can do with your dog, which means there is something for just about everyone in most situations.
At the end of this blog, there will be a list of other scent options for you and your dog to try, but in terms of simplicity and versatility, few things can compete with scatter feeding.
This is a foraging option that’s used widely in both zoos and domestic animal care. Simply put, it’s tossing food around so that an animal who has evolved to use their sense of smell to find food actively uses their sense of smell to find food.
I know, sounds too good to be true, right?
You may be surprised. Simple changes in how we deliver our animal’s daily food can make a huge difference in their overall behavior and welfare.
This study by Nathan Andrews looked at The Effects of Automated Scatter Feeders on Captive Grizzly Bear Activity Budgets and found large, observable, measurable changes in the Grizzly Bear’s behavior:
“Findings include a significant decrease in time spent in [repetitive behaviors] and a significant increase in time spent active while the feeders were in use. Further, the bears exhibited a wider range of behaviors and a greater use of their enclosure.”
While dogs aren’t bears, both species use olfaction to navigate the world, and as Nathan shares in an upcoming podcast episode, this enrichment was effective for both the bears in the study and his pet dogs at home.
*make sure you follow us on our Facebook page and Instagram for alerts on an exciting, upcoming podcast, Enrichment for the Real World, that formally goes live on March 7th. The first episode has Nathan talking about this exact study and more!*
The Beauty in Versatility
I mentioned earlier that scatter feeding can be incredibly versatile, which is one of the things I love most about it. I don’t need to teach my dog a million things or purchase a bunch of toys. With one activity, I can meet so many of my dog’s needs, and it will always be challenging.
If you need a review of how to start teaching your dog to look for scattered food, check out this past Training Challenge around “Find it!”
Once your dog is able to find food reliably, you can start to look for ways to increase the complexity:
Instead of playing in an empty room → try your back patio
Instead of keeping the treats close together → gradually start increasing the area of the scatter
Instead of using an empty floor space → start adding in obstacles for treats to fall under and around
Instead of practicing only in your house → try in a low distraction patch of grass
Instead of keeping all the treats on the floor → start putting them on a variety of surfaces
Instead of keeping them out in the open → hide some treats in boxes, plastic cups, dixie cups
When varying scatter feeding, you can increase the difficulty by:
Increasing the area of the scatter, the intensity or number of distractions, the number of competing smells, the number of obstacles, the duration of the scatter and so many other things.
Get creative with it! Your dog might surprise you!
Other scent game options
Formal nosework is always an option, but if you are looking for something a little more loosey-goosey, check out these additional scent opportunities:
- Snuffle mats
- “Go Hunt” – similar process as above, but you can try using family members or toys!
- This video has a bunch of fun scent games you can play with your dog(s).
- If you’ve never tried scatter feeding for your dog before, start teaching your dog to search for treats.
- If your dog has experience with scatter feeding or “find it!”, try increasing the difficulty in one way. You can mix up the different ways you challenge your dog to keep things fun and interesting for you and them!
- Follow us over on Instagram to get alerts when our new podcast goes live!