Talking Dogs Scentwork®

Ettie finds a mouse

Toilet roll tubes three ways – how to make searches for all skill levels

Toilet roll tubes can be used is lots of unexpected ways. One of the most useful hacks I discovered many years ago was to use them to store plugs and chargers. You pop the chargers inside the tubes and then sit the filled tubes in a drawer or box. This stops them getting tangled up, making it easy to lift one out without having to wrestle with the others. And if you write on the tube what the charger is for then you can put an end to rummaging blindly as you try charger after charger into your device. Simple, cheap, practical. 

Coming up . . .

Invest wisely

And those are three words that I live by when it comes to scentwork equipment. If you’ve read any of my previous blogs about making up scentwork tins or using boxes in searches, you’ll know that I’m a big fan of using whatever is around is rather than spending money on fancy equipment. I believe that it’s better to invest in excellent training rather than throwing money away on ‘special’ boxes. Quality training and the correct harness are essential purchases. Everything else is gravy!

I thought you might find it useful if I detailed three ways to use the cardboard innards of toilet rolls in scentwork searches. Each search can be adapted to your dog, your target scent, your style of working (e.g. passive or active indications) and your team’s skill level. Never forget, that scentwork is a team activity. That means that you need to pay attention to the skill levels of both the handler and the dog. I’m going to showcase searches at three levels: beginner, intermediate and experienced. You can vary every factor so that it fits with your search goals, but here are the basic set-ups for each search. 

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Search 1 – Beginners

I really like this cute search. And so did Ettie! This search uses only the toilet roll tubes and a scented article. I set it up indoors because it’s quite a windy day today. But if you’ve a sheltered outside area you could do it there too. All I did was scatter the toilet rolls on the floor. Then I picked one and inserted a scented article. (Ettie searches for catnip scent.) I pushed it right in so that there was no visual clue to it’s contents. Then I placed it back amongst the empty unscented rolls. 

Search goal

The goal of this search was for Ettie to distinguish the target tube from the others using her nose. By using identical objects for her to search I could confirm that she could successfully find the target scent. The only thing distinguishing the target tube from the others is the scent. When Ettie found the target she was free to rip up the tube to get to the scented toy, play with the toy still in the tube or bring it to me to release the toy from the tube. The choice was hers.


Toss the tubes into the area. Then if any are too close to the others I can move them to increase the distance. I want each tube to have it’s own little area so that Ettie has space to move around them. I also don’t want the target tube to be touching, and so contaminating, it’s neighbours. Finding the scent without the article can easily cause confusion and disappointment for beginner dogs.

Once you’ve inserted the scented article into the tube, do not touch any of the other tubes. Again, this could contaminate them with the target odour. 


Place the target tube according to your search goal. Do you want to build confidence? Place it close to the entrance to the search area facing onto the dog. By placing the tube so that the open ends point towards the dog as she enters, there is more air flow in her direction and so she is more likely to hit the scent quickly. Placing the tube so that the cardboard acts as a barrier between dog and scent can make it trickier. We are talking small amounts of difficulty changes, but in scentwork, small changes can have big results. And don’t worry if the dog moves the tubes as she’s searching, you can only do so much!

Once the dog finds the target, always play outside of the search area. If you want to reuse this area for more searches, you want to keep contamination to a minimum. By playing outside the area you can be free to enjoy the game without worrying about the toy or the tube touching ‘clean’ tubes or flooring that remain in the area. 

Do NOT reuse tubes. Once an article has been placed in a tube, throw the tube away in your outside bin (you don’t want your dog indicating on your indoor bins!) These tubes are free so you can afford to chuck them straight into the recycling after each search.    

What I learned from these searches

That Ettie is no longer a beginner when it comes to free searching. Her indication is strong and confident. Next step, increase duration and directed searching.

The first search reminded me why it’s useful to record searches. Ettie exuberantly shook the mouse. You can see this if you pop over to my Instagram account. So much that the toilet tube that contained it flew off into the search area. I had no idea which one was the contaminated tube. But I was able to review the footage and remove the correct tube before the next search. Had I not been recording, I’d have had to remove multiple tubes in order to ensure I’d not left the contaminated one in the search area.  

What I hope Ettie learned

That when she hits the scent not to doubt herself. And to be fearless when it comes to accessing the scented article from whatever it’s been hidden in. 

Search 2 – Intermediate

This time I’m using the toilet rolls as an additional layer for the finds. The more layers, the smaller the scent picture. Scent moves in air. If that scented air has to travel through several layers the target odour takes longer to reach the surface and escape the hide. It can also be a little weaker as it loses scent particles as it moves through each layer. 

The amount of loss and the delay in emerging depends on the material of the layers. Thick plastic will hold scent inside. But it can move easily through fabric. The fabric will also absorb lots of scent making the picture bigger. While the plastic will absorb hardly any and so will continue to make the scent picture small. However, once the dog hits the scent in the plastic and accesses the article, the scent will be strong and reinforcing. This really helps dogs understand that tiny amounts of scent can lead to bigger pictures and the scented article itself. In the small amounts of catnip we are using, experienced dogs are not generally influenced by the volume or density of scent. But for dogs learning to work with varying amounts, this can be a real confidence boost.  

Edible finds

This search was for Ella. I thought I’d use cheese as my target scent so that you could see that these searches can accommodate whatever scent you like. Plus while Ella will happily search for catnip articles, she prefers to hunt for edible finds!

To make a layered hide, I squished some cheese into a couple of the toilet roll tubes. Then I placed the tubes inside other boxes I’d been saving. (If you wanted to make this a little trickier you could close the ends of one of the tubes over.) Then I placed it inside a single box making a two layered find. This should be quite a simple find as there is lots of air circulating both in the box and in the tube. 

target scent in tube which is placed into a box
Simple two layered find. I closed the box over but didn’t seal it

With the other one, I squashed the tube flat. Then I placed it inside a box that already had multiple layers with in, making a two – five layered find depending on where Ella hit the scent. If she turned the box over and hit the scent from the underside of the box, it would be a two layer: box bottom + one side of the tube. But if she hit it from the top of the box it would be five layers: box lid + thin plastic + cardboard + thin plastic + toilet tube. If I folded the tube over I could increase the layers even more. 

All the boxes were placed at floor level. I wanted to give Ella every opportunity to access the finds with minimal help from me. Note: locate v access: I will always work with the dog to support her as she searches for the finds. But once she’s located them, whenever possible, I encourage the dog to dig in and get the finds, i.e. access them, herself. This can add to the pleasure of the reward, builds confidence and prevents the dog from stepping back expecting me to provide waitress service. However, I am always ready to step in to assist if she can’t quite reach the finds. 

Search goals

This search aimed to help Ella sniff deeply through layers in order to locate the finds. I wanted to give her multiple opportunities hence setting up a multi-find search. I also wanted to encourage her to dig into the hides to access the cheese. This action reinforces the pleasure of finding the cheese by giving confirmation that small amounts of scent still result in strong rewards. 


Soften the cheese in your hands before placing it inside the tube This will warm it and make it stickier so that it doesn’t simply fall out of the tube if the hide is moved. 

Use a small amount of cheese, 1cm cubes are ideal for Ella. If your dog is less experienced, use bigger cubes, or more experienced, use less. 

Try not to use your thumb as you place the cheese into the tube. It will likely be greasy and cheesy after picking up and softening the cheese. It’s an easy mistake to press your thumb onto the outside of the tube as you press the cheese to the inside. If you do you contaminate the outside of the tube.  

Make sure you wash your hands after squishing the cheese in place. In a perfect world this would be after you’ve placed it into the tube and before you put the cheesy tube into the box. But whatever your circumstances, try to keep contamination to a minimum. 

As before, do NOT reuse tubes. Or contaminated boxes. For each search, use fresh equipment. Cardboard is cheap and plentiful, so no need to risk confusion by reusing them. 

What I learned from these searches

That since having her upper front teeth taken out, she finds it tricky to eat the cheese from the tubes. She tried but without those teeth to scrape it out she struggled. Therefore I happily stepped in to rip the tubes and give her access. 

On the first search she quickly located the hide but was confused not to find the cheese directly inside the box, but inside the tube too. It was clear that when I helped her to get into the box to get the find, that her issue was not in fact accessing the box, but locating the find within the box. With some assistance she figured it out. 

To help clarify that the tubes could be hides too, for the next search I went back a step with the tubes. I hid the find just as I had for Ettie. By sticking the cheese inside the tube and placing it on the floor amongst the other tubes and boxes, Ella was able to reinforce her discovery from the previous search. After she found the cheesy tube she continued the search and quickly located the third find through all the layers. I’ll post the third find on Instagram.  

What I hope Ella learned

That the target scent might be inside something that she would dismiss if she relied on visual confirmation. That I will always support her to access the find but that she is capable to digging into boxes, etc. more than she first thought. And that even without her front teeth, she can still eat the cheese! 

Search 3 – Experienced 

This time I’m using the tubes themselves as the scented articles. I cut the tubes into strips and hoops. Scenting up whole tubes would be way too easy for an experienced dog. But if this is your dog’s first time searching for scented cardboard, then start with whole tube and make the pieces smaller as her skill and confidence grows. Then I popped them into the scentwork tin to soak up the catnip scent. 

I also cut up some of the other tubes. Those pieces I would leave unscented. 

As I mentioned earlier, it’s a windy day here. Cherry is experienced and loves to work outdoors, so setting up some outside searches would be perfect for her. I placed multiple finds in each search. I also placed multiple unscented pieces in each search. Some of each were placed in plain sight, and some were hidden out of sight. I hid them at various heights, high and low. As with Ettie and Ella’s searches, there were no high or slippery surfaces in the search areas so I conducted all three searches without the girls wearing their harnesses.   

Search goal

My goal for Cherry, my experienced dog, was to test to ensure she was indicating on the target scent and not just assuming because she found something incongruous to the area that it was automatically the article. I wanted to check that she was indicating on the scent rather than the tube pieces   


Cut the tubes up before opening the tin. You don’t want to let too much catnip scent into the air while you prepare the tubes. So keep the lid on until you’re ready to add the tube pieces. 

Prepare these articles the day before you want to do the searches. This will give the tubes lots of time to soak the scent.

scent tin containing toilet roll tubes
I placed the pieces of toilet roll tubes into the scent tin the night before our searches

Cut up more tubes that you intend to use. That way you’ll have some in the tin for next time too. 

Mark the unscented tubes so that you can double check which ones your dog is indicating on. 

If this is the first time you’ve done searches with this goal it’s useful for the search to be known. That means you know which ones are scented and which are not. This helps ensure that you don’t reinforce the dog for retrieving or showing on the unscented items. 

What I learned from these searches

That we need to practise this more! Cherry spotted one of the unscented cardboard rings early on in the search. She half heartedly mouthed at it but when I simply responded by asking her to ‘Find it’ she moved on. She quickly picked up the scent of one of the finds and was able to happily search on to locate the scented cardboard. It is clear to see the difference between her interest in the unscented and scented cardboard when comparing both behaviours so close together. Another advantage to recording searches. I’ll post a quick video of this on Instagram.

Later in the search she hit the target scent and when tracing it to source she saw the unscented cardboard again. She moved to pull it off the branch (both scented and unscented tube rings were hidden in a couple of shrubs that stood side by side.) As I knew it wasn’t scented I was able to give a quick ‘ah,ah’, repeated the ‘find it’ cue and she continued on to find the target, ignoring the unscented ring. 

Build confidence

At another point in the search she almost casually lifted an unscented piece of the tube off the fence. No indication, no usual behaviour when she finds the target. It was almost as if she thought she should take it just in case. With more practise on the skill she will be able to ignore unscented dummies like these with much more confidence. 

So there it is. Three very different uses for something that you’d most likely just toss into the recycling. The lowly toilet roll tube can now take a new status in your scentwork world. Simple, cheap and practical. And look at what me and the girls learned from these searches. So valuable and so much fun! These resources are super versatile. You are only limited by your imagination. So start collecting your toilet tubes today. 

What I hoped Cherry learned

Not to people please. To have the confidence to move on from something that looks like a find even if it doesn’t smell like one. 

Now it’s your turn

If you do any of these searches with your dog, I’d love to see them. Tag me @scentworker in your media posts or send pics/videos directly to me at

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And if you’d like to get involved with scentwork with your dog, I would be honoured to be your teacher. Head on over to my online Detector Dog School where I can teach you how to get your dog sniffing in no time at all.  

Ettie finds a mouse that was in a toilet roll tube

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