Could scent work help your veterinary clients? - Veterinary Practice
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Could scent work help your veterinary clients?

Can scent work and sniffing help your nervous and reactive canine patients cope better with visits to the veterinary clinic?

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The benefits of sniffing and scent work are well known nowadays. Dogs explore the world through their incredible noses and their sense of smell, which is far superior to ours. By allowing them opportunities to sniff, we have seen their heart rates decrease, blood pressure drop and dopamine levels rise (Budzinski and Budzinski, 2019).

All these things are seemingly beneficial to anxious or nervous dogs and may perhaps benefit the very dogs that struggle in waiting rooms and the veterinary practice – those that are challenging to handle in consults.

Why is scent training and sniffing useful in veterinary practice?

As a clinical animal behaviourist (CAB), I regularly receive referral forms from local veterinary practices requesting support for clients who are struggling with their dog’s behavioural problems. Where the referral form asks if the vet has been able to handle and formally examine the patient, the answer is often “no” or “partially”. This adds an extra layer of difficulty for the referring vet and the CAB, as we can’t be sure if there’s an underlying medical reason that could be playing a role in the dog’s behavioural presentation. Mills et al. (2020) suggest this could be the case in up to 82 percent of referrals. Therefore, we really need to find out if there is something interlinked.

This is where my passion for scent work initially started to creep into my behaviour cases.

Scent training

Basic scent work can be as simple as teaching “find it” by dropping cubes of cheese and allowing the dog the opportunity to search for them using their nose rather than their eyesight, which is doubly beneficial. Through this, we get all the benefits of sniffing, but we also get the dog eating what we call the “active reward” as soon as they sniff out the piece of cheese. Therefore, we can kickstart the dog into “rest and digest” as the parasympathetic nervous system starts to activate. For many dogs, activating this seeking system makes eating and relaxing far easier than if they are given obedience cues such as “sit” and “stand”.

Basic scent work can be as simple as teaching ‘find it’ by dropping cubes of cheese and allowing the dog the opportunity to search for them using their nose

Because this activity is so simple, the owners can practise it in the comfort of their own home, where their dog is not surrounded by strange people, odd smells and additional stressors.

Over time, if they pair the “find it” cue with dropping the cheese, the dog will start to sniff when they hear the auditory cue itself. The owner can then increase the difficulty by hiding the piece of cheese out of sight in another room before allowing the dog to access it. As the dog enters, they can simply give the cue, “find it”, and allow the dog to search around, sniffing and exploring for the piece(s) of cheese.

If your veterinary practice can accommodate the client in empty consulting rooms, then the dog can visit for some of these little cheese searches as part of specific sessions that can be booked between actual consults. This helps change the dog’s emotional response when entering the veterinary practice to a more positive one.

In an ideal world, there would even be a chance for the dog to do this when they come to their consults rather than being examined straight away (though I appreciate that time restraints can make this challenging). In some of my success stories, veterinary nurses have allowed the dogs the opportunity to hunt the cheese while more are scattered on the floor as the dog eats those they find. During these sessions, veterinary nurses have been able to give a Librela injection or vaccination with less stress exhibited than experienced previously, and this has been seen in subsequent consults. 

What is man trailing, and what role does it play?

For dogs that struggle with having an unfamiliar person near them, man trailing could be an option to pursue. On top of additional management practices, such as coming in at quiet times, using a back entrance and being muzzle trained where required, man trailing could potentially help change the dog’s “stranger danger” response, as dogs can still learn to trail even when wearing a muzzle (Figure 1).

On top of additional management practices […] man trailing could potentially help change the dog’s ‘stranger danger’ response

Man trailing uses an Austrian, dog-centric method that teaches dogs to scent discriminate from the first session. Dogs are taught to sniff a scent article: an object that has been touched by the “runner” (the person hiding). They then follow the trail that naturally forms from the unique scent of the runner. While following the trail, the dogs gather and process information about the runner, which makes getting closer to them easier. When they find the runner, they get a safe interaction with an unknown individual where they get a high-value reward suitable for that dog (typically some form of moist or “lickable” food) before being able to move away.

Over time, the dog’s emotional response changes and unfamiliar people are no longer someone to fear but a potential opportunity for a high-value reward. When this is paired with consent-based handling work or cooperative care handling techniques, these dogs can then, in time, feel less anxious about being formally handled in a clinic scenario.

FIGURE (1) A muzzled dog with a bite history successfully finding their “runner” on a man trail

Pet trails where trainers teach dogs to sniff out “lost dogs” are also a possibility under correct guidance. The process for this activity is the same, but the “runner” is a dog rather than a “missing” person. This could be a potential benefit for your reactive dog patients that need to learn to be calm and comfortable around other dogs in close proximity and may help them be able to cope better when in your waiting rooms.


The benefits of scent work for dogs are limited only by our imagination and time restrictions. If you think scent work may be worth looking into for your clients, then why not contact an accredited trainer in your area or perhaps even consider learning to be a trailing instructor yourself?

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