How to Engage Your Dog's Sense of Smell

The main way a dog perceives the world is through their sense of smell.  When fully engaged in smelling activities, dogs really do seem happier.

Previously, we looked at why a dog’s sense of smell is so much stronger than a human’s in How Does a Dog’s Sense of Smell Compare to Yours? 

Once I appreciated how important a dog’s sense of smell is, I made changes in our daily habits to help our dogs use their sense of smell more. And in the process, have found new ways for me to appreciate nature as well.

"What's good for you (looking at the dog) can be good for me too!"

For people, exercising our senses is helpful during many stages of life. [1] Providing ways for young children to use all 5 of their senses is important for optimal human development. And as people age, sensory stimulation can improve the lives of older adults, especially those in more limited environments. [2] [3]

For dogs, there is a number of ways to exercise their sense of smell particularly with outside activities.  Our goal is to increase our dog's wellbeing, and as a bonus, maybe improve our own wellbeing too. 

Here are some things we do

1. Take Multiple Walks Outside Each Day

We try to take our dogs for walks outside two times a day.  We don’t ALWAYS get out twice a day, but we really do try.  It is good for both of us to get some fresh air, and even a 15-minute walk up and down our street counts when in a rush.

Interestingly, a lot of research shows if you have a choice as to where to walk, try to pick out a more natural environment as opposed to a more urban environment.  Walking in a more natural environment can help keep our thoughts more positive and help our brains work better. [4] [5]

Walking in nature helps our dogs and our brains

If you are in a more urban environment, consider if there is a route with more trees or some water along it. The picture above is from the Urban Forestry Center [6] just outside of Portsmouth – one of New Hampshire’s largest urban areas.  These pockets of nature may be close to where you live!

2. Allow Time to Sniff

When on our walks, I let them have time to stop and sniff for information and leave their replies along the way. This activity is like us checking email messages and replying back to those we want to.  

Our dogs are determining things such as:

  • Who has been by?
  • When did they come and how were they feeling?
  • What's going on with the weather?

You can clearly see by their intensity and focus, this activity is very important for them. 

dogs need some time to sniff the world around them

When they are sniffing, pause and take some deep breaths in yourself.... 

Is the air cool, warm, is there a scent passing by?  We may not get all the info they do, but it is worth taking a moment to notice what we can. 

Be sure and listen to the birds as well.  They have a lot to say. :-)

It may be awkward to get down to their physical level, but one day try taking a whiff of grass.  Or maybe just grab a leaf and take a smell. What does it smell like?

give the grass a sniff yourself to see what it smells like

And yes, sometimes we don’t have a lot of time, but you have to breathe anyway - so take a moment for some new input and you might be surprised by what you experience.

3. Go Somewhere New

At least once a week, I try to take them to a totally different destination for our walks such as a new park, or a different trail or town.  Living in New Hampshire, we are very lucky to be surrounded by so many different forests, ponds and even access to the ocean.  But even a new neighborhood, a different street or revisiting a favorite place after a while will give your dog a whole new set of smells that they will enjoy processing.

dogs enjoying a favorite park after not being there for a while

Turns out dogs are attracted to new smells.  In a 2008 study [7], a number of dogs were shown a new toy along with two familiar toys. The dogs chose the unfamiliar toy first 38 times out 50 times suggesting a strong preference for new items as opposed to familiar ones.  The general term for this is called neophilia – “love or enthusiasm for what is new or novel” [8]  As humans, we often like new things too :-)

4. Reach out to others for ideas on where to go

Don’t know where to go, or looking for new ideas?  Consider joining a “dog walking group”.  We recently did that and it has been so fun! [9]  Besides finding new places to take our dogs, I have to say the social benefits for me have been tremendous.  I always feel so good after hanging out with dogs and the people who love them.  We found these folks via a dog related Facebook group, but of course Google knows where such groups are too.

A dog walking club can be a fun group to join

5. Participate in Organized, Smell Oriented Activities

Our dog Dunkin is a hound mix.  One time, an animal communicator (folks who can literally have a back and forth conversation with our animals - this will be a whole other post) told us that Dunkin REALLY needs to use his nose more and suggested we look into “Nosework” [10] or “Scentwork”[11].

In these activities, dogs search out specific scents hidden in different places.   The search area can be a single room or multiple rooms within a building, a designated area outside or around a vehicle.

The training starts very simply with dogs learning and being rewarded for finding specific smells. 

In Nosework, dogs find hidden smell targets

Once you complete the training, there are many different types of competitions to participate in if you would like.  Our friend Arthur is a real champ!

Arthur and his many ribbons from Nosework competitions

One of the great benefits of this sport is that activities are organized in such a way that reactive dogs can participate too.  They can all have fun!

We did not go the competition route, but just participating in the training was a lot of fun and helped me think about engaging our dogs’ sense of smell in different ways.  I reworked some of the training exercises at home and now play “hide and seek” games with our pups.


Here are some ideas for engaging your dog’s sense of smell outside

  • Take your dog outside for walks - two times a day if possible
  • Give them time to sniff things they encounter (This is like us checking our email and the news)
  • Every so often, take your dog to new areas or ones they haven’t been to in a while
  • Join a dog walking group if looking for new ideas or other dog folks
  • Participate in organized scent-oriented training or activities

And for YOU….

  • Be sure to take some time to smell and take in your surroundings as well!


[1] What is Sensory Stimulation?
[2] Sensory and memory stimulation as a means to care for individuals with dementia in long-term care facilities
[3] Investigating the effect of multisensory stimulation on depression and anxiety of the elderly nursing home residents

[4] Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation

[5] Understanding Nature and its cognitive benefits

[6] Urban Forestry Center

[7] Neophilia in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) and its implication for studies of dog cognition.

[8] Neophilia

[9] New Hampshire Dog Walking Club

[10] Nosework

[11] Scentwork


picture of Gina Anderson founder of Good Paws Bakery and Gifts

Gina Anderson...

founder of Good Paws Bakery and Gifts LOVEs to make dogs HAPPY! Prior to starting Good Paws, she was a human factors engineer making software easier for people to use.  She loves learning about all things dog, and helping people understand things from a dog’s perspective.  Connect with Gina on Linked In
Older Post
Newer Post

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published

Close (esc)


Use this popup to embed a mailing list sign up form. Alternatively use it as a simple call to action with a link to a product or a page.

Age verification

By clicking enter you are verifying that you are old enough to consume alcohol.


Shopping Cart

Your cart is currently empty.
Shop now