Enrichment Scent Work: Training Out and About with Sensitive and Environmentally Challenged Dogs

UPDATE 2022: In 2022 I designed a training program based on this protocol called Content To Scent. I teach classes and private lessons on this very topic in the context of scent work. See more here- Content To Scent

Clarity, Choice, Structure and Consistency

Scent work is a wonderful activity for any dog, and just as much fun for the human too! What I most love about scent work is that, unlike some other dog sports, it is very accessible as a standalone enrichment activity anywhere, anytime-which is my sole purpose in doing it. It can be a true gift for your dog and for your relationship. So even if you never plan to compete, you can still find great rewards in getting out and about with your scent work partner and enjoy it together!

With the proper perspective, scent training can build confidence and focus in dogs that struggle in challenging environments. Sensitive, less confident, and/or high prey drive/arousal dogs often find it difficult or impossible to work in novel environments, or even in familiar environments when sudden environmental changes occur. We all know dogs like this, or have one (or 2, or more!). Learning to enjoy searching when challenged is empowerment for the dog who has overcome mental obstacles to do this!

So what I want to share here is a basic, flexible, protocol that I have developed for my own dogs from a combination of sources that I have learned from over time. At the core of all of my training is foundation work in focus, engagement and empowerment through choice. I have provided a list of resources at the end of this article so you can explore further if you wish.

While I developed this systematic process out of necessity for dealing with my own sensitive, prey driven and otherwise environmentally challenged dogs, I will add that all dogs benefit from the application of clarity, choice, structure and consistency because these are fundamental to all good training. The specific applications and steps can be tweaked to the individual needs. For our purposes here, scent work is the context.

Assumptions are that your dog already has the following foundations:

  • Dog is solid on basic searching skills/games with at least one odor (could be food) in comfortable environments.
  • You are able to assess readiness to work in the form of games such as focus games or pattern games. Games should be previously taught and already well known to the dog. (See resources list)
  • Dog already has an established Start Button or Consent behavior (see link in step 2 below and the resources list for more info on this)
  • Dog can relax in crate and/or mat, in off switch mode.
  • You have established a clear distinction for your dog between acclimation time and the beginning of work.
  • You have practiced the entire process at home and your dog knows it well, before taking it on the road. The familiarity of the process as a whole is essential to generalization on the road.

Also: Choose your environments wisely. Set your dog up for success by not overwhelming him, and raise the challenges incrementally, one criteria at a time. Safety must always be priority when choosing.

Steps are as follows. The critical elements of choice, clarity, structure and consistency are identified in bold print as they apply to each step.

IMPORTANT: A potty walk is separate from Acclimation! A potty walk outside of the training space happens first, then we enter into the training area for step 2 of Acclimation.

1. Acclimation: (choice to explore, investigate): First and foremost for training in any new environment is acclimation. Rather than reinvent the wheel, I will provide a link to Denise Fenzi’s excellent blog post on this topic: https://denisefenzi.com/2015/08/acclimation/   

But for now, acclimation is allowing my dog time they need to take in the area where we will be training. For example, if it is a park I will pick out an appropriate  space where we will actually work and let my dog walk (on leash) on the perimeter of that designated space (clarity, a clearly defined work space, separate from walk and sniff), sniff and look until he is relaxed, no longer concerned. I often follow this initial acclimation walk with a short period of stationary acclimation on a mat, while we sit and relax on the edge of the work area for a few minutes. Then back in the crate to relax and process what he has observed while I set up for training.

2. Set up the training area: For scent training, my basic setup includes a start line with 2 cones, a platform for voluntary start button behavior (and other benefits that a platform provides). I intentionally use this obvious stationing set up for several reasons, but will fade the platform as we progress. My set up is always the same (you can see it it the video link at the end), providing structure, clarity and consistency, wherever we are.

3. Acclimation to workspace. Assessment Games, mental warm up: At this point, I assess the dog’s mental state for work, and for this I have a plethora of tools to pick from. I have used Pattern Games from Leslie McDevitt’s Control Unleashed. I also use Focus Games and Zen Games from Dr. Deb Jones’ Get Focused classes at Fenzi Dog Sport Academy, as well as Ready To Work protocol from Shade Whitesel, engagement exercises from Kamal Fernandez classes at Fenzi. I also have some of my own games. You can use your own creativity to develop assessment tools once you know what works best and gives you a clear understanding of your dogs’ readiness for work. Any assessment protocol should be consistent, predictable and well known to your dog, initially taught at home in an easy and comfortable environment. Start Button behaviors will vary with handler/dog preferences.

4. Break: When a few reps of assessment games are showing me that he is ready to work, he takes a brief break while I set up the searches. He can be back in the crate or waiting calmly on a mat nearby. (NOTE: IF assessment games indicate that he is not ready, we take a break and try those again. If he fails a second time I end the session with “all done” a cookie scatter, and back to crate while I evaluate why and what I could/should have done differently. I don’t normally try to restart a 3d time. We might just go for a walk, or just go home.)

4. Search set up- Clarity is provided with a simple box search set up just beyond the start line, it all says “scent work”, and it is clear what we are doing so that the dog knows what he is consenting to. I also set an easy, single hide search elsewhere in the search area. (Type of searches will of course depend on dog’s level of skill and ability to work in the given environment. As confidence and skills advance, searches can be more advanced and so can the environments, but only one or the other at a time. Harder searches in easy environments first. Easier searches in harder environments. This is all done incrementally over time).

5. Working Session 2, SearchesStructure and Clarity in the set up. Choice is in my waiting for consent to work by dogs’ voluntary stationing behavior, i.e. choice to get onto platform. At that point, I cue him to search the boxes directly in front of us but not before a second start button of “forward focus” is offered. After reinforcing for the box search, there are many options. A) If dog is ready for it, you can move directly to a pre-set single hide search from the box search. B) Can put dog in waiting mode behind the start line, reset the boxes and return to the start line for the next search. You can be more advanced with the search setups as your dog progresses in training.

NOTE: The process I have outlined here is a starting point, the first phase. As time goes on and the dog progresses, I will modify, condense or maybe even eliminate some of steps or elements within. The dog drives the process, and I adjust accordingly. For example, the platform will eventually be faded in favor of a more organic start button. But in the first phase, a clear and obvious choice to start working is essential for my dogs.

VIDEO: This shows step #5 as described in this process. This is my 6 yr. old whippet x cirneco dell etna, Wilkie. We are at a park working with squirrels as distractors. There are squirrels out of frame, near the car. In the past, Wilkie was a shrieking hot mess in the presence of squirrels before I trained him through my protocol. He could not think, much less work on any level, arousal over the top. Here you will see him get on the platform, face the squirrels intently, but then he turns around, clearly choosing to work (gets a cookie for that!), and does so beautifully. Choosing to work over squirrels was a huge breakthrough for him, and I had to contain my own excitement to keep him calm and focused. If I had shown my excitement, he would have too and lost focus. It is not about the search itself (very simple, by design), but it is Wilkie’s clear CHOICE to work in the face of hard wired prey drive, which before this point had been impossible. Step 5, in the early phase of training https://youtu.be/m2s7poKU9NE.


Concepts of acclimation, engagement and focus, start buttons and consent, assessment and ready to work protocols