Talking Dogs Scentwork®

dog with many scentwork starter kit mice

How to make a scentwork starter kit (without a mouse!)

About a year into running workshops, I started selling the TDS Scentwork Starter Kit. These kits comprised a storage tin, a packet of dried catnip, a scentwork mouse and instructions for how to introduce your dog to the scented toy. If you’re eagle eyed, you might have noticed that the kits have been out of stock for a few weeks. I hope you’re sitting down as I have some sad news. The scentwork mouse is gone. Discontinued. Defunct. Deceased. RIP scentwork mouse. 

The story of the scentwork mouse

It was 2011 and I’d just launched Talking Dogs Scentwork®. I’d been teaching scentwork in my classes and had done a few workshops. Taking a break from devising the now classic series of six scentwork workshops, I headed down to my local IKEA for a few bits and bobs for the house. Feeling chuffed that I’d managed to negotiate my way through the maze that is IKEA, I was standing in the queue waiting to pay. And that’s when it happened! Our eyes met across a blue and yellow sea. It was love at first sight. My dreams had come true. I met the mouse of my dreams. 

OK, I admit, it wasn’t quite that epic. But I did know from the second I saw the pile of small grey creatures in the cage by the checkout that they were perfect. They were the ideal scentwork articles.

Firstly, they were a great size. Not so small that they could be a choking hazard for most dogs, but not so big that they’d be tricky to hide. Secondly, they were super soft and squishy. Ideal for squeezing into containers or behind radiators. Thirdly, they were furry. It was the combination of soft and furry that lit me up. I knew that they would soak up lots of scent. And that they would have a good residue on the surface between the strands of fake fur. The ultimate article for scentwork newbies. Irresistible to hold and play with, while soft enough for dogs to squeeze to release scent as they played. 

Rats too?

To my delight, the little mice also had some bigger rat cousins. Yay, the big dogs can play with the rats, the small dogs can have the mice. As it turned out though, the rats were nowhere near as robust as the little mice. They were easy to rip. And once ‘injured’ their contents spewed out contaminating anything nearby like a catnip virus. It wasn’t long before I changed the scented article for bigger dogs to robust raggers.

But the mice stayed. They washed well so could be reused many times. I have some that must have been washed almost 100 times. And if their tails came off, or the lost a foot or an ear, no problem. They’d battle on and live to hide another day. They became a staple in all our workshops with the majority of dogs who wanted to search for a scented toy (instead of an edible article) starting their scentwork journeys with a mouse. 

Mouse meets celebs

Not only did the mouse make her way into my scentwork starter kit, she made her way into the hands of many celebrities. Taking on a life of her own, the little mouse began to pop up at conferences and events. She started posing with speakers such as Victoria Stillwell, Sarahs Whithead and Fisher and Susan Friedman. She met canine icons including Ray Coppinger, Bob Bailey and Jaak Panksepp. And she even made it on stage with comedian Russell Howard! There was no stopping this tiny rodent. (You can see her photos here)

Bye bye mouse!

But then, in 2019, the unthinkable happened. IKEA stopped making the GOSIG MUS. Bizarrely, they pulled all stock from all their stores almost overnight. Suddenly she was gone. We set out on a worldwide search for her, even to her Swedish homeland. But to no avail. She was gone. Since then I have restricted sales of the mice to the starter kits. No more buying a dozen mice from me. Now you could only get them in the starter kits. 

All good things must end and last month my stock ran out. You can still buy the odd mouse online, but they are selling at ridiculous prices. I’ve seen them go for $24 and for £10 each. Outrageous when they were bought for £1, on in the last few years £1.50. I suppose I could make a pretty penny if I sold all my remaining mice. But I will never part with them. They remain scented up and ready for action.

So what now? Will the starter kits return? Will there be a new iconic scentwork toy? Well, who can say. The future is uncertain. And exciting. But never worry, it is possible to teach your dog to search with her nose without a scentwork mouse. 

How to make your own scentwork starter kit

Choose your article

You can use any suitable soft toy. You don’t want one that squeaks or that has catnip inside that cannot be removed. Some toys come with Velcro pockets into which you can insert catnip. They are fine because they allow the catnip to be removed so that you can wash the toy. But you don’t need anything as fancy as a Velcro opening because you don’t need to put catnip, or whatever scent your choose, inside the toy. 

Soft toys, especially those with fake fur on the outside, soak up scent eliminating the need to butcher them and insert packets of whatever. This makes them last longer, and most importantly prevents your dog from accessing whole packets of scent. Safety is paramount. Even non-toxic scents like dried catnip are not ideal snacks for excited dogs. Swallowing packets of scent is not safe. They can cause blockages and if using toxic scents (which I STRONGLY advise against) can make your dog very ill indeed. 

Choose your scent

Let’s talk about scent safety. We are playing scentwork games for fun, not searching for bombs or ammunition. We aren’t looking for drugs or money. We’re engaging in an activity that provides our dogs, and ourselves, with positive stimulation, with challenges and puzzles and pleasure. So there is no need to use anything that could cause your dog harm. No need to use gun oil or tobacco, both of which can contain highly toxic ingredients. And there is no need to use scents your dog doesn’t like, such a citrus or aniseed. No need to use overpowering or potentially toxic essential oils. Even some herbs and spices, like rosemary and nutmeg, can carry risks for our dogs. Google your chosen scent to ensure that it isn’t hazardous to your dog. When it comes to scentwork, pleasure shouldn’t come with pain. 

‘Real’ scentwork!

And just a quick word here on ‘real’ scentwork. Some folks think that if the dog isn’t searching for the same scents as professional working dogs, they aren’t doing ‘real’ scentwork. This is obviously nonsense. Such statements should be treated with the contempt they deserve. If your dog is searching for any scent, your dog is doing real scentwork.   

Coming off my soapbox, what scent can you use safely? Choose one that either your dog likes or doesn’t care about. As you know I use catnip. I’ve used it right from the start after I was given the OK from a vet. It doesn’t have the same effect on dogs as it has on some cats. You don’t have to worry about your dog getting blissed out on a catnip toy. And with the thousands of dogs I’ve helped train, I’ve only come across one who didn’t like catnip. That’s not a bad hit rate! 

It’s also a scent that my dog doesn’t come across except during scentwork searches. If the scent is around all the time, how will your dog know when to tell you she’s found it?! The scent needs to stay special. A unique scent that always means just one thing – gametime! 

All catnip is good catnip?

kong catnip

Be aware, not all catnip is equal. I only used dried catnip. And I only use the same brand, Kong Naturals Premium Catnip which I usually get from Pet-Supermarket [affiliate]. If you are buying catnip for just yourself and your dog/s, go for the 1oz tin. This will last you for years. Each brand has it’s own way of producing catnip. The source, the way it’s dried, the way it’s chopped can all affect the scent. By sticking with a high quality catnip from the same producer, I can get a consistent target scent that doesn’t cause my dogs any doubt or confusion. 

I don’t like the catnip spray as this isn’t pure catnip. This teaches the dog to search for the scent of the catnip and the liquid. Also, it makes everything soggy which is highly unpleasant. And soggy articles spread contamination further than dry ones so are not so good to hide around your home. 

Bag it up

bag for catnip for starter kit
Plastic bag
organza bag to put in starter kit
Organza bag

Once you’ve got your target scent, put it in a small bag. This stops it spreading everywhere when you take your articles out of the storage container. You can use the small plastic bags that you can find in stationers. They’re about 6x6cm so plenty big enough to hold enough catnip. Or if you have some you can use the little organza bags that you get with jewellery or small gifts. Or even an old pair of tights cut into tubes and tied at each end to make a bag. All of these will let out the scent of the catnip so that it can soak into your toys and other articles. 

So if you don’t have a mouse, what can you use as your scented article? Any toy with similar properties to the mouse will do. So not so big that it’s hard to hide. Not so small that your dog could swallow it. If you know your dog has swallowed toys in the past, don’t use anything small enough for her swallow when she’s scentworking. Remember, safety is paramount, so if in doubt go bigger than smaller. 

DIY

Fleece plaits are great. They are what I used before I met my mice. They’re flexible, furry and make it easy to play tug. You can buy them ready made or plait them yourself. That way you can make any size you want. If you don’t have any fleece, use old clothes. Cut your old sweatshirts or t-shirts or towels into strips and off you go. Later, when your dog is an experienced scentworker, you can use pieces of material that you can simply throw away at the end of your searches rather than having to wash them for re-use. 

You could go along to your local charity shop as they often have bins full of soft toys or cheap clothes to turn into plaits. Scentwork is the ultimate recycling activity – everything can be used as either a scented article or in a search area. Having a variety of articles to scent up is perfect. Remember, the dog is searching for the target scent on the article, not the article itself. If you use the same article all the time, the dog may not be searching for what you actually want. 

Storage

beautiful storage tin for starter kit
Beautiful storage tin
storage tin
Another favourite storage tin

Once you have your target scent and your articles to be scented up you just need a container in which to store them. You need something airtight so that the scent stays inside and is soaked up by the contents without contaminating anything outside the container. For example, if you kept the scent and the articles in a plastic bag in the cupboard everything in the cupboard would smell of the target scent. When you opened the cupboard the scent would come out and contaminate you and the carpet or whatever was in the vicinity too. Considering that you need to ensure that the scent stays special, this is not a good scenario.

My preference is to use a tin container. It’s light and not easy to break. That means I can chuck it in the back of the van ready to be used wherever we go. It’s light to carry if I want to pop it in my backpack. And it’s cheap. Often, you also get the joy of eating the contents before using the tin. So look out for gorgeous biscuit tins. My tin addition got the better of me when I spotted the gorgeous flower and bird tin in the photo. It contained make-up. But I bought it despite the make-up. I just wanted the tin! 

You can use plastic containers too. But make sure they’re good quality as scent can leech through and out of them. I’ve found that clip lock containers are best.

Put your kit together

Now you’re ready to put your starter kit together. Simply place the sachet of catnip into the container along with a selection of safe, clean, dry articles. Make sure the lid is tightly secured and leave for 24 hours. And that’s it. You now have your very own scentwork starter kit. 

If you want to know more about starting scentwork, and how to look after your starter kit, there’s no better place than my Teach your Dog to Sniff course. Head on over there with your starter kit and there will be no stopping you. That course will also help you need to get involved if your dog doesn’t like to play and would prefer to search for edible finds. If you’d like to help your dog play with you more, then the Support Skills course if the one for you.

Happy sniffing!    

Please note: This post contains affiliate links. This means that I get commission at no cost to you if you buy using the links. You can read the full disclosure here.

how to make a starter kit

2 thoughts on “How to make a scentwork starter kit (without a mouse!)”

  1. Edward the Jap Spitz uses clove as his scent. I keep bits of old nylon socks in a tin with a clove or two. He’s been doing this for some years – I hope I have not put him in any danger?

    1. Cloves shouldn’t cause any problems. They can be very strong, but it sounds like you’re using them well to prevent Edward being overpowered by too much scent. Keep having fun 🙂

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