Talking Dogs Scentwork®

labrador and scruffy terrier sniffing on a hillside

Something in the air? My simple scent guide.

Where there’s air, there’s scent. Where air moves, scent also moves. But how and why? If you are asking your dog to search for a target scent, the more you can learn about how that target scent behaves, or is likely to behave, the better you will be able to work and teach your dog successfully. Understanding how scent responds in different environments, with a variety of materials and at different temperatures gives you valuable information when setting up searches and search plans.

Coming up . . .

Working blind

Consider this. You carefully set up a new search for your dog. The goal is to increase her confidence in finding the target scent. You risk assess the area. Think about how long you’d like the search to take. Add all sorts of interesting objects to be searched. That’s a great start. But without thinking about how the target scent might respond in the hide and in the area in general, you are leaving everything to chance. You could give your dog’s confidence a boost in this area. But you could also inadvertently reduce her confidence.

Factors to consider:

  1. Elements
  2. Materials
  3. Flow
  4. Scent Picture
  5. Contamination 

Let’s have a closer look.


Working outside provides more challenges than working inside. Indoors there are more opportunities to control the elements. This is one of the reasons that, whenever possible, I introduce new teams to scentwork by working indoors rather than outdoors. Indoors it’s unlikely to be raining or snowing! But the area could still be very cold, very hot or full of air turbulence due to windows, doorways, fans, heaters, etc. But often you are able to minimise unwanted factors by closing windows and doors. Or shutting off heaters and fans. This doesn’t eliminate them altogether but it does give you a little more control.

These indoor elements have the additional advantage of being more predictable than wind and weather that you experience outdoors. For example, movement of dog and handler through the search area causes turbulence but you can account for that during your search more easily than rapidly changing winds. 

The different materials in the room, windows, doors, flooring, ceiling, etc., will affect the movement of air. It can change direction, rising, falling or spreading as it travels up a wall from the wooden floor up the bricks to the window and eventually the ceiling. Each will have its own temperature and characteristics which will affect the movement of the air and the accompanying scent. 

Working indoors or out, you need to be aware of the elements in the search environment. When designing a search, these basic elements are the first thing I consider.

Materials and Scent Picture

If you’ve been to my workshops or have read my book, you’ll have heard that not all cardboard is equal. Some is thin and floppy, such as the standard Amazon boxes. Others are very strong and rigid, like wine boxes or those used for computers or electrics. These differences will influence how much scent soaks into the boxes, how much flows through it and how much is held within.

The material of other containers or hides will also affect the scent picture (the availability of target scent to the dog.) As a general rule, scent attaches more easily to soft and squishy items than hard and shiny. So a fabric mouse toy (such as the famous scentwork mouse) will soak up lots of scent. This means that the target scent is on the surface of the toy and inside. No need to make a hole in the toy to hide a packet of catnip (or whatever your chosen target scent.) Just enclose the toy in an airtight container with the scent and it will absorb it. 

Airtight containers

Now think about the airtight container. These can be plastic, metal or glass. These hard, shiny materials don’t absorb scent like the soft squishy ones. Instead the scent tends to sit on the surface. The smoother the surface the harder it is for the scent to adhere. This also means that over time, the scent will dissipate so there will be less for your dog to detect.

When searching objects made of these hard shiny materials, you need to give the dog access to where the air can escape. For example, if you’re searching an upturned plastic bucket, lift the lip of the bucket to let the air out. You don’t need to lift the whole bucket up. Just tip it enough to let your dog’s nose get to the air. Same for a metal box. Crack it open. Or a glass jar. Or a drawer. Or a cupboard door.  

The scented article

Just as you’re looking at the material of the hide, you also have to look at the material of the scented article. You can change it from cloth, to leather, to wood, to plastic, to metal. These will all take on scent differently. And so will allow more scent to be available to the dog. That means by selecting different materials you will get different scent pictures. This is especially true the longer the article is hidden. A metal spoon and a swatch of fabric will both give the dog access to scent. But over time, the fabric will retain more scent than the spoon. 

The more experienced the search team, the better able you’ll be to detect very small amounts of scent and smaller scent pictures. A great example of this is when using layers to decrease the scent picture. Layering hides simply means putting the scented article into multiple containers. Hiding the article behind a box is a zero layer hide. By placing the article inside the box, you now have 1 layer. Next place that box inside a bag to make 2 layers. 

Searching through layers

When you begin to teach your dog to search through layers, make each one available to the dog and maximise access to air. Let the dog search the bag, opening any zips or clasps. Then, tip the box out of the bag, let the dog search it and then, depending on the material of the box, crack it open. Once you’ve taught your dog that the find could be in the middle of layers of items she will be able to search through them more thoroughly herself without you having to give quite as much air access. Eventually you’ll both be able to search sealed finds where you cannot open anything. You still need to be aware of the materials you’re searching, but when appropriate this is a fabulously satisfying stage to aim for.   


Understanding flow fundamentals is yet another way that you can help your dog put her nose in the right place. What happens when moving air comes up against an object? How does it flow past it? Or through it? Or around it?  Sometimes it’s easier to visualise flow by thinking about it as water, which acts a lot like air. The force of the flow and the size and shape of what it comes up against will determine where the water droplets end up. They might flow right over the object. Or hit it and fall back to where they started. Or spray up and over dispersing water everywhere. Flow dynamics are fascinating. Getting to grips with even the most basic principals will help your searches immeasurably.


Contamination can be your friend or your foe. Contamination is when the target scent attaches to objects or areas other than where you’ve hidden the scented article. It’s often done inadvertently. The simple act of holding the scented article contaminates your hand. Now anything that you touch with that hand will also smell of the target scent. If you are moving things around in the search area you can easily spread the target scent everywhere. Now when the dog goes to search and starts indicating on ‘random’ things or places, you might not believe she’s correct. And she might get confused because she finds the scent without finding the scented article. Thoughtless contamination can mess up a team’s confidence scarily fast. 

On the other side, you can use this knowledge to your advantage. If the dog needs a bigger scent picture or a confidence boost you can purposely add some contamination to the outside of a hide. Instead of just placing the article inside a box, you can rub it on the outside too. This can be a great help for anxious or unsure sniffers. It’s also how real life smugglers are often caught. They forget to factor in contamination to their smuggling operation. Bonus for the good guys!  

Contamination cure

The cure for contamination? Soap and water. Or if you don’t have access to that, hand sanitiser is a good second choice. Keep your hands clean. Be aware of what you’re touching and where you put the scented article. If you try to place an article in a small space but then change your mind and put it somewhere else, you must reward the dog when she indicates on the first as well as the final hide. If you kept your scented articles in a cardboard box the cardboard would soak up the scent and so release it into wherever you store it. And anything you sit it on. Or into your bag or your car if you are travelling to a search area. Everything would be contaminated. Hence using non porous airtight containers.

The bottom line when it comes to scentwork is to be mindful and respectful of the target scent.    

Common truths

Each factor will be affected by time.

Each factor will work with other factors. None will occur alone. 

Each combination of factors will change throughout the search. 

Bear these three truths in mind when learning about scent. Your dog is the scent expert in the team. But the more you can observe, learn and understand about her specialist subject, the better. You’ll be a better teammate. You will be able to set out better searches. And between the two of you, you will have more scentwork success.  

scent 101 infographics
Scent 101 Infographics Set, a TDS Scentwork Trainer Resource

Scent 101 Infographics Set

If you are a scentwork trainer teaching these essential aspects of sniffing to your clients, my Scent 101 Infographics Set is a great resource. This set of 7 infographics are clear, colourful and informative. All have white backgrounds for ease of printing. You can laminate them and display them on your training hall wall. Or print them to give as handouts. I’ve even included a quiz that you can use to help clients really think about what and where to hide the target to best suit their dog and their goals. Of course, if you’re not a trainer, you can use the set yourself. A straightforward go to resource. 

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