Scent Work – How to Train Distractions with Fun Nosework Games

Scent work is a game, with its roots in hunting and finding prey. In nosework, dogs must learn to ignore distractions to search and find the target odor. We use games to train scent work, and harness the dog’s natural drives. To train a rock-solid detection dog, introduce easy distractions and gradually work up to the most challenging distractions for that dog. It should be exciting and fun, for the dog and his handler.

In the video above, Boo (a Brittany Spaniel) demonstrates an It’s Your Choice Game, where he ignores the open can of moist dog food on top of the box, to go to source and indicate, to earn his reward. Note we do not use any verbal cues like “leave it” or “show me”, because this is a default behavior we want to perform when he finds odor! To see his progress over several months (from distractions without odor, to several distractions before a search for multiple hides), visit

Here are several students at different stages of training:

When dogs are distracted, it’s really a drive problem. When the rewards from finding target odor are huge and the distractions pale in comparison, dogs will search for odor with drive and enthusiasm. That’s not rocket science, but planning and applying a progressive approach to distraction training that is sufficiently challenging, while increasing motivation, is an art. Every dog is different, and the trainer must adjust appropriately. Several of our students, at different stages of training, are featured in videos capturing their unique progression. I hope this inspires you to create your own plan for successful distraction training with your dog.

Start by videotaping your dog and observing his body language when he’s hanging out in a room with known food and toy distractions. Do not ask your dog to search! This is hanging around and observing. Because it’s away from nosework, any mistakes you make are “inexpensive”. Carefully package distractions, in a way that prevents self-rewarding, and is safe. There are no corrections. If you need to prevent the dog from consuming an item, simply remove it or pick it up.

Observe how most dogs sniff distractions with a loping, relaxed gait with nose glued to the ground. When sniffing other animals, their scat, or other dog’s crates, many dogs hold their tail low and still, and may crouch down. When some dogs locate distractions like roast beef in a metal tin, they make a loud, sharp exhale, that doesn’t happen when in odor or indicating. Watch all of the dog’s body parts, listen to their noises, and observe how their behavior looks different when working vs. sniffing distractions.

Once your dog is motivated to search for target odor systematically, find source, and indicate when he gets there, then you can start training distractions on one hot box. “It’s Your Choice” games simply ask the dog to ignore the distraction in your hands or on the floor, and go to source. Don’t forget: be a splitter not a lumper. If you’re training distractions, avoid distance, duration, and other types of challenges in the same session.

Download this Distractions Training Handout to learn more and help create your distraction training plan for scent work. First, list your  dog’s distractions, ranked in order from easiest to hardest. For example, many dogs aren’t interested in placed or dropped crinkled paper, but are crazy for rolling tennis balls or flying frisbees. What makes your dog crazy? Remember when he ran the fastest ever. What was he chasing? Similarly, create a list of items and activities that you could use to reward your dog. The best rewards are also distracting! In addition to different types of foods and toys, don’t forget activities like going for a walk, swim, goofy play, praise or touch. The harder the distraction, the higher the reward should be for success. Don’t be cheap! Only the human can ensure a balance of distractions and rewards, control and play.

Once your dog is proficient at indicating one box with distractions, then add a second boxes. Gradually add boxes over time. And increase the difficulty and number of distractions on the start line. The mistake we see most often is when handlers push their dog too fast, always raising the bar and the dog gives up. Scent work is a game. Always keep your dog guessing what comes next. Keep sessions short. Don’t forget to have fun, and use high value rewards for overcoming challenges.

Don’t forget to mix things up. Start each short session with a motivational warm-up, introduce one appropriate challenge, mark the moment of success and reward, then conclude the session with a fast, fun cool-down. Don’t set progressively harder distractions at every training session! Sometimes train speed, sometimes train distance, other times duration. And don’t forget to have fun! To learn more about training a rock-solid indication with your dog, including distraction training, visit

Questions and comments are always welcome. Let us know how your distraction training is going.


Scent Work Distractions Training Handout


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