Talking Dogs Scentwork®

Steven brown art on tin

What’s in the tin? How to make the perfect scentwork tin.

Your scentwork tin is an essential piece of kit. This is where you scent up and store articles. As you can see, the tin has a dual purpose. Placing the articles into the tin alongside the target scent gives them time to soak up the scent ready for searches. And then by using the tin to store and transport the scented articles, you can have it with you wherever you go. You can find out how to make your basic starter kit by checking back to my previous blog post

Coming up . . .

What’s in the tin?

Today I wanted to talk more about what is actually in the tin. What can you use as a scentwork article?

To begin with you should choose an article that your dog can happily hold and play with. Remember, in Talking Dogs Scentwork, we work with active indications. This means that when the dog locates the article she can retrieve it and when appropriate (more on that later) she can play with it too. And it may be that your dog is searching for an edible article, such as cheese. In which case she can eat it when she finds it. Later, as your dog becomes more experienced, you can use objects that might not be fun to play with but which can be swapped for rewards.

None of us are working in sterile environments. But we have to work hard on two particular factors: 

  1. Contamination
  2. Constants


Contamination is another word for scenting up, or applying scent to an article. But alongside scenting up specific articles, it’s all too easy to spread this scent to unwanted and unintended areas. For example, if you place the scented article in a box and then change your mind, taking it out of the box and hiding it behind a cushion, both hides are now contaminated. That is to say that both the box and the cushion smell of the target scent. In effect you’ve now made two hides instead of one. If you are are of this double hide you can work with it. When your dog indicates on the box hide you have the choice to acknowledge the find and then work her on. Or you can throw in a secondary article so that when she indicates she gets the physical find/reward. 

But what if you don’t know that the box is contaminated? If the search is known, i.e. you know where the hide is (behind the cushion) you may be confused and either call your dog away when she’s indicating on the box. Or drive her in only to discover there’s nothing there. Neither is satisfactory for you or for the dog. 

Trust your dog

I recall a particular workshop where a dog was insistent that a green box in the search area was the hide. The box had not been used in any other search and the scented articles had been nowhere near it. And yet the dog was giving a strong indication on the box. Because I always trust the dog, I asked the handler to praise her dog, celebrate her reaction and then work on to complete the rest of the search (and find the actual scented article.) I surreptitiously removed the box while they were searching so as to avoid any further ‘confusion’. 

Later during lunch break, the handler pulled me aside. She’d remembered that on the way to the workshop, the green box has been on the back seat of the car right beside her scented article which she had kept in a plastic bag rather than a tin. The dog had been rich all along. The green box had been contaminated with the target scent. By trusting the dog we had ensured that no damage had been done to her confidence even though we were unaware of the contamination at that time. 

False indications

In case you’re thinking ‘what if the box wasn’t contaminated?’, I’d always test to see if the dog was giving false indications. This is a phrase I dislike but it is used when dogs indicate without the presence of the target scent. This can be done for a variety of reasons. And is rare when working with an active indication. I’m happy to come back to discuss this in a future post. 

The instant we pick up a scented article our hand becomes contaminated. And then anything we touch with that hand also becomes contaminated with the target scent. This is why we wash or clean our hands with antibac gel between hiding the article and conducting the search. And why we try to keep one hand ‘clean’ when finding multiple articles. 


Dogs are smart. Especially when it comes to scent. Unless you are working in a clinically sterile environment, there will always be other scents present alongside the target. For example, the scentwork mouse will have a distinct smell. During starter searches the dog will be working to find the target scent, e.g. catnip, plus the scent of the mouse or whatever toy you’ve selected. If working with cheese, the dog will be searching for cheese plus your scent which will be resent as you’ve moulded the cheese or squished it into position. 

In order to teach the dog to ignore these accompanying scents, you need to make the only constant in the search the target scent. So have other people stick the cheese out. Use toys and articles other than mice. I also change the washing liquid and powder that I use to clean reusable articles. And I change the antibac that I clean my hands with between searches. I want the only contestant in the search to be the target scent. If you always use a piece of scented cotton bud as your article (passive indication) then your dog will be searching for the target scent and the cotton bud scent. To be absolutely sure of what your dog believes to be the target, that has to be the only constant.

Now in some detection work dogs are specifically trained to find multiple scents as the target. I believe that when searching for firearms dogs often search for a combination of the firearms, the cleaners and the ammunition. This is because all of these scents will always be present. And that’s key. 


Dogs have great powers of discrimination. I had a handler who had chosen vanilla are the target scent. She was confused when her dog failed to indicate on the articles I’d hidden for her during some workshop searches. It transpired that she had been using vanilla essence but had run out so had substituted that for vanilla pods. From the dog’s perspective, if all the elements of her target scent weren’t present, it wasn’t her target scent. She was searching for not just vanilla, but for the water, alcohol and any chemical additives that made up the particular brand of vanilla essence.  

So when you consider what you are putting into your scentwork tin, you need to be aware of contamination and constants. Never put unwashed used articles back into the tin. These will instantly contaminate every article in the tin, plus the tin itself. And if you’re using catnip, the dampness from the dog’s slobber will start to rot the catnip. This changes the scent and so makes it unusable. 

Keep it clean

Clean your tin periodically. Wash it in soapy water and then rinse with boiling water before letting it drip dry. Do this too before first use so that your dog isn’t searching for chocolate, biscuits or whatever had been in the tin before. 

If you are using multiple scents, have separate tins for each scent. And always place the washed used articles back in the same tin from which it came. With most articles, what you are washing away is contamination from where the article was hidden, so perhaps oil or mud, from you or your helpers, i.e. human scent, and from the dog, such as saliva and hair. The target scent is often still there (depending on the article) even after washing. In Customs, we had different scent tins (old ammunition boxes) for each of the drugs we wanted our dogs to find. And we were meticulous at only putting cleaned used articles back in the same tin from whence they came. So cocaine article back in the cocaine tin. Heroin back in the heroin tin. And so on. 

Scentwork starter kit catnip mouse
Buy your Official Scentwork Starter Kit


Now we come to the fun part, collecting articles for our dog to find. Bear in mind that you must choose articles that will be safe your dog. Every dog is different. Some will check up and swallow anything and everything. Others won’t touch anything that’s not soft. Some will pick up anything no matter the material, e.g. metal, wood, stone. As ever, remember the safety first mantra.


I am always on the lookout for things to add to my tin. Let’s begin with the standard soft toys. I’d recommend mouse size or smaller rather than bigger. You don’t want so much scent that the dog hits it the second she enters the search area. The exception to this is if your dog needs a large tug toy to stop her swallowing small toys or to make it safer and easier to play tug games. Longer toys stop you getting accidentally, or intentionally, chomped. My preference is for plaited fleece as it holds lots of scent. And can be coiled up or squashed into small spaces despite it’s size. You can make similar plaits with old clothing or towels. You can use dense rope toys too but hey are harder to conceal. 

Fabric wise, you can use old socks – children’s socks are ideal, small and soft. You can use gloves, T-shirts, old joggers. Cut each finger off the gloves to make multiple small articles. You can cut swatches or strips off clothes. And you can even do the same with shoes. Laces are particular useful. Look for a variety of fabrics. So cotton, leather, nylon, wool. All will hold scent differently. 


As a rule, I don’t throw anything in the recycling or bin if I can use it for scentwork. I save the cardboard innards of toilet, kitchen and tinfoil rolls. The plasticmeasuring tops from bottles of washing liquid, or the big outer lids from face cream, shampoo. I don’t use lids that have come into contact with the products, just the outer lids. This avoids any chance that, even when cleaned, any tiny part of any product can be ingested by the dog. For safety reasons too, I don’t use lids from cleaners or anything that could be harmful. 

I use the cardboard swing tags from new clothes. You can use the cardboard and the string separately or combined to make hanging finds. Ribbon from packaging is great as it can be tied onto hides. Or cut to size to slip under a mat or behind some furniture. Make sure you can retrieve the article from the hide. You don’t want to be left with an eternal find. Each time your dog indicates on it you’ll need to reward her, so let’s avoid that!

selection of article for scent tin
A selection of some articles you could add to your scent tin

Small scent pictures

Old bank, store and credit cards provide challenging finds. As do Post-It notes cut into strips or whatever size you need. Sticking plasters, fabric and plastic, can be used in a similar way to the sticky notes. Clothes pegs are great as they provide lots of placement options as they can be pegged onto almost anything else. This gives scope for devious hides, hides in plain sight and at a variety of heights. 

Almost anything can be used as a scentwork article. Pens, pipe cleaners, pieces of sponge, packing materials, pebbles. Spoons and spanners, rubber cut from old wellies, wooden decorations, plastic toys. Put them all in the tin!    

Don’t overlook what nature provides too. Sticks, leaves, feathers, fleece. All can be scented up. 

Non-scented tin

I recommend also having a storage tin that contains none of the target scent. That way, you can split your articles into scented and unscented. For example, you can cut a length of ribbon into multiple pieces. Place some in your scentwork tin and some in your unscented tin. Then you can use all the pieces in a search. Having some scented and others unscented ensures that your dog is only indicating on the scented articles, not just something novel or similar to a previous find. Make sure you mark the scented articles so that you can be 100% sure when your dog indicates and is correct.          

When selecting which article to use in your search, think about how much scent the article will hold. And is that appropriate to you and your dog’s search skill levels? Scentwise, the biggest difference between articles that are soft, squishy and soak up scent versus hard, shiny materials where the scent sits on the surface, is due to time. The longer any article is out of the scentwork tin, the more scent it will lose. But if it has soaked up lots of scent to begin with, like the mice do, the longer the scent will remain. While the hard shiny objects will quickly lose the surface scent and so provide much smaller scent pictures. 

Skip diving

So there it is. Be open and aware of everything you see. You’ll be surprised just how much ‘rubbish’ can become fabulous scent articles. And while you might not be up for skip diving for plastic pipes and the like as us old Customs handlers were, you are sure to find much more than you ever imagined just by looking round your own house, shed and garden. And the next time someone asks you what’s in the tin, you can say ‘Everything!’ 

P.S. If you’d like to see me talking about this very subject, head over to my Instagram page for the playback of the live I did last Thursday.

Note: The artwork by Steven Brown in the main photo for this post features on a shortbread tin. The dog reminds me so much of Ettie that it had to be her scentwork tin!

what's in the tin pinterest

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