How to Train Dogs to Search for Odor

We train scent dogs to search for odor in the scent detection “lab” inspired by Andrew Ramsey (US military and law enforcement scent detection canine trainer). This scent dog training method is proven to work, reliably and quickly, for dogs of all breeds, ages, sizes and abilities.

In nosework, the dog will search for a “target odor”. We use a cocktail of Wintergreen/Birch/Anise/Clove/Pine/Cypress essential oils on blotting paper, so your dog quickly learns all the scents in beginner level scent detection competition. The essential oils in this cocktail are toxic if ingested, so scent should always be inside a hide container with air holes for ventilation and scent dispersion. We vary the material of our hide containers: metal, plastic, wood, cloth, etc. Then we place the hide container inside drawers or boxes with large circular holes. The box containing the hide is called “hot”. The empty boxes are called “cold”.


Our nosework foundation is based on “obedience to odor”. That might sound pretty scary, but it’s all based on rewarding your dog.

Think about approaches you could use to teach your dog to stay. Traditional obedience focused on “how do I make my dog stay in position”, and planned what to do if he left. Our approach to nosework makes target odor so rewarding that the dog would be crazy to leave. We focus on structuring the environment and rewards to set the dog up for success.

After a long history of many successful searches and rewards, our dogs learn obedience to odor. They learn to find the “source”, the highest concentration of target odor, where they will wait for their reward. We’ll show you how.


  • Bring a hungry dog with his highest value treats, not his usual dry dog food (kibble). Some favorites might include: rotisserie chicken, tuna brownies, heart, and cubed deli meat like bologna. If he loves a toy, bring it too, but we generally prefer to train using food rewards, to allow more repetitions in a shorter period of time.
  • Bring a Ziploc bag full or bite sized food rewards. The size of each reward should fit the size of the dog. For example, for most sporting dogs, each reward can be about the size of a pea. Rewards are determined by the dog, not what you think your dog should eat or what he ate at home yesterday. If your dog doesn’t love the food, spits out the food, or won’t take the food, we need a better reward to train scent detection in that environment.
  • Don’t worry: dog-dog interaction is never allowed. We love to have fun, and dog bites or scares are NOT fun. It’s your responsibility to control your dog at all times. Don’t allow your dog within 10 ft. of another dog. If your dog is close enough to sniff another dog, you are way too close.
  • Let the instructor know if your dog has any allergies, is reactive or aggressive. If you expect other people, loud noises, or things that move to present a challenge, tell the instructor in advance. Let her know if your dog is afraid of the noise a clicker makes.
  • When it’s your turn to search, bring your bag of food with you to the start line. You should change your dog’s collar to a buckle collar or tracking harness, not a martingale, choke or pinch collar. In nosework the dog should surge forward independently, pulling on the leash to get to the source. Ideally, use an 8-15 ft. biothane leash, so the dog can work far ahead of you, but we’ll work with what you have.
  • You are the dog’s handler. The instructor trains the dog and delivers the rewards. Both have specific roles in scent dog training.


When you arrive, potty your dog. Leave lots of time so you are sure. If dog eliminates inside, your turn is over (just like competition). It’s a terrible habit you need to prevent, rather than trying to fix it later. Crate your dog in your vehicle and enter the building without your dog. Watch until it’s your turn in the run order.
If a reactive dog is barking at another dog or person, interrupt his eye contact by stepping between the dog and the distraction. Move further away until your dog reaches a zone of comfort. Stay calm so your dog is calm.

When it’s your turn to search, bring your dog in and let him get comfortable with the surroundings. Switch to your nosework collar or harness, and leash. You are now in the “no obedience” zone – do not say your dog’s name or ask your dog to look at you, heal, sit, down or come. Remember, we want obedience to odor not obedience to handler.

The instructor will offer your dog a taste test to establish a high value reward. Bring your dog close to the start line and hold him back. We want him to strain forward, pulling at the leash with excitement.

When the instructor bangs the food bowl on the floor, let your dog surge ahead. We don’t use a command word to search. We bang our hand at the start of the search. The sound, leash, boxes are all cues to search.

Follow your dog. Relax and follow your dog’s butt. If you aren’t behind your dog’s butt, you probably aren’t following. Leave enough room for the dog to search all the boxes.

  • You can’t find the target odor as fast as your dog, so don’t try to “help” your dog
  • Don’ t call your dog’s name (it’s a distracting cue to pay attention to you). Your dog should not be paying attention to you when he is searching for target odor
  • Don’t talk to your dog
  • If your dog leaves source, follow your dog
  • The dog can’t work effectively while looking at his handler. Dog should NOT look at handler during search or indication. (Handler should avoid direct eye contact, which cues obedience to handler, NOT obedience to odor.)
  • Never stop moving your feet. Even if your footsteps are in the same spot on the ground, try shifting your weight from left foot to right foot. (This way you can’t accidentally lead your dog to the hide and stop. Most dogs will stop when the handler stops, with no comprehension of odor.)

The instructor will set up several searches. Each find will be rewarded several times.
When your turn is done, exit the area saying “all done” and show a hand signal, so the dog knows he’s not working any more. Ideally, reward event/play and potty.
Crate your dog in your vehicle so he can rest until his next turn.


The dog’s job is to search the area and “find it”. We’ll teach him to:

  • Put his nose as close to source as possible
  • Be “obedient to odor”, rather than following obedience commands from the handler
  • Return to source for several (a random number) of rewards
  • Stay at source unless lured away. Your dog should never choose to leave source. After several rewards, your instructor either sticks food on his nose and lures him away or removes the hide


At first, your dog will learn to search for food in a food bowl. The cues to searching are the lab setup and the bang noise when the instructor bangs the first box to search. Your instructor will:

  • Start the session with a taste test to find the treats your dog wants most on that day in that environment
  • Tease your dog on the start line with food, while you restrain your dog
  • Bang her hand (or the food bowl) to cue the start of the search (you release your dog when you hear the bang)
  • Mark with “yes”/click the instant the dog is correct (nose in bowl or box)
  • Reward ASAP at source
  • Lure the dog away from source
  • Stop your turn while the dog is having fun and wants more

The instructor sets up searches suitable for the level of the dog’s confidence and skill level. Later she’ll add odor to the bottom of the food bowl: this is called “odor paired with food”. Next you’ll progress to the stage where sometimes there is food and sometimes there isn’t. When the food is removed altogether, your dog is “on odor” i.e. finding odor only, no longer using the lure of food. (Note: At the higher levels of competition, food and toys are required in the search environment. The dog must ignore these distractions to find the source.)


A scent dog must practice many times in the lab to learn how best to search and find the source of target odor.
Your dog only needs to search and find it, so you should only work on short easy searches where you know where the hide is.
Most people want to rush their dog. Every dog learns at his own rate. You need to go at your dog’s speed and patience will pay off.

MANY (usually hundreds) searches later, when the dog is great at finding source in any environment with any distraction, we’ll shape an “indication” i.e. “show me”, a specific behavior your dog performs when he’s decided the exact location of the source. The indication should also show everyone the exact location of the source, within 2-6 inches.
We train dogs to indicate by touching his nose as close to source as possible, staring at source with focused attention, freezing like a statue, such that his paws don’t move.

  • If hide is low, many dogs lie down so he can get close to source and stay there for repeated rewards.
  • If the hide is high up, we prefer to train the dogs to put their paws up and stretch up with his nose. If you don’t want your dog’s paws to leave the ground, you can use a stand or freeze with focused attention as an alternative indication.
  • The indication must be “passive” (like a sit, down, or freeze). Avoid “aggressive” indications such as digging or chewing/biting, which result in disqualification. (Bomb detection dogs should never dig or chew the bomb or it would explode). We’ll train your dog to press his nose to source over and over again, until the indication is automatic muscle memory.

Picturing the ideal performance, here’s a few tips you can put into practice ASAP:

  • No human should ever show a dog where the target odor is! That’s not helpful. Your dog needs to learn that he needs to find it without your help, NOT when the going gets tough, he can quit and you’ll take over.
  • The dog must never know how many rewards he’ll get at source. If the dog knows he’ll only get one reward, then he may anticipate and leave source quickly.
  • Dogs who sniff and go are confusing to their handlers when the handler doesn’t know the location of the hide (called a “blind” search).
  • If you give several rewards at source, the dog will tend to stay at source waiting for the inevitable rewards.

The trainer should always reward “AT SOURCE”.

  • Her hand should touch the source, not just reward in the air close to source. We are aiming for an indication 2 inches from source or closer. That’s about the size of a post it note.
  • For example, in nosework competition, if the dog indicates the right top corner of a license plate, but the hide is at the bottom left corner, the judge should fault or fail you.
  • Dogs quickly learn that they must always find the “source”, the highest concentration of odor, since they are not rewarded for being close.

Reward placement is hugely important! You get what you reward, so always reward at source.


In scent dog training, the trainer should always reward like this:

  1. Says “Yes”/clicks the instant dog’s finds source ie. nose touches the food bowl or the hole in the box
  2. Rewards at source (touches hand to source to give food)
  3. Repeats for a random number of 1-3 rewards, then
  4. Puts the last treat at dog’s nose and lures him away from source making a noise “getitgetitgetit” or “beepbeepbeep”.

In competition, the trainer carries the reward and rewards the dog for finding the source of targer odor in exactly the same way, except she won’t touch anything because that contaminates the search area.

If you don’t reward like this, problems are likely to occur, and retraining is difficult. For example, if you reward away from source, the dog will leave source very quickly and the handler will have trouble identifying the location of target odor once he’s required to do blind searches. If you decide to progress in nosework, we’ll show you how to train your dog to indicate so anyone and everyone knows where the hide is, even in difficult blind searches with distractions. For now, relax and follow your dog’s amazing nose.


If you’re in the Calgary area, join us for weekly nosework classes at Kayenna Kennels. Or learn nosework online. We’ll set you up for success so your dog will learn how to search for odor, systematically, independently and efficiently. It will be easy and fun to succeed.


Online Classes:
Our Brittany Spaniels: