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In August 2021, the AKC Virtual Scent Work Test (VSWT) pilot program began as an introduction to Scent Work for dogs and handlers. At the May 2022 AKC Board meeting, the decision was made to make the Virtual Scent Work Test permanently available to dog owners.

At the board meeting, it was revealed that 10% of the dogs who have earned Virtual Scent Work Titles through this program had not previously earned an AKC sports title (aside from a Canine Good Citizen (CGC) title). Since it began, dogs and handlers from all 50 states, as well as those in the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia, and 120 different breeds have earned titles.

Dogs of any breed or mixed breed so long as they have an AKC number are eligible to compete in AKC performance sports including the Virtual Scent Work Test. Mixed breed dogs will need to get an AKC Canine Partners number to compete. Scent Work is low-impact, so it’s ideal for dogs of all ages, but to earn a Virtual Scent Work Title, dogs must be at least four months of age.

AKC Virtual Scent Work Titles

There are three title levels for the AKC Virtual Scent Work Test that dogs and handles can earn: Beginner, Intermediate, and Experienced. To earn a title at each level, a dog and handler team needs to complete two tests conducted at different times and in different areas in accordance with the rules of that level.

The Virtual Scent Work Tests show that dogs can demonstrate basic Scent Work skills and have been developed to be conducted entirely at home. To earn each of the three Virtual Scent Work titles, dog owners need to record their dog’s searches following the instructions. Submitted tests are evaluated by an AKC Scent Work judge. Owners will receive an email indicating if their dog passed each search. When a dog earns a title, it becomes part of a dog’s official AKC record, and a physical title certificate is sent to the dog’s owner.

When earning Virtual Scent Work titles, each of the tests you set up will have the same structure. You’ll show your dog in the “blind,” meaning a separate area where your dog isn’t able to see the search area. While on video, you’ll leave your dog there. Then, while still recording you’ll go to the search area and show where you are placing the hides. Once the hides are placed, return to the blind and release your dog to the search area to find the hidden item.

Dog sniffing a chair for scent work.

Unlike Scent Work where dogs are searching for the location of hidden essential oils, the Virtual Scent Work Test has dogs searching for treats, toys, and balls to earn titles. These search items are things you already have around the house, and you’ll need no special training equipment, making it more accessible for those looking to compete.

Teaching Your Dog to Search

When introducing Scent Work skills to your dog, you’ll want to begin with whatever search item is of the highest value to your dog. For most, this will be treats but others prefer a toy or ball. The more success your dog has at the beginning, the better they will understand the criteria of the game, and the stronger their drive to search for hidden things will be when the searches become more complicated. Here’s how to get started.

Step 1: Start with a high-value item in front of your dog and let them get it. Right now, the goal is just for your dog to have fun and start to make the connection that when they see the item, they should go get it.

Step 2: After a couple of reputations, your dog will understand the goal of the game is to get the treat. When your dog is moving towards the treat, introduce the verbal cue of your choice, such as “find” or “search.”

Step 3: When you practice, move the treat slightly further from your dog and give them the verbal cue to search. When your dog gets the treat, give lots of praise and let them eat the treat or play with the toy.

Step 4: After your dog is successful in finding the treat at a further but obvious distance, you can start to hide it. With your hides, start slowly by putting a treat behind a pillow or the leg of a chair. Give your dog their search cue and praise them when they get it. The goal is to increase the difficulty of the search slowly and incrementally over a series of practice sessions but not stump them.

Step 5: When your dog is successfully finding the treats you’ve hidden in easy spots in the room they are in, it’s time to introduce the idea of the “blind.” Leave your dog in one area of your home and put a treat in a more obvious location in another room. Call or get your dog and give your verbal search cue, and when your dog successfully finds it, give lots of praise.

Step 6: Begin to increase the difficulty of where you hide the treat. Instead of having it out in the open, start putting the treat behind furniture, under pillows, or in other hidden areas that your dog can access. Bring your dog into the other room and give your verbal search cue, and again give plenty of praise.

Finding Other Objects

Assuming you have a food-motivated dog, it’s now time to introduce your dog to search for balls and toys. To earn their Beginner Virtual Scent Work title, your dog will need to search for two of the three search options (toys, treats, or balls). By the time you and your dog are working on their Experienced title, they will need to find all three hidden items. To begin teaching your dog to search for other objects, try to start with a toy your dog likes. Bonus if they know the name of different toys.

Basenji sniffing the trunk of a fallen tree outdoors in the Fall.
Yuri Kravchenko

Step 1: Put the toy or ball in front of your dog and begin teasing them with it to begin a positive feeling. The goal is to help your dog make the association that they will be rewarded for going to the toy.

Step 2: Next move the toy further away, and give your verbal cue to search along with the name of the object. When your dog goes to the ball or toy, give lots of praise and treats.

Step 3: With each training session, incrementally increase the difficulty of where you hide the toy and always praise and reward your dog when they get to it. For dogs who are toy motivated, you can also use playing with the toy as an instant reward for a successful search.

Step 4: When your dog is successfully going to their toy on cue, introduce the blind search aspect again, where you hide the toy in an obvious location while your dog is in the other room. Bring them to the search room and give your verbal cue and offer praise and reward when your dog finds the toy

Step 5: Start to increase the difficulty of where you are hiding the toy or ball, including putting it in higher locations. Bring your dog into the search area and give your verbal search cue and the name of the object. When your dog finds it, give lots of praise and treat rewards.

Advancing Scent Work Skills

When teaching your dog to play Scent Work games, start in low distraction areas of your home, where the Beginner test is held. The more experienced your dog gets with the game, start to add in more distracting areas of your home such as your yard or having more distractions around like other toys. For the Intermediate and Experienced tests, your dog will need to be searching in both interior and exterior areas. Build up to practicing in distracting areas slowly so as to not overwhelm the.

When your dog has a solid understanding of the game you can have a friend or family member hide the treat or toy for you. This will create a double-blind opportunity where neither you nor your dog will know where the hide has been placed. This is a great way to proof your dog’s searching skills and ensure you aren’t subtly cueing your dog to the location

Related article: How You May Accidentally Be Encouraging Bad Behavior With Reinforcement
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