Scent Games for Dogs

Scent is a natural way for dogs to sense the world and to be enriched.


Scent games for dogs are sweeping the canine nation at home and in competitions because they’re just so much fun. Any dog can play scent games, and it doesn’t take a lot to set up a game.

The world is a treasure trove of scents for dogs. Scent is a natural way for them to sense the world and to be enriched. That’s why we encourage you to let your dog sniff when you go on walks together. It’s how he gets his news! A dog’s ability smell things is an important part of being a dog.

Because a dog’s sense of smell is so much better than ours, it is easy to get them in the spirit of nose work type games. From puppies to seniors, dogs love to smell and find the prize.

Home Scent Games for Dogs

The easiest way to start with scent games is to use food treats. Hide a treat in a box or put a treat under a cup along with two empty cups (yes, like the old “shell game”) and then let him find it.

You can make a simple food puzzle at home by hiding some treats in a muffin tin, then covering the holes with tennis balls. Of course, ball-loving dogs may quickly grab the ball and run off, not even realizing there’s food, so you may have to “explain” it to him at first.

You can also hide a treat or a favorite toy in one room and then let your dog in to search. Dogs just naturally pick up on these types of games. You may even be able to make your own dog scent toys.

Dogs love these activities, and scent games have low risk for physical injury, so they are great for puppies and seniors. These games are also good for dogs who are confined due to illness or recovery.

Scent Work Competitions

If you want to participate in formal canine scent sports, more training is required, but this sport is growing quickly for good reason—dogs and handlers both enjoy the tests.

These scent games tend to use essential oils for the scents, starting with birch oil for the lowest levels. You start by giving your dog a positive association with the scent, pairing the scent with a treat. Dogs quickly figure out that if they indicate where the scent is they will get a great treat or some tug play if they prefer that.

You can move on to hiding the scent indoors, outdoors, in containers, or even buried in sand or water. At the beginning levels, only one scented “hide” is in a search area. Additional scents are later added, such as anise and clove, so the dog must find more than one scented object.

To find a dog scent work instructor in your area, go to the National Association of Canine Scent Work.


  1. My chocolate Lab, River, has been competing in AKC scent work trials for 2 years. He has earned his overall Novice title and I’m working on Novice Interior Elite (10 successful trials) for him. He is in advanced now and finished his advanced interior last weekend. He has one advanced container to go and two exteriors. He hasn’t begun advanced buried. While he HAS passed his ORT (odor recognition test) required for NACSW trials, I have yet to get into an NW1. For some reason, in the southeast, those trials are few and far between. For someone wanting to begin scent work competition, AKC trials are easier to find. The structure between the two organizations differs as well. I HAVE entered River into an NW1 trial and am waiting to see if I made it. The closest I’ve come is 41st on the waitlist!!

  2. When I take our beagle for a walk, I often think the walk is like Facebook for her — sniffing everything and checking up on what the other dogs in the neighborhood have been doing. I’ve started calling it Nosebook. She’s even learned that a walk is coming when I ask her if she wants to check her Nosebook feed.

  3. Diana pawPrints started scentwork as a puppy through our local humane society. She passed her NACSW ORT and was working on her NW1 when Covid hit. There are no trials locally so we must drive several hours and stay overnight in a hotel for the ones that are closest. And since she is only working on NW1 there aren’t very many. Now that we are ready to go again I notice almost all of the closest NACSW trials are for the higher categories. That sorta locks those just starting out out of the sport. I see this as self defeating.

    We did a few AKC which are closer and she did very well. I’m going to start checking their site for more of the level 1 trials so she can get started again.

    Of course, now I have Freyja. I am hoping that while I am getting Diana back up to trial level Freyja might pick up the idea through Diana’s practice and if she likes it, I can run both of them (separately) at trials so I don’t have to leave one at home. I could take her along but I can’t leave her unattended while I run Diana. She won’t do well being left at home for half the day.

    For those starting out, you can easily make your own snuffle mat with a sink protector and some scrap fleece. Then just hide some treats in and let your dog find them. You can also use empty boxes from deliveries to hide treats in. Excellent practice. Just make sure they are clean. No left over pizza boxes.