It’s often said that Nosework is an activity for ALL dogs.  I’d like to explore that a little and share with you WHY that’s a true statement.  Other sports seem to gravitate to certain dog types.  Dogs who enjoy running, jumping and expressing themselves through motion tend to enjoy agility.  Dogs who enjoy close up interaction and focus on their handler, tend to enjoy obedience.  Dogs who enjoy swimming, retrieving and a release of quick adrenaline like dock diving… the list goes on…. But what kinds of dogs like nosework?  The answer is in fact, ALL dogs.  What you will find is that each type of dog will get something entirely different from the activity.

Activity vs. Sport

Note that I’m calling this an activity in this context rather than a sport.  That’s very deliberate language.  There is a difference between the activity of nosework and the sport of nosework.  The activity is therapeutic in many ways and is the expression of the sport in a non-competitive environment.  The sport is the manifestation of the activity in a competitive environment.  Many dogs will end up on the competitive journey, and some will simply benefit from the activity itself.  Competition isn’t for every dog.  The ACTIVITY is for every dog.  You have to make the decision regarding competition separately from the decision regarding the activity.

We say that this is an excellent activity for every dog because of the benefits that can be derived from participation.  We can break this out into (1) the benefits of sniffing and (2) the benefit to the individual dog.  This blog focuses on the benefits of sniffing.

Terrier sniffing

A young terrier sniffs in the woods

The Benefits of Sniffing and the Seeking System

Sniffing activates something called the Seeking System part of the brain.  It’s a part of the brain that is also responsible for the release of the neurotransmitter called Dopamine.  Dopamine increases our level of arousal (attention), feelings of motivation and reward and related to an enhanced memory.  Dopamine feels good.  

The Seeking System was described by Jaak Panskepp in Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions, Oxford University Press, New York, 1998  as: 

“This emotional system is a coherently operating neuronal network that promotes a certain class of survival abilities. This system makes animals intensely interested in exploring their world and leads them to become excited when they are about to get what they desire. It eventually allows animals to find and eagerly anticipate the things they need for survival, including, of course, food, water, warmth, and their ultimate evolutionary survival need, sex. In other words, when fully aroused, it helps fill the mind with interest and motivates organisms to move their bodies effortlessly in search of the things they need, crave, and desire. In humans, this may be one of the main brain systems that generate and sustain curiosity, even for intellectual pursuits. This system is obviously quite efficient at facilitating learning, especially mastering information about where material resources are situated and the best way to obtain them. It also helps assure that our bodies will work in smoothly patterned and effective ways in such quests. “

So every time you let your dog sniff, you are allowing the dog to feel good.  This is self soothing and can lower anxiety.  The dopamine D1 and D2 receptors are important for regulating anxiety.  So the simple act of sniffing can physically reduce a dog’s anxiety or discomfort.

When you couple the anxiety reduction with the stimulation of the Seeking System you get a perfect storm of benefits for the dog.  Imagine a feel good, anxiety reducing, enriching activity… and you imagine sniffing.

When we add the element of reward into nosework, we also stimulate the Seeking System because the dog is seeking a resource, in this case, a cookie or a toy.  When target odor is employed, the dog is still seeking a resource.  With target odor, the dog understands that the result will be a reward.  Interestingly, the simple fact that we have stimulated the Seeking System actually reinforces the learning process!

Sniffing, especially sniffing in the context of Nosework, is therefore a pivotal therapeutic activity that can stimulate feel good feelings and lower anxiety.  Sniffing is essential to a dog’s happiness!

In December, I’m teaching an online class that will build the foundations of Nosework, pre-odor.  If you are interested in reaping these benefits for your dog, check it out at: