Talking Dogs Scentwork®

indoor search with Ettie and mouse

24 indoor search themes to inspire you throughout the year

Sometimes it can be difficult to think up different scentwork searches. Especially when you are confined indoors. Or have run out of inspiration. So I’ve written a series of three blogs, one a week for the next three weeks, that will give you 12 months of ideas and 60 suggestions that you can mix and match. I’ve done the hard work so you can concentrate on the scentwork. This week’s focus is on the indoor search.

With so many of us being stuck at home, I thought that indoor searches would be a great one to start with. Our homes are full of objects that we can use in our searches. Once you begin to look at things through scentwork glasses, you will see a whole new wold of possibilities open out in front of you!

So let’s get started.  

January – Blankets & Throws

I love doing quick, fun searches with my small dogs on my bed. I hide their toys under the protective throws and blankets that cover the duvet. We do this when we are just playing tug or retrieve, with me spiriting the toy away under the blanket for them to find between tugs. Or when I want to encourage them to snuffle under and into the blankets in order to access the toy themselves. Persistence will always pay off and they can carry this experience over to future searches.

A big advantage of using blankets and throws is that it’s easier to wash them than the sofa, chair or bed itself. It allows me use those places while minimising the risk of contamination for future searches.  

February – Cork & Bottles

Cork is a great material for searches as it soaks up scent beautifully. But it needs to be used with care. If your dog is likely to swallow cork, e.g. popped from a bottle, do not use it. Cork will swell and can cause blockages should the dog ingest it. But if it’s safe to do so, try using multiple corks only one of which is scented. You can also use cork tiles, either whole or cut into pieces. Lay them across the floor or hide them around the search area, vertically as well as horizontally. 

Do bottle it!

Plastic bottles can be used in all sorts of searches. You can pile them up and let your dog rummage through them to find the bottle containing the target. Or use them with lids on (tape them on to prevent accidental swallowing), lids on with holes in or lids off. You can fill them with fabric, cardboard or even liquid as well as the target. Or you can use them empty. 

Glass bottles can be used but, as ever, only with care. Good for calm line-up searches rather than area searches where your dog might be whizzing about. Be aware that it can be tricky to remove/retrieve the scented article from the bottle so think about smearing the scent onto the bottle or attaching the article to the bottle. For example, if your beloved has treated you to champagne on Valentines Day, you can attach the article to the curved bottom of this sturdy bottle. Then sit the bottle on the floor, maybe beside the recycling, and see if your dog can locate the find in this unusual spot.    

March – High & Low

First thing to say here is that high finds are relative to the height of your dog. A high find is one that is above nose height. So for a terrier this might be under the seat of a chair. While for a labrador it could be a door handle. Think about how your dog can access the high find. If you don’t want to risk her scratching doors or walls, hide the find on top of (cool) radiators, ceramic sinks and soft materials. 

You can place the find inside a coat pocket or clipped to the arm of a fleece jacket. Make sure that whatever the clothing is attached to won’t topple over onto the dog. So if it’s on the back of a chair, simply hold the chair as your dog searches and finds the target. 

Under seat hides

Hiding something under chair seats is a lovely challenge. For some dogs this will count as a high hide. For others this will be a low hide. It requires persistence and confidence for a tall dog to locate and retrieve an article from under the seat of an armchair. Likewise, a little dog will have to stretch up above her head to access it. 

You can use boxes to replicate this type of hide. If the box is big enough for the dog to step into, place it on it’s side and hide the target in the ‘roof’ of the box or inside the upper flap. 

Place low hides under bedside tables, cabinets, wardrobes, sofas and coffee tables. A sneaky hide is under the legs of furniture. I love this one, especially as the handler can’t see that there’s anything there until she lifts the leg. Use flat scented material. If using cheese, simply place it inside some folded paper to keep the leg and the flooring cheese free! 

stay at home scentwork
Lots of the searches described in this post are included in my Stay at Home Scentwork course. Learn how to get the best from your dog from the comfort of your own home.

April – Clothes & Shoes

Spring is the perfect time for a good clear out. But before you take them to be recycled, use your old, worn clothes and shoes in your searches. Old shoes and boots are fab for line-up searches. They can also be placed inside boxes or bags to make layered finds. Think about the different materials and how easy/challenging it is for the scent to move through. Canvas trainers will soak up more scent quickly than an old rubber welly boot. Most fabrics will retain the scent for some time so make sure not to overuse the same item. Or place a previous scented item in a search if it’s not the target this time around. 

Cut parts of the shoe off and place them in your scentwork tin. Laces and tongues are easiest to cut off and fit to the size of your dog. Make sure your dog won’t swallow small items and be prepared to swap a piece of shoelace for a scented toy so that your dog can have a great game for finding such a small target. 

Contamination

Clothes can be lined-up too. Or even more fun is to pile them up in a bundle for your dog to jump into. Think about contamination between searches as fabric takes on scent easily and quickly. This means that not only will the scented T-shirt hold the scent, but all the clothes it touches. Depending on your dog’s experience, refresh the bundle completely for each new search. Or leave a few lightly contaminated items for your dog to either find (tricky search) or dismiss in favour of locating a scented toy amongst the clothing. 

Give your dog time to search. These might appear to be simple searches, but due to the contamination element, they can be pretty challenging. The clothes and shoes can be used as scented articles or as hides for scented articles. Lots of options.       

May – Heavy & Light

This category can be applied in a couple of ways. It could be the amount of scent, heavy being your dog’s usual size/material of scented toy, e.g. scentwork mouse. Or light being a metal lid that’s been out of the scentwork tin for some time. The amount of scent that a material retains depends on how porous that material is and how long it’s exposed to the target scent. A metal lid that’s been in the scentwork tin for 30 minutes will likely be as easy to find as a scented mouse that’s been exposed for the same 30 minutes. But a day later, if neither were put back into the tin, the fabric mouse would have retained much more scent than the metal lid.  

Or it could be how the article is hidden. It could be squashed under a heavy piece of furniture or inside a heavy box. Or it could be a scented feather, a piece of tissue paper or even floating at the end of a balloon string! It could be a box full of bubble wrap with the article hidden amongst it (don’t use this if your dog could be frightened if she pops the bubble wrap.) Or it could be a heavy basket full of wood for the fire. You can hide the article in the basket or you can scent up a piece of the wood itself.  

June – Pots & Pans

Think plant pots. Big, small, Heavy, light. Plastic, clay. Full, empty. So many options. Put a load of them inside a big box. Spread them out in a line-up. Stack them together. Place the article inside them, or stick it outside, or even underneath. Such a fun resource. 

Admit it, you’ve got an old wok gathering dust at the back of the cupboard. Or some dodgy non-stick pots that have been pushed aside for some new shiny stainless steel ones. If you’re anything like me, you’ve got old roasting pans and grill pans from cookers that are long gone. Or what about foil containers from takeaways. Or brand new ones that you were going to use at Christmas or for a party that had to be cancelled. These can all make fabulous hides. They’re especially good for layered finds. And for directed searches where you need to assist the dog in accessing the scent. And once you’ve used them (not the foil pans), they’re easy to clean and return to a life of neglect at the back of the cupboard. 

July – Paper & Boxes

I picked paper for July because it’s my birthday month. A great way to use old birthday cards is in scentwork searches. Hang them, sit them in a line, hide them inside everything and anything, scent them and sit them in plain sight, slide them under mats, behind furniture, under cushion seats. So many ingenious ways of recycling any sort of card or paper. 

If you run a business, you may well have stock of old business cards (remember them?!) Or leaflets and flyers. With very little air flow between each individual flyer, this densely packed paper can make for really challenging searches.

Hiding in plain sight

And let’s not forget newspapers and magazines. A newspaper left lying on a chair can be a very sneaky hide. Many handlers dismiss items that they see in the same place all the time. Their eyes are drawn to incongruity. So anything that seems obvious gets missed. You can place a scented post-it inside the paper and see what the dog does and how the handler reacts. 

And boxes – you know I love a box! Cardboard of various densities, glossy wrapped, thick enough to protect wine bottles or office equipment, tall, tiny, I love them all! Big enough for dogs to go inside. Small enough to hide dozens in a plastic box for the dog to rummage through. Perfect for layering, putting inside postal sacks, bags, baskets, buckets. Squashy enough to squish behind chairs or pile on top of each other. Boxes are the scentworker’s best friend. 

August – Bags & Books

Baggage searches are fascinating. They can really help you hone your observation skills. Giving the dog scope and time to tell you not only which bag contains the target, but which pocket in which bag is glorious. Rucksacks are especially good for this as they seem to contain an infinite number of hiding places. 

But don’t neglect the simple bag for life. These can be hung off chairs or door handles to make hanging finds (make sure to steady the chair and the doors as your dog searches.) They can hold bags and boxes, baskets and bottles to make layered finds. Leave them lying open or fold them over to reduce air flow.  

Content free?

You can use old handbags and holdalls and suitcases. Pack them full of clothes or leave them empty. Close all the zips or keep some open. Think of the material they’re made from. Canvas and cloth hold scent more easily than plastic and vinyl. 

searching bags
Learn how to search suitcases, bags and postal sacks in my Baggage Search course

Old books can also be used for scentwork. Pile them up, pack them. Slip scented articles down the spine. And if you can bear it, even cut out secret compartments. The density of books makes great heavy searches areas, objects or finds. 

You can also teach the dog to search carefully, using only her nose not her paws. Ask her to search the bookcase. Let her tell you exactly where the find is and then wait as you retrieve it to her. One of my Customs mentors taught me to look for space rather than contraband. Space is where I would find whatever the smugglers had hidden. Space is all around books. So if you don’t want to risk your dog chomping your fav book, try hiding something behind the books on the shelf, or on the bottom of the next shelf up. Use the books to prevent visual finds.  

September – Toys & Plastic

Children’s toys are often wonderful scentwork objects. Select toys that are fun and may challenge your dog. Think about movement. Is the toy on wheels or does it have moveable parts? Does it make a noise that could distract, interest or scare your dog? Be inventive. For example, large Duplo blocks have space inside for you to hide an article. You an even build a structure with the article hidden inside one of the blocks. Or you could scent up a whole block by leaving it in your scentwork tin overnight. 

As ever, keep your dog safe. While I love Duplo, I don’t recommend Lego. Battery space is great for unexpected finds, but batteries must always be removed before placing a toy in the search area, whether or not it’s the actual hide. 

And do think about the practicalities of using toys. If you have young children, you may have spent a good deal of time teaching your dog not to touch their toys. In that case, do not use children’s toys, use dog toys instead. Lots of the food dispensing toys have space to hide the target. You could even try putting out a variety of them complete with food inside plus one with food and the scented article. Now that is a tough search. But doable. Remember, detector dogs search in areas that contain food all the time, such as planes, cars and containers. 

Endless indoor search options

Plastic fantastic. This is a pretty safe, cheap material to use in scentwork. Some very hard thin plastic can have sharp edges when broken. But in the main it provides lots of sniffing opportunities. Whether it’s a bottle, box or bag, plastic is a mainstay of easily accessible items in our homes. You can clean and reuse it. Or you can toss it in the recycling. Plastic takes a very long time to absorb scent, with most plastic objects holding scent on the surface rather than soaking it up. Using plastic means having to be a good handler to ensure your dog can access the scent within. 

Plastic clothes pegs, hangers, basins, bins, storage containers of every shape and size, toys – the list is never ending. Have a look to see how you can use the plastic in your home for scentwork. Use airtight containers to hold scent and your scented articles. But also think about how you can use it to mask scent in layered finds. It can require the dog to get up close to small sources of air flow, e.g. microwave containers that have air vents or simply by putting holes in the container. See how little air flow is needed for your dog to identify the correct container.      

October – Inside & Outside

Hide the target inside drawers or cupboards, in door jams and storage boxes. Alternatively, stick the target on the outside of doors, on chair legs and on the outside of storage boxes. Stick it to sinks, windows, vacuum cleaners or bedframes. If your target is sticky, such as cheese, go ahead and stick it right on there. If not, use magnetic bulldog clips and containers to attach to the outside of metal hides. And hooks and pegs to attach to wood, plastic, etc. 

You can also think about letting the outside in to see how that affects the search. By careful placing of finds near windows and doors, you can affect the air flow simply by opening or closing them. See how the sunlight streaming onto a find affects the scent v a cold breeze blowing over it. Or see how placing a find under an outside door, such as your front door, versus an interior door changes the scent picture. 

November – Rugs & Mats

I’ve a lovely video of my lab Cherry showing such surprise when she discovered that I’d hidden a find under her paws – well, under the rug she was standing on. It’s one of my fav hiding spots. 

Flat, heavy rubber mats make this is a tricky hide, but perfect for experienced teams. With very little air flow, the handler needs to ensure she asks the dog to check these mats or it’s likely the team will miss the find. Dirt trapper mats and door mats are perfect for this type of hide. As are car mats which are nice and heavy, not giving too much scent away. 

Pick your spot

But fluffy, woollen or acrylic rugs can be great too. Watch to see if the dog hits the scent on top of the rug/find or at the side of the rug. Depending on where under the rug you’ve placed the target, the reaction will be different. Canvas rugs can be very dense but once used will remain contaminated for some time. My preference is to use rugs that can be tossed in the washing machine post search. But if you’re using a venue only rarely, such as a village hall, then go for it!

You can also place towels down to use as rugs. In my house, on rainy days I put a towel down after the door mat to soak up any excess water from the 28 wet paws that could run over it. Anything that minimises muck is a plus in my book! So yes, think about using towels as rugs. Place them in a patchwork over the floor and let your dog search them to find the target scent. It doesn’t matter if they get ripped or chewed and they are obviously easy to wash afterwards. 

December – Wrapping & Packing

Of course I had to end the year with wrapping and packing. Christmas is a great time to use up old wrapping paper. Even in the run up to the big day you will likely find things to use in your searches. If you are ordering, or receiving, gifts bought online, they will come in a box or a jiffy bag. They might be filled with shredded paper, bubble wrap, sheets of paper. Or they might even be double lined, have polystyrene blocks or moulded compartments which are perfect concealments for fun finds. 

You can wrap up boxes so that your dog gets to search a bundle of parcels. Or you can fill a box with wrapping paper for her to work through as she searches for her target. You can read more in my previous post How to turn Christmas rubbish into scentwork gold.   

Time to get sniffing!

With all those materials and ideas, your indoor search options are endless. And don’t forget, you can combine two or more to make even more interesting and challenging searches. Remember to set your goals and then design the search you need to reach them. Using all these elements together, indoor searches can be elevated to a higher level. And your search team’s skills can hit new milestones every month of the year!

Next week I’ll bring you even more inspiration, putting the focus on outdoor searches.

Don’t want to wait?

If you’d like my Search Themes Printables today, hit the Get Themes button. Subscribers will automatically receive the download link for the printables.

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indoor search themes

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