Why giving your dogs sniffer a workout is so useful
👃Why giving your dogs sniffer a workout is so useful 👃
A dogs nose is so powerful.
Factually speaking dogs have around 300 million olfactory senses in their nose, when we have 6 million. This means their sense of smell is around 50 x more effective than ours. Around 40 times more of their brain compared to ours is dedicated to the sense of smell. It is therefore no surprise that most dogs natural behaviours will involve sniffing and hunting, as their key method of understanding the environment.
Knowing these facts, you can clearly see the importance of this organ right from the start of our puppies lives, and we can probably see for ourselves how much importance and use our dogs noses are to both them and us.
Typically dogs use their noses to smell food, each other as a communication tool and to suss out and investigate their surroundings. We as humans use a dogs sense of smell for our benefit and for sport too. Ranging from scent detection dogs, for fire and police; cancer detection and other illnesses; assistance dogs for the benefit of finding items for retrieving, and also smelling hormones or chemical releases such as fitting signals; and sporting purposes such as again scent detection, gundog type work- the nose of a dog is the pivotal part of all of these jobs and purposes.
This blog post is about the significance of using our dogs noses in day to day life for pet dogs, why it is so incredibly valuable and the practicalities of it alongside the all important how to apply sniffing into your daily routine!
What is hunting and sniffing... and why do dogs do it?
Hunting and sniffing are behaviours your dog will already likely be doing as a part of their normal behavioural pattern, puppies will often sniff and circle before they go to the toilet, a behaviour that will carry on right through till adult hood. Hunting and sniffing are the same behaviour (breathing in through their nose to smell something) but can have different purposes or contexts.
You'd catch a dog sniffing if it was familiarising itself with the environment its in, or potentially sniffing a fellow dog or other species sometimes. Hunting is the more active process of finding something, due to the fact they have smelt something potentially interesting to investigate, or as a learned behaviour where hunting has been reinforced (rewarded) in that particular context before so they give it another go to see if this behaviour will be rewarded again.
Both hunting and sniffing are great behaviours that I encourage fellow dog owners and potential dog owners to know about and encourage in their dogs as a part of day to day routine.
What are the benefits of hunting and sniffing?
Knowing that sniffing is more of a social event than hunting, it is no surprise dogs display neophilia, which is the desire to be drawn to new or familiar smells. I see it often as an investigative tool to come to terms with environments or potential objects in environments ie lampposts, a new room, a person or another dog. Investigating something new or unfamiliar to a dog, shows a degree of inquisition and encouraging this in the right way is great to build familiarity, bonds and good associations.
Sniffing a funky swamp smell! With the obligatory bubble blow of course
Sniffing out moles, the perfect size to fit in those tiny mole holes too!
Staffy sniffing a tree.
- Communication and familiarity
As you can see sniffing can be a communication tool, and in the scenario above, sniffing is a gesture of saying 'hello' to one and other (ie wiggly bottom sniffing as above). Biologically, dogs have to sniff to feel comfortable and sure of their environment- but what if the body language of the dog suggests your dog is a little more uncertain and sniffing an object is a little bit too much? How do we help our dogs to build good associations of scary things?
|Investigating a log!|
Take a scary lamppost for example. Your dog may air scent the lamppost but a little too wary to actually give it a good sniff analysis. Most would say encourage the sniffing by pulling a little on the dogs lead, going over yourself to said lamppost, touching it and reassuring your dog the lamppost wont eat it. Some may even be tempted to scatter feed and encourage hunting around the lamppost itself to build positive associations. However, your risk is that this will only create a conflict between desire of eating food and the scary object still being scary. Pressure may exacerbate the fear of the super scary lamppost more! A better idea may be to note the body language of your dog, not push or pressure them to investigate the scary thing, but if you observe any movement or potential observation towards the scary lamppost they offer, reinforce this as a great move by throwing a piece of high value food away from scary lamppost. This will mean there is no conflict in eating, and your dog then has a choice about whether or not to go back and investigate some more, and perhaps take some more tentative steps towards the lamppost in the hope of more food being thrown away. This is the basic principle of shaping a behaviour, which builds confidence and enables potentially scary objects to be sniffed, interacted with and associated well for the next time scary lampposts crop up on a walk again!
Hunting and sniffing
- Mental Stimulation
When we first bring a puppy home, we need to be careful about how much physical exercise they have with their bones being so fragile, and exposure to the outside world needs to be moderated, and with a main focus of showing puppy the world is a good friendly place. Hunting and sniffing for a puppy can be a great way of offering some mental stimulation, thus working puppies brain, allowing them to feel enriched and satisfied ready for a good nap. Hunting and sniffing require little physical exercise, but can also encourage usage of muscles and investigation of new environments too.
Even alongside an active day physically, balance is key between mental and physical stimulation, for a well rounded and healthy day. Sniffing and hunting is a great way to implement this mental stimulation into your day to day routine. Scatter feeding can be an option to do this, or even just leaving toys out or going to a new environment with new and interesting smells can be a great option to get that sniffer working!
Hunting is more of an active form of searching for something, that something could be food, a toy, a particular scent or even a retrieve item. Hunting is a great way of creating a bond or working as a team with your dog, enriching them and also to create engagement on walks.
- Arousal management
Sometimes dogs get over excited/ stimulated/ react in an over the top manner and their energy levels spike due to a trigger, environment or just generally because they woke up from a knap or having a funny 5 mins. What ever the reason, sometimes the craziness needs to have an appropriate outlet, that isn't jumping up, being a crazy hooligan, instead giving our dogs an MEB (Mutually exclusive behaviour- swapping a less desirable behaviour for a more desirable behaviour). Encouraging hunting and scatter feeding is a great way to bring heart rate back down, and allow a dog to chill a little. This has many different contexts which will be explained more in the training section.
Working from home right now, we've all had these moments where our dogs are just being a little too needy, and you'd love it if they occupied themselves for just 5 minutes. Enrichment can also be used if you want to show your dog that being independent and comfortable with their own company is a fun game that they are going to love (along side crate training). Enrichment hunting and sniffing is a really good option to encourage calm, settled behaviours, and help a dog to self settle whilst also to give you a bit of rest bite and give a dog a fun option to do as you cook the dinner, assist with home schooling, or get on with some email writing.
Non purchasable ideas for enrichment include-
🌟Yule log towel
Lay a towel flat ( portrait) and place a line of kibble along the top of the towel, fold over repeat until you get a Yule log shaped enrichment toy, Let dog snuffle out kibble.
|Yule Log hunting|
To make it harder, find a bigger towel and place the first line of kibble slightly deeper in the towel and fold both ways to increase the hunting difficulty.
🌟Cardboard box filled with loo roles and spare paper place some kibble for dog to find
To make it easier, only fill the cardboard box with kibble and make the box a little shallower for easier access.
To make it harder, fewer kibble pieces, more loo roles and spare paper.
🌟Cup cake tray
Put a few pieces of kibble in each of the cupcake holder spaces and stuff on top balls or toys for dog to remove to find the kibble.
To make it easier, just place kibble inside the cupcake tray, and don't place the toys on top.
To make it harder, think about possibly only putting kibble pieces in select number of cupcake holders, and then covering all with toys, or half with and half without.
You could experiment for the appropriate enrichment activities, for an extra surprise placing some wet food, soft cheese or banana spread on the surface of the item, and then push the kibble pieces into that. This should increase the duration the dog is hunting for, but also make the scent stronger to increase motivation.
🌟Line of kibble on the floor for your dog to follow
To make it simpler, put larger food pieces on a flat surface to ensure food is extra visible and easy to find, also in one straight line.
To make it harder, less food, more spread out, in a wiggly line, and smaller pieces in some cover (longer grass/ leaf pile).
Could also hide food trail under cones for increased difficulty, or even place food next to cone for a visual clue as to where the food is.
Using some of your dogs daily food allowance, or a ball if your dog is more toy motivated (is possible to build motivation for both toy and food by increasing movement, sound or both), if dog has a sit stay, ask for a stay, hide item, then release to go find.
Make it super visible and easy to succeed first time round, if using a toy, exchange for piece of food or different item to play the game again.
To make it a little more difficult increase the distance between dog and hidden object, could also experiment with environment the game takes place if you your dog is motivated enough. Could experiment using different items to find, multiple items to find, or even putting things in less accessible places (in trees, in cover, have to stand on a platform to reach). Ensure safety and joint support is in place.
For other ideas, a really interesting book is Canine Enrichment by Shay Kelly
Ideas for purchasable mental enrichment for hunting which encourage settling post use include
🌟 Nina Ottoson Food puzzles
🌟Certain kong toys
🌟ACE Free work- Message me for more details.
As a trainer, I am always looking for ways to implement hunting into training, the reasons for this are endless.
I see a lot of owners who say they have problems with engagement on walks, their dog pulls on the lead, their dog doesn't recall all that well, they chase things, and at home energy levels are too intense ect ect. These problems are commonly within working breeds like Spaniels, Labradors, Goldy's, Terriers, Hunt Point Retrieve dogs. However, any dog who lacks a bit of training and the mental stimulation that comes with it can be a terror in the above ways as well!
The most common reason these problems occur is down to a whole lot of self reinforcement from rehearsing these behaviours as genetically, these dogs are bred to use their nose for a job. Simply put, they need an outlet for this behaviour which results in a tonne of 'FENTON!' moments which are super fun for the dog, but very... very annoying and embarrassing for the owner, making walks a nightmare. For our non working breeds, the most common reason why these dogs get too excited and distracted by the environment they are in is due to scent, or movement! If we can tap into the scent part, thus tapping into the movement part then we will have ourselves a more engaged dog- with us, and appropriately with the outside world too.
For me a big part of my training style is understanding the why part of the problem behaviour occurring, and then how to adapt that motivation to become a reward for good behaviour. Thus, often transitioning the environment to become a reinforcement opportunity, rather than a distraction and a trigger for havoc to take place!
This means, we need to find the dogs true motivation for these problem behaviours to be able to exist, manage the context to an extent which means we set up for success and give dogs a good opportunity to offer a behaviour we like, and then find a place where we can use the initial motivation for the problem behaviour as a reward for the behaviour we like. Examples of this is could be with hunting for food, a dummy, chasing a ball and hunting for it.
We can also increase engagement on walks and around the house to build connection between dog and owner, so fun can be had together rather than separate.
As a spaniel owner myself, I wish I had found the training I now do with him sooner, as many of the problem behaviours he demonstrated where down to, you guessed it, being a spaniel and not having a positive outlet for his spaniel needs! Hunting for a spaniel is second nature, and since enveloping it into our walks and day to day routine with retrieving, scatter feeding and hunting for his ball, he doesn't feel the need to run off and find fun elsewhere because I provide all the games and excitement for us to enjoy together! Even down to his keep-away and resource guarding tendencies, encouraging and working on his retrieve pattern (which often included hunting) we were able to build back up that trust and bond, which enabled him to feel a whole lot more comfortable offering me things that were his, and dropping things on cue for a reward too. From a safety perspective, its safe to say hunting and training has turned our world around, and from a team work perspective we now work together and enjoy each others company so much more!
The best bit about training is you can adapt all of these hunting games to suit just about any species big and small, wide and narrow. Every dog has a nose, and every dog will enjoy using it and having the mental enrichment fun from having a nose workout! Often you'll find frustration at home as a result of not getting enough mental enrichment, or the most suitable version of mental enrichment which encourages settling down and relaxing afterwards.
Training is a great way to encourage hunting and has so many avenues:
🌟Gundog training (hunting for a retrieve/ hunting as a reward for behaviour).
🌟Scent detection training
🌟Obedience training (hunting as reinforcement)
🌟Hunting used for shaping reinforcement
Exploring different surfaces through sniffing
🌟Assistance dog training
Any dog any age can learn new things, finding the right source of motivation plus managing criteria and environment is absolutely the key to success.
Often teaching your dog the skill of hunting and sniffing is a great tool as can be used as a part of a sequence of behaviours or as a means to develop another behaviour. If any of the above sounds like something your interested in, we can have a chat about your dogs interests and how we can incorporate giving your dog a nose job as a part of their day to day routine.
I have some live videos and client videos over on my Facebook page which show just some of the examples of where hunting can be used within training, so if your unsure of how the elements combine in action, do take a look!
Think about those moments where you'd wish your dog did a different behaviour in a certain context than it does. You wish you had a tool to communicate this to your dog, and a tool which could possibly in tern change its emotions around this context as well, meaning your dog may look to you in the future in choice to perform this more desirable behaviour instead. Take a dog staring at another dog for example. Depending on the circumstance, previous history and also your dogs arousal at that exact moment, the likelihood is that staring behaviour could evolve into a lunge, bark or stiffening in body due to anticipation of play, frustration of being on a lead or having cut off access to the dog in question, This type of behaviour could also be due to anxiety/ fear/ arousal of that dog, or the owners instigating an interaction which may not be favoured.
Hunting may be the way forwards from this type of situation plus many others - jumping up, ping pong recall where you dog comes when called but then runs back away almost as soon as they have come, over excitement in certain situations and running out of the door... just to name a few.
|Dog enjoying some scent detection on the lead,|
nice and relaxed with a loose lead!
For more detail on the process of this, please get in touch as there are a lot of variables that need to be worked through to ensure success in this way.
|Relaxed social sniffing, taking the intensity off of play|
Ever thought about why a dog actually enjoys hunting and sniffing? Dopamine (happy chemical)! If you give your dog the chance to hunt for a purpose, and you are part of the enjoyment because you produce the food/ toy/ scent part of the process (motivation to hunt), you can be in effect linked with that happy chemical. Knowing also that the levels of dopamine in the system drop when said smelly thing has been found, reproducing/ replenishing the smelly thing as the handler means you provide your dog with that key to happiness too!
Limbic systems in our dogs body is the controller of olfactory bulb. This particular system also monitors emotions and learning, and is heavily involved with memory. This system scientifically improves and helps drive calmness too, in particular around triggers as we can harmonise emotions by giving that sniffer a job!
All in all, summing up why giving your dogs sniffer a workout is so useful!