Search Menu

To say that dogs are super smellers is an understatement. Whether it’s the ground during a walk, another dog during a meet-and-greet, or your friend when she walks into your house, chances are your dog leads with his nose to get information he can’t get with his eyes alone.

That’s because your dog’s sense of smell is a lot more powerful than yours. Humans have a paltry five million scent receptors in their nose compared with the 225 million that dogs like a German Shepherd have. It’s no wonder canines have been working as scent detectors (narcotics alert, search and rescue, bomb detection) for decades.

Fun With Scent Work

You don’t have to sign your dog up for the police academy for him to learn to use his natural scenting talents. Many obedience schools offer classes to teach your dog the fun of scent work. These classes are especially helpful in developing confidence in dogs who are fearful or nervous. Energetic dogs will benefit as well, because searching is a mental and physical exercise that will help them learn to focus their enthusiasm on the task at hand. One of the biggest benefits of going to a scent-work class is the working relationship and teamwork that develops between you and your dog.

How to Start

beagle sniffing

Disclaimer: These games are intended as fun for you and your dog. These are not official scenting games, nor are they a formal way to begin training for AKC dog sports like earthdog, tracking, and so on.


Choose a treat that is super enticing to your dog, but not greasy or sticky. You don’t want residue from, say, a piece of hot dog, to linger on your hand or the cup you’ll be using. Given the power of the dog’s sense of smell, he will always detect some of the scent of the previous treat used, but you want to teach him to find the most powerful smell, not just any smell. Use something dry to help him out in the early stages of learning the games.


Is your dog not motivated by food? You can hide a favorite dog toy that’s small enough to fit in your hand. Since most toys are bigger than that, take your dog to your local pet-supply store and audition some smaller version of his faves. Be sure to keep it out of the daily rotation, so that it’s extra special when you use it. One of my dogs loved to play tug, so I would hide a piece of burlap; when he found it, a rousing game of tug would occur. In the following games, just substitute “play with your dog” for “give your dog the treat.”

Where To Play

dalmatian sniffing

Start out in a distraction-free environment, eventually moving to places with more excitement. This is a great way to teach your dog to focus more on the task at hand (and you) instead of every person, dog, and air molecule he encounters. Once he’s learned it, the game “Which One?” can come in handy when there’s a sudden commotion or when your dog is stressed, by helping to get his mind on something else.

Four Games to Try

Which One?

This was the first game I taught my dog Teddi when I was a kid. Start with your dog on a leash. Have him sit in front of you, step on the leash so he can’t walk off, and put your hands behind your back, with a high-value treat in one hand.

Present both closed fists (about three feet apart from each other, and fairly close to your dog’s face) and ask, “Which one?” Your dog will sniff both hands, and when he correctly identifies the right one (he may paw at it, bump it with his nose, or bark at it), open your hand, give him the treat, along with lots of praise. Repeat, this time changing which hand has the treat. If you’re using a really great treat, your dog should want to stay and play. This game is easy, and a great one to have your children play with the dog (supervised, of course).

Troubleshooting: If your dog isn’t interested in the game, ask yourself: Am I using a great treat? Is he tired? Does he need to go outside and relieve himself? Is he already full?

nose sniffing

Shell Game

Start with three large plastic drink cups. While your dog is out of the room, place them four feet apart and hide a treat under one of them. Bring your dog back into the room on leash, point to each cup, and excitedly say, “Find it!” You may have to tap the cup to get your dog to notice it. If you don’t see any reaction or interest, move to the next cup and then the next. Still no reaction? Go back to the first cup and try again or review the troubleshooting tips above. When your dog finds the right cup, lift it up, offer praise, and let him eat the treat. Make sure your praise is enthusiastic—you want him to love playing this game. When three cups seem too easy, increase the number and change the location of the game.

Troubleshooting: If your dog knocks over the cups, modify the game. Enthusiasm is great, but you want him using his nose, not his brawn. Try a dish that doesn’t tip over as easily, like a plastic cereal bowl.

Blind Shell Game

After your dog understands that you hide goodies under a cup, you can set up the game and turn out the lights. Walk back into the room with your dog on leash and excitedly tell him to “Find it!” He’ll have the challenge of finding the cups and the challenge of finding the correct one.

Double Blind Shell Game

In this version, you have a friend set up the cups and treats so that you can’t unintentionally lead your dog to the correct cup. This is a great moment, as you’ll be relying on your dog to do all the work. You will become adept at reading his body language, so you’ll be able to offer encouragement when he’s confused and cheer him on when he’s found the treat.
Subscribe to Family Dog


This article was originally published in AKC Family Dog magazine. Subscribe today ($12.95 for 6 issues, including digital edition) to get expert tips on training, behavior, health, nutrition, and grooming, and read incredible stories of dogs and their people.
*Turn off pop-up blocker to subscribe
*Turn off pop-up blocker to subscribe