Talking Dogs Scentwork®

outdoor search

24 outdoor search themes to inspire you all year

Following the great feedback you gave on the 24 indoor search ideas post, I know you’re going to love this one on outdoor search themes just as much. 24 more ideas of how to make the most of whatever you can access. 

Table Of Contents

Outdoor searches often have the additional challenge of weather and air movement. You can get a deal of air movement indoors, but it tends to be more controllable. With weather and all that involves, such as temperature changes and wind direction, you are at it’s mercy. There are steps you can take to mitigate the effect it might have on your searches. Or you can stretch your scentwork skills by working in more extreme conditions. Whatever you decide, ensure you are selecting the right environment and challenge for your dog, and yourself. For example, if your scent team has never worked outdoors before, choosing to work on a windy day would be too big a jump. Build up to this, play around with different challenge levels and remember to enjoy the process. This is all about enjoying working together rather than being prefect at everything. Or anything!   

January – Rain & Mud

Coming from the West Coast of Scotland, rain wasn’t hard to find. But living in the sunny, dry East of England it’s much easier to avoid the rain. But when it comes to scentwork, choosing to go out in the rain is a must. The mix of water and wind does fascinating things to scent. Constantly moving, you have to think carefully where to hide the article. And then really watch your dog closely to see when she hits the scent. She may well hit it at a time or place that is unexpected. Your job as handler is to spot that and help her to work on to the hide which could be some distance away. Honestly, getting out in the rain has never been more fun.

And with rain often comes mud. With six dogs in the house, ‘clean’ walks are a joy. Grass, tarmac, frost, anything but mud! Mud and scentwork may not be a pairing your immediately think of, but sometimes mud can be truly glorious! Think mud pies with a find in the middle of one or two. Think different types of mud. Here in the Fens we have sticky clay and jet black mud from the fertile fields. Experiment to see how each holds and releases scent. Play around with the water content, from sloppy to crusty. For a challenging search, place finds under mud sods on your walk, returning to the same point on the way back home.   

February – Frost & Fog

I love a frosty day. The frost seems to energise me. I want to go out in it. I like the stillness and clean covering that frost provides.  You can also see where other people or animals have been by their tracks in the frost. Use this information when setting out searches. You can set the search area so that it includes or excludes the tracks, depending on where you want the challenge level to be. Think about where you want to out what and do it carefully so that you aren’t stomping all over the area with your own tracks.

If you know it’s going to be frosty, you can set up your search before it hits. So perhaps lay put some plant pots, wood, containers, etc. in your garden and place a couple of hides. The come the frosty morning your search is ready to go. One word of warning. If your finds are edible, place them in containers so that uninvited nocturnal garden visitors don’t eat them. You can put the finds in cloth bags or pencil cases (furry pencil cases are particularly good) or in plastic containers with holes in. 

Stay safe

Fog is a difficult weather condition to work in. Always be mindful of safety, particularly when working in foggy conditions. Don’t work in an area that is unfamiliar to you. The last thing you want is your dog running onto an unexpected road, or near a sheer drop. Stick to safe, familiar areas close to home. No point in driving when you don’t need to. 

All that being said, fog is moving water vapour so think about how this will affect the scent. It’s fascinating. You can do any of your usual searches, from garden, to field, to vehicle, etc. but do it in the fog. See how your dog works compared to non-foggy conditions. See how she tracks the scent. Does she hit it closer to the hide or further away than usual?    

March – Streets & Buildings

While I’m more of a country girl at heart, urban areas have their own perks. Street furniture, like bollards, bins and benches, offer instant opportunities. If you have a circular walk from your house, think about how much street furniture you pass. For example, on one 15 min walk from my house and back, I pass lampposts, bins, street signs, a bench, post box and railings.

I can easily go out without my dog, stick some cheese to the lamppost, place a find held by a magnetic bulldog clip on a sign and hang a poo bag containing a find from the railings. Using poo bags for this purpose ensures that nobody else touches the finds – crafty eh? Pieces of scented material held in place by magnets can be hidden at the back of the signs. But even if somebody was to find it, it’s valueless to them. Once I’ve placed the finds, I can return home to collect my dog and off we go. A walk with multiple short searches.       

Once you start looking with a scentworker’s eye, you’ll see an abundance of searches. Buildings provide so much variety in terms of texture – wood, brick, concrete, metal, glass – you’ll be spoiled for choice. Look at the walls, can you stick cheese along the side of a building at various heights? Or can you hook non-edible finds onto door handles, into door jams, under steps or amongst the grass or gravel that skirts along the bottom of the walls? So many options. Set your goal and set up your search.  

chihuahua searching stones

April – Stone & Wood

I mentioned gravel in the March theme. I think that this is an under-used resource as we often don’t think of the surface under our feet as potential search areas. Anyone who was lucky enough to come to any of the Railworld workshops with me will tell that you that gravel can give a really fun, and challenging, search. Allowing dogs to dig to reach their find adds an extra element of fun to the search. Not as mucky as digging in mud, gravel searches can be made simple or really tricky depending on your goal. 

Before you ask your dog to delve deep amongst the gravel or stone chips or slate, ensure it isn’t sharp. You don’t want your dog to cut her paws or even worse, her precious nose during the search. Think about temperature. Remember that the colder it is the slower the scent moves, and vice versa in hot weather. But also remember that the temperature on the surface will be different to the temperature underneath the stone.   

When placing the hides, you will cause a deal of disturbance. This can draw the dog to the area of the hide and make the find super easy. If this makes it too easy for your dog, make sure to disturb multiple other sections within the search area. This means that the dog can’t assume that disturbance = target and so has to work hard to locate the hide. Of course, if you want to be super sneaky, place the hide the day before so that any disturbance is minimised. 

X marks the spot

Make sure you, or your helper, know where the find has been placed. It can be really easy to forget as one patch of gravel looks just like the next. Place some sort of marker, a twig or bigger stone perhaps, near the find. 

While stone searches can be underfoot, wood searches can literally be hanging from the trees. You can use wood as the hide or the find. Scent up pieces of wood, sticks or blocks, and hide them in your search area. Or use woodland as your search area. Hanging finds can help your dog search high. Or nose level finds stuck to tree trunks or squeezed behind bark shards can be a great way to help dogs listen and work with you in areas that might otherwise be too exciting for them to pay attention to you. 

You can hollow out pieces of wood to insert small finds. Or search amongst logs before they go into the wood burner. But beware of log piles. Piles of logs look like perfect search areas but they move. Letting your dog run up a wood pile is not safe. As the logs move it’s all too easy to get her paw crushed between them. Instead, search the wood piles at ground level so that she is working at the end of the pile rather than on top of it.      

May – Gardens & Parks

I love garden searches. If you’ve signed up to the Stay at Home Scentwork course you’ll have seen just how much fun you can have setting up searches in your garden. Think about the different zones, from patio, to grass, bedding to bushes, fences to building walls. Whether your garden is just a slabbed square for your wheelie bins or acres of landscaped ‘rooms’, you will be able to to set up a search there. 

Public gardens are great for searches too. Stately homes often allow dogs entry to the gardens but not the house. This means that you can do sneaky on lead searches in the box hedges or around the benches and fences in the garden. Make sure not to place the finds or conduct your searches anywhere that will cause damage. So don’t hide anything in the flower beds. My dogs aren’t allowed onto the flower borders at home, and I certainly don’t want to encourage them onto the borders of anyone else’s garden.  Be careful too not to search thorny roses or bushes too, safety first! 

Many plants are toxic to dogs but most require ingestion. So if your dog is searching for edible finds, don’t stick them directly onto the plants. Instead, hide them in containers or fabric pouches so that even with non-toxic plants, your dog doesn’t get into the habit of eating vegetation in the garden. I found this excellent guide to poisonous plants. The legend is nice and clear, and the amount of information they provide is succinct and clear.

Local parks

I guess most of us have a public park not too far from home. If you don’t have a garden, or even if you do, parks provide ample opportunity for scentwork. In addition to gardens, woodland and benches, you might find a bandstand, keep fit apparatus, walls, fences, gates and even small buildings. 

Parks can also be places where you can practise working through distractions. Searching while children are running around, or the local pub teams are playing football, is a very distinct skill. There are few more absorbing activities than scentwork. So using scentwork to help your dog ignore the distractions is a wonderful opportunity to learn super useful skills. Make the searches quick and easy to begin with, gradually building challenge as you and your dog are able to concentrate whatever is going on around you.

June – Hills & Hollows

Slopes and hills give your searches a new dimension. I had to look for verticals when I moved to the flatlands. One of our walks is along part of the Nene Way. On our section a footpath has been constructed on top of a manmade hill. With the path at the top and sloping sides it’s the closest my dogs come to hills in our local area. They run up and down both sides while I walk along the top. But every so often I stop and place hides mid-way up the slope. It’s such fun to do an ‘unexpected’ (for the dogs) search on ground that they normally just sprint up or hurtle down.

Hillwalks, on proper hills not just the manmade slopes, can provide boulders, trees and streams, all of which are fabulously fun for us scent workers. The gradient can make the work more physically demanding. And the flora and fauna, such as heather and grasses, keep searches interesting and varied.

When I think of hollows I think of buried finds. Now this can be something as simple as wedging a find under a tuft of grass. Or something as challenging as finds placed several feet underground and left for days. This latter search is really skilled work. One of the training practices used by forces such as the army, is to dig a series of trenches that they can then fill with different materials. So they might use sand or soil depending on where the search dog will be deployed. Landmines are buried at various depths and in many environments, so trainers try to reproduce the conditions that the dog will ultimately search in. 

While it’s impractical, and frankly OTT, for us to dig trenches in our gardens, we can bury finds in plant pots or buckets. You could make a line up of 6 pots all filled with soil. Hiding the find in one or two pots you can see how well your dog detects the target odour. Play around with depth, duration (how long the find has been in the pot), size of find, material of find, weather, temperature. The list of variables is endless.   

July – Sand & Sun

The beach is my go to place. I love it there and so do my dogs. One of our favourite games is to hide a toy in the sand for the dogs to locate and dig up. This doesn’t have to be a well planned goal oriented scentwork search. I tend to do it when we are sitting down having a snack or just watching the world go by. As I’m sitting there, I dig a hole, just with my hand or heel, pop the toy in and cover it up. Even if my dogs are watching as I do it, they still need, and want, to sniff to find it and absolutely love digging to get it back out again. Just make sure your sandwiches are not in the firing line as your dog kicks the sand out behind her as she works to retrieve her treasure! 

But of course, you can plan beach searches. Hiding scented articles under seaweed, in rock pools, in the sand dunes and of course, in the sand, is such a lovey way to increase your team’s scentwork expertise. Try comparing searches in wet versus dry sand. Or in the dunes versus on the open beach. 

Remember to put edible finds inside a cloth bag or container, nobody likes sand in their food!

While you’re at the beach, you might be lucky enough to have sunshine. It’s not always the case and if you’re like me you may often choose to head out to the beach in more inclement weather when it’s quieter. But wherever you are, if it’s sunny you have some additional factors to work into your searches.

Don’t overheat!

Most important of all is ensuring that your dog doesn’t overheat. Scentwork is fun, but it’s also work. It can make you and your dog feel mentally as well as physically tired. Add sunshine to the mix and you can find that your team’s efficiency drops. Hot dogs pant. And panting is not efficient when it comes to scentwork. You can help by making the searches shorter. Ensuring that your dog has access to water before, during and after the search. And that if you feeling the heat, you can be sure your fur-coated friend is too. So unless you can find some shade, don’t search at the hottest part of the day. 

Having said all that, I do still want you to get out to enjoy the sunshine with your dog. Look for differences in how your dog locates the scent when the find is places in a sunny versus a shaded spot. See how the scent spreads or not and really look for when your dog catches her first sniff of it. Layer up using different materials to see what is affected by the sun’s heat and what is more resistant. Be careful if using metal boxes though – you don’t ever want your dog’s nose to touch hot metal.     

August – Water & Ice

After all that sunshine you might want to cool down. Water searches in the hottest months of the year are a blessed relief. Scentwork is the perfect excuse for you and your dog to have a paddle in streams or a splash in the sea. Make sure your article is well weighted down so that it doesn’t get washed away. This may be that your dog needs your assistance to access it once she’s located it. Securing it under a stone, with just a small section peaking out, or stuffing it under seaweed makes for surprising finds and delightful responses from many dogs. 

You can also set up water searches at home. Using buckets of water, you can teach your dog to search the surface of the water. Scent rises in water. It comes to the surface faster in warm water than cold. So test to see which your dog finds easiest. You can find all the details on how to teach water searches in my Scent 3 dvd Super Searches

Ice is a fascinating hiding spot. One of the fun projects I set up for my Members’ Club a few years ago was freezing scented articles in the middle of ice blocks. Using ice cream or big yoghurt containers, we froze a bunch of ice blocks, one or two of which contained a scented article. Then we put them out in a line up search to see how quickly the dog could find the target scent. We wanted to see if they could hit the scent when the ice was frozen or if they had to wait til it started to melt. I won’t tell you what happened, no spoilers here! But try it for yourself and let me know your results.   

beagle air scenting in field

September – Fields & Fences

What do you think of when you see the word field? Wide open spaces stretching as far as the eye can see? Patchworks of crops changing colour from crop to crop, season to season? Or maybe a safe, enclosed space to relax and enjoy time with your dog? For a wide variety of reasons, ever more people are making use of private fields to ensure their dog can run and play without fear of meeting other dogs and people. This is a great opportunity to start working your dog outside, off lead in bigger spaces. So why not add scentwork to your activity list?

In a private field, you can set out searches just as you might indoors. Using boxes and containers, cones and bags, set out a search that has a defined perimeter, stuff in each corner and in the middle and off you go. What a great way to practice your search patterns. 

Respect

Being respectful to farmers and not going onto their crop fields or doing anything to upset cattle, sheep, etc. you can still utilise other fields for scentwork. Searching big open spaces can be super challenging. Try hiding articles amongst the grass a field, not on the perimeter, and then searching the field. You have to be very aware of your search pattern to ensure you’ve combed every part and found every item. 

Perimeters and fences go together. Bar barbed wire, fences are fab. You can attached articles to the fence posts themselves, hang them off the wire/wood, and hitch them to the gate. Or practise working at height or up and down the verticals. You can really extend concentration and duration of directed searches using fences. Place multiple finds along the fence, gradually increasing the number and distance. Then maintain the distance but reduce the number of finds. Finally, extend the distance without increasing the number. 

October – Leaves & Trees

As Autumn arrives, so does a very season specific search. Hiding articles in a carpet of fallen leaves is a wonderful way to help your hunting dog focus on target scents you’ve chosen. Rather than hightailing it away to search for rabbits and deer, you can lay out finds for her to hit. This helps teach your dog that if you ask her to search, you’re guaranteeing her at least one find. She doesn’t know when it will come or where it will be, but it will be there. This is a powerful way to help keep your dog closer to you in woodland. And to listen when you say ‘Find it’, no matter where you are. And because of the massive reinforcement history attached to searches, i.e. she always find something, she may be more likely to stop and pay attention to ‘Find it’ than ‘Come (back)’! 

Piles of leaves are super exciting. As they degrade, their scent changes. Damp rotten vegetation that may have a scented article amongst it – your dog will think it’s Christmas and her birthday rolled into one. You might find that different leaves produce different searches. From large flatter leaves to lots of tiny ones. Or dry and crispy to damp and soggy. You could even scent up some leaves themselves. Pop them into an airtight container with the target scent. Don’t put them in your usual scent tin as the moisture in the leaves will affect everything in the tin, and may even make your catnip go mouldy. And sadly, I can confirm that mouldy catnip smells foul! Once scented, place your leaves and see if your dog can identify them. Make sure you mark them as it’s super easy to mistake one leaf for another.  

Variety

Trees themselves can be search areas. A quick cheese smear as you pass a tree or two can make for quick searches. You can balance articles on lower branches or hang them higher up. You can shove the article into bushy trees such as some conifers. But make sure you chose ones with soft fronds. You don’t want to search pine trees, or the ground around them, if they have those tiny, sharp needles. It’s bad enough when you step on a stray needle from the Christmas tree. You definitely don’t want you dog to inhale them!

When hanging articles from trees, why not hang non scented articles too? This requires your dog to discriminate between scented and non-scented rather than assuming that everything hanging from a tree is the target.   

November – Vehicles & Tracks

When you want a quick spur of the moment search, vehicles are ideal. No set up required. Can be done in all weathers therefore varying the challenge. Can be done off lead or on depending on safety. If you’ve done the Vehicle Searches course you’ll know that you want to keep paws off paintwork. But apart from that, you’ve got a great variety of options with vehicles. You can hide the article underneath the vehicle, at nose level, inside or outside. And you may be lucky enough to have access to a tractor, trailer, truck, van, caravan, bus, boat, steam train! 

Whatever you have, you’ll find vehicle searches are some of the most fun searches to do. Outdoor searches move scent more than indoor. And because vehicles are off the ground, the scent can move around, up, over and under the vehicle. This means that you have to really watch the dog for the indication, and then support her as she works to the source of the scent. More often than not, it’s impossible to predict where she’ll hit the scent. So you’ve got to stay on your toes and be ready to work hard to help her show you the specific hide.

Love a tractor track

Some of the best tracks you’ll find are tractor tracks. Along country lanes you’ll find huge, deep grooves in the ground that are crying out for scentwork. Using the track as the search area, you can work methodically searching for finds that have been pushed into the ground, poked into the side of the raised grooves or that have been squished down into puddles between the wheel tracks.

You can use tracks left by people or animals as distractions to work through. By asking your dog to search an area that is perhaps criss crossed with muddy footprints or frost melted trails, you are asking her to ignore all other scents in favour of her target scent. This reinforces the importance of that target scent. So make sure you celebrate her finds with suitable gusto and delight. If you help her to make good choices in scentwork, and she is more likely to make good choices at other times too.     

December – Wind & Snow

You can’t escape the wind when you live in the Fens. The wind here reminds me of the harsh hair whipping winds found on some of the Scottish Islands. But wherever you are, you will have some sort of wind. It could be a cool breeze on a hot day. Or a warm breeze on a chilly day. It could be tumultuous and swirly or so horizontal it can hold you up. Air movement is at the centre of much of scentwork, so learning about it and how to work best in different conditions is crucial. 

When setting out searches with a windy theme, make sure you are super supportive of your dog. Scent can be swept away in a second, leaving as suddenly as it arrived. For experienced dogs this can be thrilling. It means they can search for the same find again and again, relocating it each time it ‘disappears’. But for some dogs, it can be confusing and confidence-knocking. So start easy, maybe working a small search area in the corner of a garden, before heading out to the wide and windy moors. 

You can create your own windy searches. Fans, both static and oscillating, can be set up in different areas of the search. Working across, into and away from the air flow will provide different challenges and add variety. 

All time fav

And so we come to the end of the year with dreams of a white Christmas. Depending on where you are in the world, you may have snow all year round. Or you may never see snow. But if you do get a chance to scentwork in the snow, I urge you to take it. 

One of my all time favourite workshops happened in a snowstorm. We’d had a bit of snow the night before the workshop. But once everyone arrived, the skies opened up and down came the snow. To their credit, all the teams were still keen to continue and so we began a very memorable day. 

While conditions were freezing, the dogs were on fire. They appeared to relish sniffing in snow. They located finds that we thought were impossible. And stretched us to the max in coming up with ways to hide the article that wouldn’t be found in seconds. What was demonstrated was that scent sits on top of snow and stays there until it’s covered by the next heavy fall. So anything that was hidden in snow after it had fallen was found easily. While those finds put out and left until covered by fresh snow were trickier. 

We also had to be careful of our tracks as we put finds out for each other. More to stop the handlers following the tracks to the finds than the dogs! So we laid false trails, and placed sneaky finds to keep both members of the scentwork teams on the ball. 

It was a fabulous day. Not one I would have planned. Not one I would have predicted. But definitely one I would repeat in a heartbeat. So the next time it snows, shelve the snowmen, start sniffing!   

Step outside and get started!

So there you have it, 24 outdoor search themes to help you make the most of every environment, every condition. Combine these themes with each other, and with the indoor search themes, and you have a huge playbook to work from. So stop reading this blog, get your coat and start scentworking!

indoor, outdoor, factors search themes

Don’t want to wait?

If you’d like my Search Themes Printables today, including all 60 themes, hit the Get Themes button. Subscribers will automatically receive the download link for the printables.

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